Although knowledge about celiac disease has become more common in recent years, a number of myths about the condition still persist — much to the frustration of those diagnosed with it.
I am still in disbelief over the frequency of which the words “gluten-free” are met with smirks or eye rolls. Though I have been diagnosed with celiac disease for almost eight years, I am still uncomfortable inquiring about the ingredients in my food. My friends are accustomed to my compulsive label reading, and I am frequently known to avoid ordering food in a public setting altogether to forgo an awkward social interaction.
Celiac disease is a condition where the absorptive surface lining of the small intestine becomes damaged from consuming gluten-containing products. Gluten, a glue-like protein found in all forms of wheat, rye, barley and various other grains, often appears under disguised names — like maltodextrin — and is unexpectedly found in many foods and medications. Over time, consumption becomes problematic for gluten-intolerant individuals, as it leads to an inability to absorb crucial nutrients and vitamins necessary for good health.
Once out at a pub, I ordered a gluten-free beer, and someone from across the table laughed and said, “You must do CrossFit, too.” Frustrated, I launched into a scathing explanation as to why I need my food and drinks gluten-free, and that no, it wasn’t a lifestyle choice. In the last few years, many people have been opting for a gluten-free diet, because there is a myth that it helps with rapid weight loss and contributes to a healthier way of life.
According to Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Centre at Columbia University, going gluten-free is important for some, but for those who are not gluten sensitive or intolerant, it can be harmful. Gluten-free diets entail ditching common, nutritious whole grains. When we skip these, we are leaving out essential vitamins, minerals and fibres which are not found in the empty starches that are used in most gluten-free substitutes. Those of us following a strict gluten-free diet do so because it is the only available treatment.
It has been estimated that roughly one in every 100 to 200 people are affected by celiac disease, making it one of the most common chronic diseases in North America. However, the actual number of sufferers is likely higher, as it is one of the most difficult conditions to diagnose. Many live for years with health problems, unable to identity the source. Personally, I was ill and hospitalized on and off for six years before I found out in 2009.
The reason that diagnosis is so difficult is because the symptoms of untreated celiac disease vary in severity and mimic many other physiological and mental health disorders. While not an exhaustive list, common indicators can include a combination of anemia, diarrhea or constipation, weight loss, fatigue, intestinal cramps, bloating and mood fluctuation.
Before I was diagnosed, I was told by separate specialists at various points I was suffering from the following: bipolar type II, an eating disorder I was not admitting to, a neurological disorder, juvenile arthritis and attention deficit disorder. The latter came after I told the doctor I had trouble focusing, which I later learned was from severe malnourishment and nutritional deficiencies from my overlooked food intolerance.
So how did I figure it out? Only after being medicated for numerous other problems with no success did I seek alternative treatment where I was issued a blood test, and later, an intestinal biopsy. To my relief, I finally had an answer and all of my health symptoms resolved within four weeks of eliminating gluten.
While I will be in a perpetual state of dismay over never being able to eat an A&W mozza burger again, I leave you with one piece of advice on behalf of all celiacs.
For those of you who hear someone inquiring about gluten-free items, be sensitive to the fact that most of us don’t want to be eating this way. Please don’t let the fad dieters make a bad reputation for those of us who truly do have a health problem.
Image: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor