What you need to know about the disease, its symptoms and how to live a gluten-free lifestyle
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Significant and sudden weight loss, extreme fatigue, weakness, abdominal pain and bloating are all symptoms of a condition gaining more attention today—celiac disease.
Many questions usually come with a celiac disease diagnosis, said Debra Andres, K-State Research and Extension family and consumer sciences agent in Geary County. The questions normally include: How did I get it?, Can I be cured of it?, How can I treat it? and How long have I had it?
Andres said she became interested in the disease when someone she knew was diagnosed. The questions can be overwhelming, she said, but perhaps even more overwhelming is the lifestyle change required to deal with the condition. Understanding the disease is a good place to start.
Celiac disease is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the small intestine, which can lead to gastrointestinal illness and prevent proper nutrient absorption from food, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The disease is commonly referred to as gluten intolerance, because when someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, it triggers the production of antibodies and inflammatory cells that damage the small intestine.
Gluten is a protein found naturally in wheat, rye, barley and crosses of these grains, which are key ingredients in many types of bread, cakes, cereals, pastas and other foods. Ingredients containing gluten are not always obvious to the eye.
Following a gluten-free diet can be more challenging than it may seem at first glance, Andres said, because of the vast alternative methods for food production and processing. Many foods with breading in particular—breaded chicken patties, breaded shrimp and even pre-made frozen meatballs—contain gluten.
“Consumers need to be aware that the breading, regardless of where it is, likely contains gluten,” Andres said. “Other unseen sources of gluten may include the thickening agents used in sauces or soups. Products we consume in moderation that could contain gluten include candies or beer. Reading the label and asking questions is critical in successfully following a gluten-free diet.”
Symptoms of celiac disease can vary among people, Andres said. In addition to weight loss, extreme fatigue, weakness, abdominal pain and bloating, other common symptoms include diarrhea, constipation and unexplained anemia. Some less-common symptoms are irritability, behavior changes, bone or joint pain, vomiting, and tingling or numbness in the legs. People with these symptoms can have a blood test done to check their levels of antibodies as an indication of celiac disease.
The disease can affect children and adults, regardless of gender or race, though it is most common in Caucasian populations. The FDA estimates as many as 3 million Americans have celiac disease, but many people are unaware they have it due to the nature of the disease, which can be active, silent or hidden.
Celiac disease is passed on genetically. Unfortunately, the disease cannot be cured, and, if left untreated, can cause significant damage to the body.
“The good news is that it can be successfully treated without medication, and in most cases, the patient can live symptom-free if they follow a strict gluten-free diet,” Andres said.
To follow such a diet, Andres provides the following tips:
· Avoid food and drinks containing wheat, spelt (a form of wheat), graham flour, rye, barley, malt, semolina, bulgur, durum, triticale and farina. Read all food labels to ensure these ingredients are not present. Take advantage of healthy alternatives to gluten, such as corn- and rice-based products.
· Use different gluten-free flours, such as those made from rice, corn, buckwheat, millet and sorghum to name a few, in combination of two or more to get the best flavor and texture desired in a food. Any flour used alone will likely overpower the other desired flavors in the product, especially when baking. Experiment with flour variations to meet the tastes and preferences of your family.
· Be aware of the recent FDA final ruling on what the term “gluten-free” means for voluntary labeling by the food industry. The FDA, which established the ruling in August 2013 to assist consumers, puts strict guidelines on foods that bear the label, or similar labels such as “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” and “no gluten.” The food must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten to carry any of those labels.
· Take precautions when dining in public. Those with celiac disease need to let the wait staff know that they are gluten intolerant and ask if they have any designated menu items that are identified as gluten-free. Many restaurants have created menu items specifically for those who have celiac disease.
Awareness and advocacy go hand-in-hand, Andres said, to ensure the dietary needs of those with celiac disease are met. To learn more about gluten intolerance or recipes for preparing gluten-free meals, contact Andres (firstname.lastname@example.org) at the K-State Research and Extension Geary County office.