The Gluten Free Diet and Celiac Disease

Nowadays, it is very common to notice labels such as ‘gluten free’ on food products. Gluten refers to the proteins found in wheat, rye and barley, and it helps maintain the shape of certain foods. This means that gluten is usually found in bread, pasta, baked goods, cereals and more. While being gluten free is seen as a health-conscious effort endorsed by more and more people, avoiding gluten is not always a choice, especially for those with Celiac Disease. Celiac Disease is a genetic autoimmune disease in which the consumption and ingestion of gluten leads to damage of the lining of the small intestine. This prevents the absorption of nutrients, and can lead to fatigue, diarrhea, weight loss, bloating, anemia, and other severe complications. Estimated to affect 1 out of 100 people worldwide, Celiac Disease is a genuine health concern. 

A less severe but still serious condition is gluten intolerance, which causes many of the similar symptoms of Celiac Disease, although to a lesser degree. To determine whether one has gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease, a blood test can be performed to look for elevated levels of certain and known antibodies. If it tests positive, a biopsy of the small intestine can determine if it is indeed Celiac Disease. Although Celiac Disease is generally not fatal, it can increase the risk of intestinal lymphoma if it is left undiagnosed or untreated. Whichever condition one affected by gluten has, it is still advised to avoid foods and products containing gluten. 

The two main genes involved in Celiac Disease are HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8, with about 96% of those diagnosed having at least one of these genes. It is also possible that there may be other genes involved that have not been identified yet. HLA-DQ2 is common in those with European heritage, while HLA-DQ8 is common in those with Central or South American heritage. Carrying both copies of these genes, which would occur if both parents are affected, increases the risk one has for developing Celiac Disease. To test if one is genetically affected, a swab test will do the job.

However, genetics are not the only factor in determining whether one is affected by gluten or not, although it does play the strongest role. There are other factors, for instance, exposure to gluten in one’s diet has been found to affect the development of gluten intolerance. In more Western-style diets, gluten is more commonly found, increasing one’s exposure to gluten. This in fact makes it difficult for those affected to avoid the consumption of gluten. There is currently speculation on other lifestyle and environmental factors that could cause one to be affected by gluten, such as when gluten was first introduced into the diet. For some, their symptoms gradually develop as they grow older, while for others, the symptoms are very strong and present from a young age. There is also interest into whether pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding can affect one’s reaction to gluten, as some women have reported symptoms after being pregnant and giving birth. Because the symptoms can develop from any moment in one’s life, this not only makes it difficult to diagnose but also difficult to adjust to. If one is used to consuming products with gluten and then suddenly forced to stop, this can be a drastic change to one’s diet.

Although eating gluten free is now more well-known, it is still important to remember that it is not always a choice. It is interesting to consider how gluten is so commonly found in foods and products in America, yet so many people are affected by it. As for now, there is no cure or medication for Celiac Disease. The best method is staying on a strict diet and taking dietary supplements and vitamins if necessary. With the spread and advancement of technology, there are now many apps that can be downloaded onto one’s smartphone to look for gluten-free restaurants and recipes. 


Stephanie Chan