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12 Celiac Disease and Gluten Myths Debunked

Erica Sanderson Jun 13th, 2014 (updated Nov 8th, 2016)
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The gluten-free diet is the latest food trend. But many people don’t even know what gluten is or that this diet is a treatment for a disease. Dr. Stefano Guandalini, director of The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, helps bust some common misconceptions about celiac disease.

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Celiac disease is a food allergy.
Celiac disease is a food allergy.

Celiac disease is not an allergy. It is an autoimmune disease where the body produces antibodies that attack and destroy the epithelium, or cell lining, of the small intestines. Celiac is a chronic incurable disease and the only treatment for patients is to follow a strict gluten-free diet.

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You only need a blood test for a diagnosis.
You only need a blood test for a diagnosis.

A blood test for tissue transglutaminase (TTG) antibodies is just the first step. A celiac disease diagnosis is only positive after a biopsy. This requires an upper endoscopy where several tissue samples are taken from the small intestines to be examined by a pathologist. Depending on the type of damage seen, celiac will either be ruled out or identified.

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Going gluten-free is harmless.
Going gluten-free is harmless.

Contrary to popular belief, Dr. Guandalini says the gluten-free diet isn’t the healthiest. He doesn’t recommend it for those who don’t have celiac disease. It can cause constipation from lack of fiber and also limits the intake of vitamins and minerals. The problem is many people switch to manufactured gluten-free products, he says, which are refined, highly processed and lacking nutrition.

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Gluten-free diets also help people without celiac.
Gluten-free diets also help people without celiac.

Nowadays, people remove gluten from their diet to treat a range of illnesses, from asthma to ADHD. “We haven’t found any evidence that gluten is causing any symptoms in anybody except in celiac disease and in wheat allergy.” Translation: Gluten isn’t always the culprit. A gluten-free diet is only a treatment for celiac, no other diseases.

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Celiac disease is common.
Celiac disease is common.

“Celiac” and “gluten” seem ubiquitous today. In reality, only 1 percent of the general U.S. population has been diagnosed with celiac disease, or approximately 3 million people. Shocked? You should be because a lot of people who have gone gluten-free haven’t had to.

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I have gluten sensitivity.
I have gluten sensitivity.

This phrase is widely debated in the medical community. It’s a bit of a misnomer, considering there’s no proof it even exists. Dr. Guandalini says it is still a mystery and doctors aren’t sure what is behind the reported symptoms since no abnormalities appear during testing.

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Celiac only affects the GI tract.
Celiac only affects the GI tract.

Some of the typical symptoms are GI-related—bloating, constipation, gas—but doctors are now realizing an array of other symptoms also occurs. Dr. Guandalini says these non-GI symptoms are becoming just as prevalent, if not more so, than the typical symptoms. They include anemia, recurring headaches, arthritis and osteoporosis.

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Gluten is an ingredient in wheat.
Gluten is an ingredient in wheat.

Gluten comprises two major components: glutenins and gliadins, both of which – and especially the former - are toxic for celiac individuals. In addition, secalin from rye and hordein from barley, contain toxic fragments similar to gliadins.

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Gluten is in rice.
Gluten is in rice.

Gluten is not in all grains, as is commonly mistaken. People with celiac can eat rice, potatoes, quinoa, and buckwheat. But they must avoid wheat, couscous, and spelt, among many others. Always read ingredient labels. If you’re out to eat and you’re unsure if something is gluten-free, skip it.

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People with celiac can’t have dairy.
People with celiac can’t have dairy.

While there may be some people who are both celiac and lactose intolerant, this is not usually the case. To repeat, celiac patients need only to refrain from wheat, barley and rye. People with celiac can consume all dairy products, meat, vegetables and fruit. So there are still plenty of food options to complete a healthy diet full of variety.  

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Not eating gluten helps me lose weight.
Not eating gluten helps me lose weight.

Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are it’s not gluten packing on the pounds. It's true people lose weight when they stop eating pizza, pasta, and bread. But those foods are also high in calories and carbs. Many gluten products are high glycemic-index foods, such as cake, cookies, and muffins. If you’re looking to lose weight, talk with your doctor or a nutritionist for the right diet to follow.

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Gluten is only in food.
Gluten is only in food.

Gluten can be found in a lot of unexpected places other than food. Medicine, toothpaste and cosmetics can contain gluten. Learn about other surprising products that may have gluten. Ask your doctor for more information on what to avoid.