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Living with Celiac Disease

separator It’s actually a good time to be a person with Celiac disease. There’s been a whole new understanding of this condition in only the last several years, and new awareness among the general public and the healthcare community. Estimates are that one in 133 Americans has celiac disease, and that 97 percent of those are not diagnosed.

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder. It affects children and adults. People who have the disease cannot eat gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. Eating gluten starts an “autoimmune reaction” that causes inflammation of the upper portion of the small intestine. The body actually attacks itself, in other words, and causes damage to the small intestine.

The inflammation prevents the intestine from absorbing nutrients as well as it should. Consequently, the symptoms of Celiac disease, especially in adults, often have more to do with nutritional deficiencies, because they cannot absorb iron, calcium and fat-soluble vitamins.

Some of the common symptoms of Celiac disease include:

  • Anemia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Joint pain
  • Infertility
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Depression

Children and Celiac disease
Children sometimes have Celiac disease for years, suffering with symptoms that are never diagnosed. Symptoms can develop soon after a baby starts eating cereal. Common childhood symptoms of Celiac disease include:

  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Swollen belly
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Short stature

Treatment for Celiac Disease
There is currently no cure for celiac disease, but it’s treated very successfully by eliminating gluten from your diet. For the most part, as soon as people start on a gluten-free diet, they begin to feel better. The small intestine begins to heal right away.

There are more options now that allow people with celiac disease to eat pizza, muffins and other foods, so it’s getting easier to live on a gluten-free diet.

Ingredients to avoid
Currently, food labeling can be tricky for people with Celiac disease. You have to look for hidden ingredients that indicate the presence of gluten. These include:

  • Starch
  • Modified food starch
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)
  • Texturized vegetable protein (TVP)
  • Binders
  • Fillers
  • Excipients
  • Extenders
  • Malt
  • Natural flavorings

The good news is that a bill has passed the Senate and the House requiring that product labels designate the top eight food allergens—milk eggs peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. This legislation is expected to take effect by 1 January 2006. People with celiac disease will have an easier time of it after that.

As you learn to live on a gluten-free diet, talk with your doctor or dietitian about food choices that will work well for you. For a detailed chart of foods you can and cannot eat, visit the Celiac Sprue Association.

Archives of Internal Medicine, 10 February 2004; The Celiac Disease Foundation; The Celiac Sprue Association; The Center for Celiac Research; The Wall Street Journal, 11 February 2003.
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