By Alena Frankish
You’ve probably heard that, for various reasons, many people around the world are going gluten-free. On one hand, this increased popularity seems to bring some clear benefits, as more gluten-free foods are available now than ever before. On the other hand, it’s difficult to explain that for people with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is a medical necessity and not a personal choice.
In today’s article, we will answer four frequently asked questions, to help you spread awareness and empower you in explaining celiac disease to others.
What is celiac disease and how do you get it?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. This means your own immune system, which normally protects you from getting sick, mistakenly starts attacking your own body cells. When people with celiac disease eat even a tiny particle of gluten, their immune system starts destroying the lining of the intestine, making them sick.
This is why a test called “intestinal biopsy” remains the most accurate method of diagnosing celiac disease. During this procedure a doctor can see and confirm if there is inflammation and/or damage to your intestine.
Although we know a lot about celiac disease, much is still to be discovered. For example, scientists are still unsure on what causes it. Interactions between our genes and our foods with various environmental factors may play a role here.
What is gluten and is it bad for you?
Many people are confused about gluten. Some say it is just another word for grain. Others say it is a carbohydrate that makes you gain weight. Still others claim that gluten is an ingredient that makes everyone sick. None of these are true.
Gluten is a protein. It is found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, and it helps dough to be stretchy and strong. Importantly, there is no evidence that going gluten-free will improve your health, prevent any disease, or “detoxify” your gut if you don’t have celiac disease. It is not dangerous, nor it is unhealthy by itself. It just happens to be a substance that triggers inflammation in people with celiac disease. As such, following a gluten-free diet should be a decision made by you and your doctor.
How much gluten can a person with celiac disease eat?
Even the tiniest amounts of gluten can trigger inflammation in people with celiac disease. Some people may have visible signs such as diarrhea or stomach pain, while others will show no symptoms at all. Foods in the grocery store that have a “gluten-free” label will have less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten, or in other words no more than 0.002%. This is considered to be a “safe” amount of gluten in food for people with celiac disease.
So, if someone says to you “oh, that is okay, a few crumbs will not hurt you,” you can use this number to explain how this is not true. In reality, everyone’s sensitivity is different and some people are more reactive than others. Since even tiny particles can provoke a reaction in people with celiac disease, they should avoid not only gluten-containing foods, but also cross-contamination (accidental transferring of particles from one food to another).
If someone in your family has celiac disease, do all family members need to go gluten-free?
That would be ideal. However, oftentimes it’s not possible for the whole family to go gluten-free. If the whole family cannot go gluten-free, make sure you have a good, detailed plan about how to avoid cross-contamination. Think about how your kitchen is organized. Make sure that even tiny gluten particles from other foods, pots, utensils, toaster, etc. will not get into the food of the person with celiac disease.
For example, keep foods that contain gluten separate. Use bright markers to mark gluten-free foods / snacks, especially if packaging is similar. Kitchen items that have touched gluten-containing foods need to be washed thoroughly with dish soap and hot water (and ideally run through a dishwasher afterwards). And of course, don’t forget to use a separate sponge! It is also best to serve the person with celiac disease first (while all utensils are still clean). Then serve everyone else to avoid accidental transfer of gluten to their plate.
Although recently there has been a lot of effort to increase awareness, it is important to be your own advocate. There is a lot of misinformation and rumors about the gluten-free diet. Each of us can take part in raising awareness by educating our friends and family members about it! Keep safe, and til next!