Celiac Disease—Frequently Asked Questions

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac Disease, or Celiac Sprue, is an inherited auto-immune and intestinal disease set off by eating gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat (semolina), rye, barley, spelt, triticale, and kamut.

What does it do?

When a person eats gluten in their diet, it causes the body’s immune system to attack the villi in the small intestine. This harms the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and causes inflammation in the small intestine.

What are the symptoms?

There are many possible symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Some of the more common symptoms include:  chronic diarrhea or constipation, abdominal bloating and pain, vomiting, weight loss, fatigue, pale, foul-smelling stool, delayed puberty, anemia that does not respond to therapy, infertility, a skin rash known as dermatitis herpetiformis, osteoporosis, to even some psychiatric disorders. Some people have no symptoms at all, even though their bodies are being harmed by gluten. This is why Celiac Disease is sometimes known as the “disease of a thousand faces.”

How common is it?

As many as 3 million Americans have celiac disease. Of these people, up to 1 in 133 are healthy and may not have symptoms. One in 56 people may have related symptoms. Many of the 3 million total Americans with celiac disease have not been diagnosed.

Blood tests can be used to screen for celiac disease. A biopsy of the small intestine is the only way to truly diagnose the disease. It is then confirmed with a positive response to a gluten-free diet.

How is it treated?

The only treatment is to avoid gluten in the foods one eats. This is commonly known as a gluten-free diet. The most important part of a gluten-free diet is that it is completely free of gluten. Unlike a milk allergy, any gluten, even very small amounts, can be damaging to the villi in the gut. This is why most people who follow a gluten-free diet make it a life change. 

Does this mean that people with Celiac Disease can only eat weird foods?

No. Foods including meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, rice, soy, corn, and potatoes are naturally gluten-free, so it’s still completely possible to eat a varied and balanced diet. Gluten-free foods are improving every day, and there are plenty of delicious pre-made foods and mixes available at most health food stores, and even some regular groceries.