Gluten-free is all the rage these days, and it has received its fair share of jabs from late night talk show hosts and social media memes. Many unfamiliar with celiac disease view “gluten-free” as another diet fad. But to the millions of Americans living with the disease, eliminating gluten from their diets is literally choosing between life and death.
There is a ton of misinformation about food sensitivities floating around the interwebs. I’ve read everything from sort-of-funny to downright dangerous info offered by individuals who have been misinformed themselves. Here are some of the most common myths about gluten sensitivity and celiac disease:
Myth #1: It’s just a fad.
Truth: Celiac disease (CD) was first documented over 2000 years ago in ancient Greece by a physician named Aretaeus of Cappadocia. He used the term “coeliac,” which stems from “koiliakos” (meaning “abdominal”) to describe his patient’s symptoms of malabsorption and diarrhea. It was later expounded upon in the 19th century by Dr. Samuel Gee when young children in London were suffering from chronic indigestion, and again during WWII when food supply was diminished in the Netherlands and wheat was rare. A drop in the mortality of children with CD coincided with lack of wheat availability. This realization began the gluten-free diet as the main treatment for celiac patients.
Myth #2: It’s not that serious. It’s just a stomach ache.
Truth: CD is a very serious autoimmune disorder. When a celiac individual ingests gluten, an autoimmune response triggers and attacks the villi in the small intestine, making it impossible to absorb nutrients until the villi can heal. CD is also considered an “iceberg disease.” Besides the traditional intestinal upset, abdominal pain, weight loss/gain associated with CD, other newly understood symptoms include anemia, infertility, osteoporosis, abnormal liver function, peripheral neuropathy, psychiatric/behavioral disorders, and failure to thrive. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, CD in pediatric patients, symptoms may include anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, and potentially autistic behaviors.
The scary thing is that CD is starting to rear its head more often WITHOUT the traditional malabsorptive symptoms, which might cause someone suffering from these symptoms to overlook the food sensitivity link. Left untreated, other autoimmune disorders can erupt, including multiple sclerosis (MS), skin issues, Type 1 diabetes, epilepsy, migraines, miscarriages, lactose intolerance, even intestinal or lymphoma cancers.
Myth #3: It’s really rare.
Truth: The Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF) estimates 1 in 100 globally have CD. There are approximately 7.6 billion people on the planet, meaning about 76,000,000 people worldwide are sensitive to gluten. Closer to home, 1 in 133 Americans react to gluten.
Myth #4: It’s caused by genetically modified food.
Truth: Celiac disease was around long before GMO’s came on the scene. With that said, some doctors and scientists are beginning to question the link between the use of glyphosate (Round-up) on crops just days prior to harvest and the four-fold rise in celiac disease symptoms. GMOs are a hot debate topic, and not a can of worms to be opened in this article. As with anyone struggling with auto-immune issues, it is best to eat as cleanly and organically as possible while the body heals.
Myth #5: A tiny amount of gluten won’t hurt.
Truth: Gluten sensitivity levels vary from person to person. Some are so sensitive that they can’t even share the same cookware or toaster as the wheat eaters in their home. Others can tolerate a minuscule amount of cross-contamination, but it can still cause low-level inflammation and undetected damage in the body. Many with CD take several days to recover after accidental ingestion. As a result, it can take the villi in the small intestine 6 – 18 months to completely heal (sometimes up to two years in older individuals).
Myth #6: I just have to avoid bread and pasta.
Truth: Gluten is found in all varieties of wheat (except buckwheat), rye, barley, triticale, non-GF oats, malt, brewer’s yeast, and wheat starch. Many times, it is also added to sauces, dressings, soups, condiments, meat substitutes, candy, chips, starch, and alcohol. And this list is by no means exhaustive. It’s best to start reading all labels by looking at the ingredients list. Just because something has a wheat-free label doesn’t mean it’s gluten-free.
Food isn’t the only source of gluten. Some sensitive celiac individuals react to gluten found in make-up, Play-Doh, vitamins, medications, communion wafers (although, there are now gluten-free wafers available), shampoos, and conditioners. Therefore, label reading is paramount to avoid being glutened.
Myth #7: GF foods taste like cardboard. I will die if I can’t eat pizza for the rest of my life.
Truth: No, you won’t die. And thankfully, you won’t have to! Due to the rising demand for food sans gluten, restaurants and food producers are listening to consumers. There are many delicious foods (and some even better tasting than their wheat counterparts, in my opinion) available on the market.This is not the gluten-free food of the 1980s. Pizza, breads, desserts, chicken tenders, etc…for every gluten-containing food, there is usually a gluten-free option that tastes pretty darn good. In addition, many chain restaurants now carry a gluten-free menu with tasty options available.
Myth #8: Going gluten-free is costly.
Truth: It can be but it doesn’t have to. We are a gluten-free family of five. I keep the pre-packed and processed foods to a minimum and cook foods that are naturally gluten-free. For example, a day’s menu would include scrambled eggs with bacon and grits for breakfast; a hearty salad, ham and cheese rolls, or tuna on rice crackers for lunch; pork chops, mashed potatoes, and steamed veggies for dinner; sliced apples with almond butter or rice cakes with cream cheese and ham as a snack if needed. Eating GF can be very affordable, and sometimes even less costly.
A celiac disease diagnosis is not the end of the world. In fact, it just might open up a whole new one.
For more information on celiac disease, visit https://celiac.org