You might be seeing a lot more gluten-free foods at the grocery store or hearing about people choosing a “gluten-free” lifestyle. Gluten is a protein that’s found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. But what makes someone go on a gluten-free diet?
Many people follow a strict gluten-free lifestyle because of a condition called celiac disease. You may have heard of it, but you might not be sure what it has to do with gluten. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder which is triggered by gluten, causing damage to the small intestine. About1 in 100 people have celiac disease worldwide, and according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, roughly 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed.
In light of May being Celiac Awareness Month, here are some facts about the disease that you might not know.
- Celiac disease is hereditary. If you have a family member who has had it, it’s a good idea to get screened.
- The long-term effects of the disease may be serious. Celiac disease can prevent your body from absorbing the nutrients that it needs, which can cause malnutrition. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, if you have celiac disease, you may be four times more likely to develop small bowel cancer or other autoimmune disorders, if left untreated.
- You can be gluten sensitive and not have celiac disease. An allergy to wheat, for example, can cause your stomach to get upset, but it doesn’t damage the small intestine. If you’re not sure if you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, a dietitian or your doctor can help you tell the difference. A simple blood test will be able to tell you if you have celiac disease.
- The best treatment is no gluten. If you do have celiac disease, your doctor will likely recommend a gluten-free diet as treatment. This might also mean keeping a close eye on other products that could have gluten, including lip balm, toothpaste and nutritional supplements. Removing gluten from your system will allow your small intestine to heal.
- Gluten-free does not necessarily mean “healthy.” It’s still important to live a healthy lifestyle. For example, gluten-free snacks can still contain a lot of fat and sugar. The good news is that there are many more options to eat gluten-free than there were even a few years ago. A registered dietitian can help you figure out how to eat without gluten in a way that is healthy and full of variety.