By Lisbeth Irish, RDN, CDN, CDCE
Celiac disease is a lifelong condition. If left untreated, the disease causes damage to the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for health. The damage is due to a reaction from eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye as well as foods made from these grains. Consuming even the smallest amounts of gluten can damage the intestines of someone with celiac disease. Because of this, individuals with celiac disease must follow a strict gluten-free diet which can feel extremely restrictive and be difficult to follow.
If you think you might have celiac disease, you should talk with your doctor about testing to diagnose celiac disease before you begin a gluten-free diet. If you avoid gluten before you have testing, the test results may not be accurate.
Some individuals are sensitive or intolerant to gluten but do not have celiac disease. This condition is sometimes referred to as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” Unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity does not cause damage to the intestinal villi. A diagnosis of gluten sensitivity or intolerance is difficult to confirm.
Also, if you start avoiding gluten without advice from a doctor or a Registered Dietitian, your diet may not provide enough of the nutrients you need, such as fiber, iron, and calcium. Some packaged gluten-free foods may also be higher in fat and sugar than the same foods that contain gluten. Gluten-free foods are often very expensive and may make it more difficult to afford foods that we need like fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources.
If you don’t have celiac disease or another health problem related to gluten, a gluten-free diet is not recommended. In recent years, more people without celiac disease have begun avoiding gluten, believing that a gluten-free diet is generally healthier or could help them lose weight. However, researchers have found no evidence that a gluten-free diet promotes better health or weight loss for the general population.
If you still have questions, contact your local Office of the Aging to find out if a Registered Dietitian is available for a consult through the Nutrition Services program. Some Medicare Advantage insurance policies may also cover a consultation with a Registered Dietitian.
Lisbeth Irish RDN, CDN, CDCES is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist with the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA). She has over 25 years of experience working as a Registered Dietitian in a variety of settings and currently oversees the NYSOFA SNAP-Ed Nutrition Education program for older adults in New York State. Lisbeth is also a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist. She attended NY Medical College and has a degree in Nutrition from SUNY Oneonta. Lisbeth enjoys reading, nature, and traveling. Lisbeth says she feels very fortunate to be working with such a dedicated group of professionals at NYSOFA.
For more great tips, watch Lisbeth’s monthly Facebook livestream “Ask The Experts: Nutrition Edition” at 1 p.m. on the second Friday of every month. You can tune in to the program on NYSOFA’s Facebook page.