A Primer on Gluten for Celiac Awareness Month

Many people first became aware of how dangerous a slice of bread could be for those with celiac disease when “The View” co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck shared her personal experiences with the genetic autoimmune disorder.

After years of misdiagnoses, the former “Survivor: The Australian Outback” contestant learned she had celiac and wrote the book “The G-Free Diet: A Gluten Survival Guide” to help others impacted by a disease that remains unfamiliar to many, despite May’s designation as Celiac Awareness Month.

About one in 133 people in America, about three million, have celiac disease, although the vast majority – between 83 and 95 percent, experts estimate – have no idea. It is triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and causes an immune response that damages the small intestine, leading to a wide range if debilitating symptoms.

Symptoms include bloating, gas or abdominal pain, especially after eating, bulky or loose stools, diarrhea or constipation, fatigue, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, skin rash, discolored teeth or loss of enamel, canker sores, irritability or other mood or behavior changes, joint pain, unexplained weight loss, difficulty gaining weight, delayed growth and missed menstrual periods.

If left untreated, celiac can lead to myriad diseases including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, lupus, thyroid disease, liver diseases and certain types of cancer, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

Determined by a blood test to detect antibodies in the small intestine, celiac is only cured by diet free from any gluten. At the same time, it is the only disease that can be completely controlled through diet.

While the most common culprits are breads, cereals and other obvious products that include grains, gluten hides in unexpected places, including communion wafers, medications, imitation crab, soy sauce, frozen vegetables, canned soups and broths, potato chips, gravy, salad dressings, ice cream, candies (excluding dark chocolate) and a wide range of other surprising products. That means those who suffer from celiac disease have to become gluten detectives, reading every label and researching products to determine if their items they are buying are truly safe to eat.
Those who have celiac can be extremely sensitive to even a small amount of gluten. Actor Wil Wheaton (who plays himself on “The Big Bang Theory”) says on his blog that his sister cannot even use a knife that has come into contact with wheat without experiencing symptoms.

While it can be tricky to erase gluten from the diet, gluten-free alternatives to wheat, barley and rye such as brown rice, quinoa, corn flour, cornstarch, tapioca starch, potato flour, potato starch, almond flour, sweet rice, buckwheat, teff and lentils are becoming more widely available, meaning that with a little diligence, a gluten-free diet is possible, and can benefit even those without celiac disease, experts say.

“The G-free diet can help with weight management. It can elevate your energy levels, improve your attention span, and speedup your digestion,” Hasselbeck told ABC News, adding that those with diabetes especially can benefit from a diet plan free from gluten.

According to experts, the most common problem with a gluten-free diet is getting enough essential vitamins and minerals after banishing enriched foods from your diet. Loading up on a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and eating a rainbow if items every day can help prevent deficiencies.

For more information, visit www.celiaccentral.org.

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