Understanding Celiac Disease

Everything is gluten-free these days. This is great for people who are on a gluten-free diet. The people who are really doing a happy dance to this trend, however, are those living with celiac disease.

The abundance of gluten-free menus, gluten-free bread, gluten-free oats, gluten-free plates (they think of everything!) has arrived thanks to a trendy diet but will have lasting positive impacts for those living with celiac.

All the hype around gluten-free foods sometimes detracts from the serious implications consuming gluten can have for someone with celiac disease. That said, today we’re going to dig into details so we can be more educated and understanding of those with celiac disease.

So what exactly is celiac disease? How are those with celiac different from people who are just gluten-free or have gluten sensitivities? We’re going to discuss this and a lot more over the course of this article – written in honor of National Celiac Awareness Day.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a hereditary, autoimmune disease where ingesting gluten results in damage to the small intestine. 1 in 100 people are affected by celiac disease worldwide and it can develop at any age. The prevalence of celiac has increased 100-fold since the 1950s, going from .01% of the population to 1% in the 2010s.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein that is basically the elastic network formed when flour is mixed with water. When an individual living with celiac eats gluten, their body elicits an immune response that attacks the small intestine, leading to damage of the villi.

Villi are microscopic projections in the small intestine that help with absorption. Damage to the villi can lead to inadequate nutrient absorption, which can result in serious health impacts for those who may go undiagnosed.

Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye. Oats are often cross-contaminated with gluten-positive grains as well.

What is Gluten Sensitivity?

Gluten sensitivity can be used to describe a person with nonspecific symptoms, without the immune system response seen in celiac disease. This means, fortunately for those with gluten sensitivities, their reaction to gluten will not result in intestinal damage.

An additional definition to keep in mind is gluten intolerance. This label is used as an umbrella term for those who have symptoms related to celiac or gluten sensitivity. Symptoms that indicate gluten intolerance include nausea, abdominal cramps or diarrhea.

Since there is no precise way to diagnose gluten intolerance, there isn’t an official count on its prevalence. To diagnose gluten sensitivity, celiac disease must be ruled out. After this, if symptoms continue to improve after eliminating gluten from the diet, gluten intolerance may be considered.

What is the Course of Treatment for People with Celiac Disease?

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is to eliminate gluten from the diet. Fortunately, this is becoming increasingly easier for individuals living with celiac.

I have a friend who was diagnosed with celiac just ten years ago and even then, it was virtually unheard of. Fast-forward to the present day and it’s hard to find foods and restaurants that don’t offer gluten-free alternatives.

In order to best handle a celiac diagnosis, an individual must see a doctor to be formally diagnosed. After being diagnosed, individuals can work with their doctor and a registered dietitian to make the necessary changes to their diet. It is always advised to closely monitor big changes in an individual’s diet in order to ensure that no nutrient deficiencies develop.

Should I Avoid Gluten?

Unless you have been diagnosed with celiac or gluten sensitivity, there is no need to avoid gluten! Gluten does not indicate a healthy or unhealthy diet for most of the population. Dietary changes only apply to those with diagnosed gluten intolerances or celiac. Gluten is found in a lot of healthy food items that provide substantial nourishment and essential nutrients.

Why do I See Improvements After Going Gluten-Free Even if I Don’t Have Gluten Intolerance?

Although gluten is found in a lot of nutritious foods, it’s also found in a lot of unhealthy foods. On the other hand, just because something is gluten-free does not mean it’s healthy!

It’s no secret that the average American diet involves a lot of processed, unhealthy foods that can negatively impact our bodies. Some of these unhealthy, processed foods may use gluten as an ingredient. With the elimination of gluten, people may find themselves feeling better but what they may not realize is that they are also eliminating processed, unhealthy options along with the gluten.

So, if you don’t have gluten intolerance but feel better after eliminating gluten from your diet, it may be helpful to reflect on the changes made in your diet. A lot of times people who decrease processed food intake and increase whole food plant-based intake feel better or “more healthy.”

Of course, increasing whole food, plant-based food, and unprocessed food consumption will positively impact your wellbeing! If you decide to start making dietary changes it is always recommended to see your doctor, registered dietitian or other healthcare professional to ensure the changes in your diet are not negatively impacting your health.

Sources and Further Reading

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. If you need specific information about celiac disease as it relates directly to you, please speak to your doctor.

Written by Allison Anderson

Allison has been working for Oswald's since 2007. A 6th generation member of the Wickel-Oswald-Kester-Anderson family, Allison focuses on natural & organic products, social media, and online promotions. Allison graduated with a BA in Telecommunications from Indiana University Bloomington in 2013, minoring in Marketing. After graduating from IU, Allison worked at SAP Fieldglass as a Business Analyst. A graduate of Naperville North High School in 2009, Allison currently lives in Naperville and is attending classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago, studying Nutrition.