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Passing on the Pasta: Living Well with Celiac Disease

Article Date: May 15, 2012
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Written by Dr. Arvind Movva, Gastroenterology Consultants

Thanks to social media posts by celebrities such as Disney pop-star, Miley Cyrus, and New Orleans Saints’ Quaterback, Drew Brees, people worldwide are adopting a gluten-free lifestyle in an effort to feel great and lose weight. However, for many, eating gluten-free is not a choice but rather a necessity for living a quality life.

It is estimated that 1 in 100 people are affected by celiac disease, a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. It is one of the most common genetic conditions in the world. Despite this, nearly 97% of those suffering from celiac disease go undiagnosed.   The Gold Standard for diagnosis of celiac disease requires biopsies of the deep, small intestine to be taken during an upper endoscopy by a Gastroenterologist.  These biopsies are then examined under a microscope by a Pathologist for elevated levels of specialized white blood cells in the lining of the intestine.

People who have celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten is found mainly in foods but may also be found in everyday products such as medicines, vitamins and lip balm.  When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging or destroying the tiny finger-like projections, called villi, lining the small intestine. Without healthy villi, a person cannot absorb nutrients and becomes malnourished, no matter how much food one eats.

For some with celiac disease, so much as a crumb of a cookie can set off an autoimmune response. Eating a diet free of gluten is the only way for people with this disease to suppress these symptoms. Products containing barley, rye, wheat, malt among other ingredients are off limits for those with celiac disease, but a plethora of wholesome foods are well tolerated and can be enjoyed. Fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products and fresh animal protein are just a few of the many food choices which are gluten-free.  An increasing array of good-tasting, gluten-free products can also be found at health food stores, popular restaurants and online. 

The key to understanding the gluten-free diet is to become a good ingredient label reader. Whether shopping for groceries or enjoying food prepared by others, people with celiac disease need to verify the ingredients in their food. When the ingredients of a food selection cannot be verified or its ingredient list is not available, dieticians recommend it be avoided. When in doubt, go without.

Like anything new, it takes time to adjust to a gluten-free diet. It is not uncommon to mourn old food habits. However, attitude is everything. Stay focused on what foods can be eaten. The health benefits that result from eating a gluten-free diet can be seen before long.

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