Understanding Gluten-Free and Celiac Disease

Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye.

Gluten-Free. You’ve heard the term. You’re likely seeing it more and more in grocery store aisles on pasta boxes and other packaged items. But what does it mean? And could you benefit from a gluten-free diet?

Gluten-free eating is associated with celiac disease, a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food. This damage is caused by a reaction from eating foods with gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye.

“Your intestinal lining helps absorb nutrients like iron, folate and vitamin B12,” said Gayle Jennings, MS, RD, LDN, a dietitian with Memorial Medical Center. “People with celiac disease can’t absorb these nutrients. And it leads to fatigue, weakness and anemia.”

The condition may be more common than you think. According to The Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago, 1 in every 133 people could have celiac disease. Even more startling is that it could take up to 11 years before you’re diagnosed. 

“People with an autoimmune disorder or those who have a close relative with the disease are more likely to have the condition,” Jennings said.

The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown. It can develop at any point in your life and surface in several ways.

The damage on your intestinal lining can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms. And because your body is not getting important nutrients, you’ll likely experience an overall sluggish feeling.

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Itchy skin or a rash
  • Weight loss

If the symptoms start adding up, you need to have a celiac disease screening, which is a simple blood test.

“For it to be accurate, you must be eating foods with gluten so it can get a proper measure,” Jennings said. “The only treatment for the condition is a gluten-free diet. So a screening is the first step in making an accurate diagnosis and knowing whether you should eat gluten-free.”