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What You Should Know about Gluten and Celiac Disease

Gluten-free food seems to be everywhere, as more and more people learn they have celiac disease-or just prefer to go gluten-free. But with so much buzz about gluten and its effects on your health, it's important to understand what it is.

Gluten is made of two different proteins and is found in cereal grains, including barley, rye and wheat. It is what makes dough feel elastic and gives bread its chewiness. Although it is mainly found in foods, gluten can also be found in everyday products, including medicines, vitamins or even lip balms.

People who have celiac disease cannot properly digest gluten. Celiac disease is an immune disorder that damages the small intestine. It affects about 1% of all people.

For people with type 1 diabetes, the odds of getting this disease increase to one in 10.

Symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • Stomach pain, gas and diarrhea
  • Feeling very tired
  • Losing weight

However, symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. A related condition, gluten sensitivity, produces similar symptoms but without causing damage to the intestines.

If you have celiac disease, your body overreacts to gluten. Eating gluten causes your immune system to attack the lining of your small intestine. Eventually, you'll have problems absorbing nutrients from food. You can become malnourished if you eat a lot.

The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet. A dietitian can help you learn to avoid gluten. Besides wheat, rye and barley, you'll need to skip most grains, pastas, cereals and many processed foods. Remember to read all food labels and even check your vitamins and medications to see if they also contain gluten.

If you think you may have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, talk to your doctor for more information.

Sources: Harvard Health Publications, Krames Staywell, LiveScience, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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