Based on the rapidly increasing number of gluten-free menu items we see at restaurants, and gluten-free products sold in grocery stores, and the “Eliminate gluten from your diet!” mantra shouted by multiple PBS infomercial hosts and other health gurus, you’d think celiac disease—a disorder that causes unhealthy reactions to gluten—is affecting a huge segment of the population. In fact, by some estimates, more than 40 percent of American consumers believe gluten-free foods are a good choice for everyone, and approximately 30 percent are buying those gluten-free foods.
But in fact, less than 1 percent of Americans (about 3 million people) actually have celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity (formerly called “gluten intolerance”), which causes some of the same symptoms as celiac disease, is not as well understood and researched, with some estimating that only 6 percent of the population might suffer from it. Yet many conflate the two.
Before you start spending money on gluten-free foods, it might be a good idea to do some homework. Understanding the basics of gluten-related problems will help you decide if you need to increase your food budget, make better choices in your diet or even just talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about this aspect of your health.
Celiac disease is a hereditary condition that causes your body to react to gluten (found in wheat, rye and barley) in a way that damages the small intestine.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity aka Gluten Intolerance
People who do not have celiac disease can still be sensitive to gluten, experiencing some of the same symptoms as people who have it. People with this condition might improve if they go on gluten-free diets. The term “gluten intolerance” is an old term; doctors are now advised to use the term “gluten disorders.”
FODMAPS are foods that cause symptoms similar to gluten-related problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal disorders.
Don’t Wait To Get Help
Most people wait years after they first start showing signs of celiac disease to get properly diagnosed. Because of the difficulty in diagnosing the disease, more than 80 percent of people with celiac disease go undiagnosed and untreated. If you have celiac disease and don’t get it treated, your risk for developing neurological problems, infertility, miscarriage, autoimmune disorders, iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis and cancer greatly increase.
Some of the most common symptoms for adults are anema, itchy rashes, damaged tooth enamel, mouth ulcers, headaches, fatigue, joint pain, acid reflux, heartburn, and more. If these are persistent issues that you grapple with, it’s worth calling your doctor.