From grocery store shelves to restaurant menus, gluten-free items are everywhere these days.
But for some people, including children, skipping foods with gluten is not a trend, but a medical necessity because they have celiac disease.
What is celiac disease?
“Celiac disease is not an intolerance or allergy to gluten,” said Dr. Reinaldo Garcia, director of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Akron Children’s Hospital. “It’s an immune-mediated disease of the small intestine.”
Gluten is the protein that’s found in wheat, rye, barley and other grains derived from them. When those with celiac disease eat gluten, it triggers an immune response that damages the villi, finger-like projections in the small intestine that aid the body in absorbing nutrients.
In children, the classic symptoms are persistent diarrhea and not growing well. It may cause other gastrointestinal (GI) problems, including abdominal pain, bloating and constipation, along with non-GI symptoms like skin rashes, tooth enamel defects, anemia, short stature and delayed puberty.
Sometimes no symptoms occur.
Diagnosing celiac disease
When celiac disease is suspected, blood tests are performed to measure the level of antibodies to gluten that may be present. If high levels are found, the next step is an intestinal biopsy to identify damage in the small intestine.
Treatment for celiac disease
The most effective way to manage celiac disease is to follow a gluten-free diet, which means eliminating wheat, barley, rye and related grains, as well as foods containing hidden sources of gluten.
The recent rise in gluten-free products means there are now more substitutions available for foods like pasta, bread, cereal and cookies.
Check out these kid-friendly recipes for kids with celiac disease.
Challenges in living with celiac disease
Those who have celiac disease may feel socially isolated. Avoiding gluten can also be a challenge because it may be a hidden ingredient in processed foods or cross-contamination may occur.
Foods that are wheat-free may still contain gluten from rye or barley, so it’s important to read labels carefully. When in doubt as to whether something contains gluten, the best strategy is to skip it.
Some individuals suffer from gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity that’s not celiac disease. They get headaches, feel mentally foggy, or have GI or other symptoms similar to celiac disease, but they don’t test positive for it.
“Avoiding gluten may make them feel better and contribute to their general wellness, but it’s not the same thing as celiac disease,” said Dr. Garcia.
Celiac disease is a life-long condition and there’s no cure. Long-term, there’s an increased risk for lymphoma and cancers of the GI system. However, these risks may not be as high for those who are symptom-free.