Gluten-Free Diets: Fad or Necessity

By Rebecca Jones
It seems everywhere we turn these days there is a new gluten-free bakery or pizza shop popping up. With so many people demanding gluten-free foods it’s become hard to distinguish between those with a food intolerance and those jumping on the latest diet band wagon but gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, is a very serious illness that when left untreated can cause devastating damage to the body.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease (CD) is the genetic inability to absorb gluten. As the body is exposed to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, the lining of the small intestine becomes smoother and inflamed making it far less capable of absorbing nutrients. The longer CD goes undiagnosed the worse the damage to the small intestine becomes. This can lead to intestinal cancers, autoimmune disease and chronic nutritional deficiencies. While you must have the genetic predisposition for CD it can be triggered at any part of your life, especially during times of stress, trauma or infection.
Because CD mimics many other gastrointestinal illnesses and is difficult to test for it is frequently misdiagnosed or overlooked all together. It is estimated that it can take up to ten years to get an official celiac diagnosis so if you suspect that you may have a gluten intolerance it is important to seek out a gastroenterologist as soon as possible. Some symptoms of CD are: abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue and fatty stools. Since these symptoms are commonly associated with diabetes, thyroid problems, irritable bowel syndrome or anemia a doctor will usually rule out these common causes first before testing for CD.
While you can be tested for the genetic markers for CD this can only rule CD out it cannot give a positive diagnosis. Up until recently the only way to confirm CD was to perform a biopsy of the small bowel. Once a piece of the intestinal wall is removed doctors can look to see if the texture has changed or if the tissue is inflamed. In recent years two blood tests have been developed that can test the blood for celiac related antibodies, while a small bowel biopsy will still be needed for confirmation this advance should make it much easier for doctors to catch CD early on. Keep in mind that for any of these tests to be effective you must be consuming gluten at the time they are administered so consult with your doctor before beginning a gluten-free diet on your own.
While there is no cure for CD with strict adherence to gluten-free diet symptoms can be completely controlled. While it may seem a simple thing avoiding gluten it can show up in some unexpected places and will not always be labeled by name so it is imperative that anyone suffering from a gluten-intolerance familiarizes themselves with these hidden sources. Just a few of them are: salad dressings, deli meats, malt, margarine, ice cream, modified food starch and spaghetti sauces. Besides not actually consuming gluten it is also advised that those with CD avoid handling or working with products that contain gluten separate utensils, cutting boards and pots and pans should be maintained to avoid cross contamination.
While some chose to go gluten free as a way to eat less processed foods and consume more fruits and vegetable for those with celiac disease it is a question of survival. While a change of diet can allow sufferers a fairly normal life if left unchecked the long term effect can be devastating.