Celiac disease (or celiac sprue) is a problem with digesting gluten. Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and other grains. This problem starts when the body's immune system attacks the small intestine when gluten is eaten. The immune system is supposed to fight off viruses and other invaders, but sometimes it turns on the person's own body. (This is called an autoimmune disease.) Celiac disease seems to run in families.
Celiac disease causes damage to the small intestine. This makes it hard for the body to absorb vitamins and other nutrients. You cannot prevent celiac disease. But you can stop and reverse the damage to the small intestine by eating a strict gluten-free diet.
How to eat gluten-free
Eating a gluten-free diet can be challenging. But if you take your time to read labels and ask questions, you can stay on a gluten-free eating plan.
- Don't eat any foods that contain gluten.
These include foods made with wheat, barley, rye, or triticale (a wheat-rye cross). Common foods that contain these grains include:
- Breakfast cereals made with wheat, barley, or rye, or that have the term "malt" or "malted" in their names. Malt is made from barley.
- Avoid all beer products unless they're gluten-free.
Beers with and without alcohol—including lagers, ales, and stouts—contain gluten unless they specifically say they are gluten-free.
- Avoid oats, at least at first.
Oats may cause symptoms in some people who have celiac disease. This may be a result of contamination with wheat, barley, or rye during processing. But many people who have celiac disease can eat moderate amounts of oats without having symptoms. Health professionals vary in their long-term recommendations about eating foods with oats. But most agree that it's safe to eat oats labeled as gluten-free.
- Read food labels carefully.
Look for hidden gluten. Foods such as ice cream, salad dressing, candy, canned and frozen soups and vegetables, and other processed foods may have hidden gluten.
- Know what foods you can eat.
When you're on a gluten-free eating plan, there are many foods you can still have. Foods you can eat include:
- Eggs and dairy products. Some milk products may make your symptoms worse. If you have questions about milk products, ask your doctor. Read ingredient labels carefully. Some processed cheeses contain gluten.
- Flours and foods made with amaranth, arrowroot, beans, buckwheat, corn, cornmeal, flax, millet, potatoes, gluten-free oat bran, quinoa, rice, sorghum, soybeans, tapioca, and teff.
- Fresh, frozen, or canned meats. Be sure to check the ingredient list on processed meats like hot dogs, salami, or deli meat. These may have added ingredients that contain gluten.
- Fresh, frozen, dried, or canned fruits and vegetables, if they don't have thickeners or other additives that contain gluten.
- Certain alcohol drinks, including wine, liquor (such as whiskey and brandy), liqueurs, and ciders.
- Find places where you can eat out.
When you eat out, look for restaurants that serve gluten-free food. You might ask if the chef is familiar with cooking without any gluten.
- Know where to shop.
Look for grocery stores that sell gluten-free foods. Or you can look online for more information about gluten-free foods.