Why a diagnosis of celiac disease can be a blessing in disguise

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Celiac disease is a condition that is characterised by intolerance to the protein gluten found in grains such as wheat, oats, rye and barley. Sensitivity to gluten can cause ‘flattening’ of the finger-like projections in the bowel, which essentially reduce its surface area. The dramatically reduced surface area caused by the condition tends to cause ‘malabsorption’ of food. Abdominal bloating and discomfort are common symptoms of celiac disease, as are fatigue and malnourishment.

A diagnosis of celiac disease can be interpreted as a major inconvenience. Many commonly-eaten foods become ‘off the menu’ for those who want to control their symptoms properly. Walking into a sandwich bar and taking one’s pick from the usually-vast array on offer is no longer an option for these people. Neither is sitting down to bowls of pasta or most breakfast cereals.

Once these foods are removed from the diet, though, individuals usually experience a relatively rapid improvement in their health and wellbeing.

I had a conversation with a gentleman this week who was diagnosed with celiac disease well into adulthood. Prior to the diagnosis he weighed about 112 lbs (quite underweight for his height), and was chronically tired. After the diagnosis, he cut out gluten, his weight increased to about 150 lbs (about right for his height) and he felt a whole lot better. All of this is quite typical, in my experience, of someone with celiac disease who eliminates gluten from their diet.

During our conversation, I asked this man what he ate. One of the first comments he made was that he thought that most gluten-free versions of regular foods (e.g. bread) were dreadful, not like real food, and so in the main he refused to eat them. What does that leave? The great majority of this man’s diet is actually made up of meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and nuts. In other words, his diet was based on very natural, nutritious and unprocessed ‘primal’ foods. Soon to turn 60, this man looked to be the picture of good health too.

While discussing this man’s experience with celiac disease and that fact that he’d eschewed gluten-free foods too, it occurred to me how fortuitous his diagnosis had been for him. As a result, he was able to consciously avoid foodstuffs that were seriously messing up his gut and generally nutritional status.

However, there are other reasons why him not eating gluten-containing foods may be helping him. These foods, we know, tend to cause considerable disruption in blood sugar and insulin levels that can predispose to problems with weight and chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Also, gluten can induce unwanted symptoms in individuals who do not, strictly speaking, have celiac disease (see here for more about this). Gluten can also convert in the body to substances called ‘morphine-type peptides’ that can affect brain function and imbue gluten-containing foods with addictive qualities. Plus, grains tend to be rich in substances called ‘phytates’ that can impair the absorption of nutrients.

Now imagine, for a moment, if this man had not been diagnosed with celiac. He almost certainly would have been eating the same sort of diet many of us eat, replete with the ‘wholesome, healthy’ grains we’re told to base our diet on. Even if he did not have celiac disease, eating a diet rich in gluten-containing grains would also certainly led this man to a state of health significantly inferior to the one he enjoys today. In short, getting a diagnosis of celiac disease has been, almost certainly, a massive blessing in disguise.

Now, of course, one does not need to establish a diagnosis of celiac disease to decide that it’s a good idea to exclude grains from the diet or at least limit them. Very rarely do I find that when someone does this, they do not experience considerable improvement in their health and wellbeing.

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