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Health / Safety

Wdowik nutrition column: Gluten-Free Tips for Celiac Disease Awareness Month

May 28, 2013

A popular diet trend right now is gluten-free eating, but who does it help? While about 1 percent of people in the U.S. have celiac disease, only 10 percent of people with the disease are diagnosed.

wheatFor Celiac Awareness Month, this column is devoted to answering the most commonly asked questions about this disorder and gluten-free diets.

What is celiac disease?

  • Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the lining of the small intestine and affects absorption and digestion.

What are the symptoms? 

  • Children commonly have digestive symptoms such as stomach aches and irregular bowel habits.
  • Adults may have these same symptoms but often have unrelated symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss, or anemia. Many do not have any symptoms.

If you have symptoms, should you try a gluten-free diet before being diagnosed?

  • No. It is important to be tested before starting a gluten-free diet or the test results will not be accurate.

How do you get tested for celiac disease?

  • Tests include a blood screening and a biopsy done by your doctor.

If the test is negative, should you still follow a gluten-free diet?

  • Probably not. Despite popular claims, a gluten-free diet is not a healthier choice for everyone.  In fact, many gluten-free diets contain processed foods that are high in sugar and fat while low in fiber.
  • However, some people do feel better when they avoid gluten.  This may be because they have a gluten sensitivity; the best way to know is to do an elimination diet under the guidance of a registered dietitian. These people also may feel better because they have replaced junk food with wholesome food.

Once you are diagnosed with celiac disease, what foods should you avoid?

  • The list includes wheat, barley, rye and triticale as well as foods that come from these grains, such as malt, maltodextrin, and food starch.
  • You must also avoid food with hidden sources of gluten. This includes some processed meats, condiments, snack foods and soup, as well as some supplements and medications.
  • Be sure to read all labels and learn more from a reliable source, such as the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center (

Will you feel better after diagnosis if you cut out all gluten?

  • Maybe not. For some people it takes a while to feel better, and you may have secondary lactose intolerance, which means you may initially have digestive issues when consuming dairy products.  This usually improves with time as the intestines heal.

Can you sometimes eat foods containing gluten?

  • No. If you have celiac disease, eating just a tiny amount of gluten will damage the small intestine and may increase your risk of other diseases.

It seems overwhelming.  What CAN you eat?

  • Many unprocessed foods are naturally gluten-free.  These include fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, nuts and milk.
  • There are many recipes for whole grain gluten-free baked goods and side dishes. These are a perfect alternative to wheat bread and much better than packaged processed options.

While a gluten-free diet is not recommended for healthy individuals, it is a necessity for those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.  Rest assured that there are many non-gluten foods that are nutritious as well as delicious.

Melissa Wdowik is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center.



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