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What I Wish People Understood About Celiac Disease

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"Do I REALLY need to eat gluten free?"

As a chef and nutritionist, I am often asked this question by people who are seeking to improve their overall health.

The answer is no. If you are not an individual who has celiac disease or has been diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (a medical condition that benefits from eating gluten free), then no, you do not need to eat gluten free.

However, for many of us, our lives and health depend on it.

May is Celiac Awareness Month. Celiac disease is condition for which the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet. One in 133 people are estimated to have celiac disease.

I am also often asked why I eat gluten free. The answer?

I am one of those one in 133 that are diagnosed and have celiac disease.

My health depends on me not ingesting gluten.

This isn't a fad, a game or something we do to be difficult -- it is a medical condition.

For celiacs, we cannot have "just a little bit" of gluten or we become very ill. For those who don't understand celiac disease, I compare it to a peanut allergy. Would an individual who has a peanut allergy just be able to eat "a little bit of peanut" or just a "slight dusting of peanut?" No, they cannot. This holds true for those who have celiac disease, or often those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Please take us seriously. For those of us with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, this isn't a fad, a game or something we do to be difficult -- it is a medical condition.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease was first described in 1888 by Dr. Samuel Gee as a disease of malabsorption. In the 1950s, Dr. Dicke discovered that a wheat-free diet resulted in a full remission of symptoms. And in 1950 a surgical device was developed to biopsy tissue samples from the small intestinal lining, which led to redefining celiac disease during the 1960s.

Today more than 1.8 million North Americans suffer from celiac disease, and many more may have it but are not yet aware. When actively sought, celiac disease is found in approximately one per cent of apparently healthy, symptom-free American adults, making it more than twice as common as inflammatory bowel disease.

Cases of celiac disease found in children are equally spread among males and females. In adults, however, twice as many women are diagnosed in comparison to men.

Much of what we eat is absorbed through the surface of the small intestines via the villi. Villi are small, finger like projections in the small intestine that increase the surface area of the small intestine. Villi line the small intestines and help increase the absorption area for nutrients

With celiac disease, the small intestines become so damaged by gluten that villi become flat, and cannot do their job of absorbing nutrients. As a result, individuals with celiac disease can experience many nutrient deficiencies.

Symptoms of celiac disease may include muscle soreness, joint pain, congestion, stomach cramps, bloating, fatigue, gas, diarrhea or constipation, weight loss or weight gain, skin rashes, depression, irritability, confusion, anxiety and other mood changes

Celiac disease can also manifest as an autoimmune response in the skin. Dermatitis Herpetiformis is a gluten-sensitive skin disease. this subgroup of celiac disease can manifest as itchy skin lesions found on the back of the knees, buttocks, elbows and/or the face.

What is gluten intolerance?

Gluten intolerance (also commonly referred to as gluten sensitivity) occurs when a person cannot tolerate gluten. Any individual who has celiac disease is in essence gluten "intolerant/sensitive." Usually, the term "gluten intolerant" describes individuals who get symptoms when they eat gluten, and feel better on a gluten-free diet, but do not have celiac disease per se.

Common symptoms of gluten intolerance/sensitivity include abdominal pain, fatigue, headaches and paresthesia, which refers to tingling of the extremities (Canadian Celiac Association, 2011).

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found within the seeds or grains of wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut and triticale -- the proteins are loosely called "gluten," but gluten is made up of several sub-fractions of proteins. Gluten acts as a rubbery binder when liquid is added, and gives bread and wheat products their doughy texture. It is also found in so many things, especially processed foods.

When I was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of 12 and adopted a gluten-free diet, the difference in my health was was like night and day. And so since then, I have made it my life's mission to teach people how to take control of their health through their diets.

I believe that everyone should eat as close to nature as possible. Does everyone need to eat gluten free? No, but I believe we would ALL benefit our health if we just ate real food. Gluten free or not!

We are so blessed that we live in an era where there are so MANY delicious gluten-free options available. I stick to eating fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and free range meats as in their natural state; incidentally, they are all gluten free.

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