Gluten-free聽(GF) foods are everywhere. Some of our fave recipes these days are based on ingredients like millet and聽almond meal聽鈥 things we probably hadn鈥檛 heard of before GF products went mainstream.聽The growth of the GF food market is聽especially important for people living with celiac disease, who are unable to eat any foods containing gluten.聽According to recent estimates, around聽2.5 million Americans are walking around with undiagnosed celiac disease. The invisible chronic illness can trigger a range of other health issues if left untreated, so it鈥檚 crucial to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms.

Woman in kitchen

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition. This category of diseases, which has been gaining awareness thanks to celebs like Zoe Saldana and Selena Gomez,聽is characterized by the聽immune system mistaking聽healthy聽cells for聽bad ones, and attacking them as it would an infection.

For people with celiac disease, this 鈥渁utoimmune response鈥 is triggered by聽ingesting gluten. Any amount of gluten 鈥 even traces 鈥 can set off this response. With celiac disease,聽the autoimmune response targets the small intestine. That鈥檚 especially problematic because the damage can make it harder for people with celiac disease to absorb certain vitamins and minerals.

There鈥檚 no cure for celiac disease,聽and the only existing treatment option is following a strict gluten-free diet. Eliminating gluten will prevent the disease from causing any further damage, and will allow gut health to improve. An autoimmune response is only triggered by dietary sources of gluten, so聽there鈥檚 no need to seek out GF聽beauty products聽or skin care, for example.

Symptoms聽AND DIAGNOSIS

Pinning down a celiac disease diagnosis can be tricky. In some cases, there may be no noticeable symptoms for many years.聽Others may have symptoms that mimic another condition.聽Adult symptoms of celiac disease are different than childhood ones, and they include a broad range of digestive and other issues.

1. Digestive Symptoms: Nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, bloating and gas, heartburn and acid reflux, and troublesome bowels (usually聽diarrhea, but constipation and other out-of-the-ordinary number twos can also occur).

2. Other Symptoms: Headaches, fatigue and brain fog, joint pain, skin rashes,聽nutrient deficiencies, weight loss, osteoporosis, mouth ulcers and dental enamel defects, issues with the liver and spleen, mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and more.

Celiac disease is genetic, so if a family member聽has a confirmed diagnosis,聽tell your doctor. Some have even figured out the cause of their symptoms after having a genetic variant flagged by an at-home DNA testing services like 23andMe. (These tests can鈥檛 confirm a diagnosis, but may provide a helpful roadmap for your doctor.)

If your doctor suspects that you may have celiac disease, they鈥檒l probably order a blood test. The test only works if you have gluten in your system, so if you鈥檝e been following a GF diet for another reason (for example, to reduce symptoms associated with endometriosis), this may not be your best option. Depending on your blood test results, your doctor may recommend a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

Going gluten-free

Anne R. Lee, EdD, RDN, LD is an instructor in nutritional medicine at Columbia University Celiac Disease Center. She previously worked at聽Sch盲r USA, a company known for their gluten-free food products. Lee explains that, on a gluten-free diet, it鈥檚 especially important to make food choices that satisfy your daily nutritional requirements.

Before the recent growth of the GF market, many of the products available to consumers with celiac disease did not deliver the same nutritional value as their gluten-containing counterparts. 鈥淥ne study reported that a traditional gluten-free diet did not meet the daily recommended values for folate, thiamine, calcium, iron, and fiber,鈥澛燣ee says.聽鈥淥f concern is the low levels of folate and iron for young women on the gluten-free diet.鈥

Anyone who鈥檚 hunted for celiac-friendly options in a non-specialty grocery store has seen GF foods pretending to be healthy.聽In some cases, bread might have been dressed up to *look* more like a whole wheat loaf, but the fiber content listed told a different story. 鈥淭raditionally, many gluten-free products have relied on white rice, potato, and tapioca starch,鈥 Lee says. 鈥淭hese products often had higher sugar, salt, and fat content than their wheat-based counterparts.鈥

Newer products, on the other hand, use whole and ancient grains, like oatmeal and quinoa. Lee explains that these ingredient swaps make it easier to hit your daily nutrient targets on a gluten-free diet. Additionally, she says, 鈥淪ome manufacturers have also started to fortify their products to provide the missing nutrients.鈥

What do you wish people knew about celiac disease? Tell us @BritandCo!

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