Celiac disease, a lifelong inherited autoimmune disorder, affects nearly 1% of the U.S. population. A gluten-free diet - a restrictive regime that cuts out gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye - has long been used to treat the symptoms of celiac disease. Over the years, as awareness of this disease has grown, so has the trend of otherwise healthy consumers adopting a gluten-free regime as a way to lose weight. Tyler Cymet, DO, an osteopathic family physician from Owings Mills, Maryland, discusses celiac disease symptoms, treatment options, and the pros and cons of a gluten-free diet.
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, look beyond your symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect your wellbeing. They listen and partner with you to help you get healthy and stay well. They also encourage your body’s natural tendency toward self-healing.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
According to Dr. Cymet, if a person with celiac disease digests even a small amount of food with gluten, the protein can set off an autoimmune reaction that causes damage to the small intestine, which in turn, prevents vitamins and nutrients from being absorbed. The disease interferes with proper digestion and, in children, prompts symptoms that include growth problems, chronic diarrhea, constipation, recurring abdominal bloating and pain, fatigue and irritability.
Conversely, adults with celiac disease are less likely to show digestive symptoms, but will develop problems such as anemia, fatigue, osteoporosis or arthritis as the disorder robs their bodies of vital nutrients. “Most people, however, experience few or no digestive signs or symptoms,” Dr. Cymet points out. “Only about one-third of people diagnosed with celiac disease experience diarrhea; about half have weight loss; and 20% have constipation,” he adds. “Since this disease affects people differently, it is imperative to visit your doctor if you have a family history of the disease or suspect that you might have it,” advises Dr. Cymet.
How to Ensure a Proper Diagnosis
Because adults with celiac disease often don't suffer the digestive symptoms associated with gluten intolerance, many of them are unaware they have it or could pass it on. Blood tests can help your doctor diagnose the disease. Dr Cymet recommends a blood test to screen for the presence of specific antibodies in addition to a biopsy of the intestine. To ensure the accuracy of the screening, Dr. Cymet warns against changing your diet or going gluten-free before the screening, as it could alter the test results. “There's not much you can do to prevent celiac disease, but it is worth it to get screened if you suspect you might have it,” says Dr. Cymet.
Treating the Disease and Going Gluten-Free
“The only treatment for celiac disease is to adhere to a gluten-free diet,” says Dr. Cymet. Replacing foods that contain gluten with more veggies and healthy gluten-free whole grains, like quinoa and wild rice, will reduce celiac complications. “It’s a huge commitment since many common products, from salad dressings and seasoning mixes to vitamins and even lip balms, contain it,” says Dr. Cymet.
Perceived weight loss benefits of the gluten-free diet have enticed some healthy consumers to adopt gluten-free lifestyles. Dr. Cymet cautions patients against this approach. “What most consumers don’t know is that a lot of gluten-free foods are higher in fat to substitute for the missing gluten; and a good portion of them are made with refined gluten-free grains, which have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients, like white rice,” explains Dr. Cymet. “At the end of the day, a self-prescribed gluten-free diet, without proper management, could actually lead to weight gain and deprive your body of necessary vitamins and nutrients,” he adds.
Tips for Optimizing Your Health
“If you think you may be gluten intolerant, consult your primary care physician,” advises Dr. Cymet. “And if you are diagnosed with the disease, know that eliminating gluten from your diet is no easy task, but it can be done. Your primary care provider can help you maintain a balanced diet and live a healthy life with celiac disease.”