Coeliac Disease: What you need to know! - Coeliac Awareness Week (13-20 March 2021)

This week marks Coeliac Awareness Week!  There is a lot of confusion around coeliac disease and ‘going gluten free’ so we spoke with final year Master of Dietetics Studies student, Zoe Selby, to find out just what gluten is and how the coeliac’s among us can stay healthy.  

Coeliac disease is a serious autoimmune condition where the body has an abnormal reaction to gluten. For someone with coeliac disease, eating gluten, in any amount, such as in a piece of bread, for instance — causes an immune system reaction and damages the lining of the small intestine. Once the small intestine is damaged this affects absorption of food and nutrients.

Did you know coeliac disease affects on average approximately one in 70 Australians? And, around 80 per cent of this number remain undiagnosed. This means the vast majority of Australians who have coeliac disease don’t even know it yet!

How is Coeliac Disease treated?

Coeliac disease is treated by removing foods containing gluten from the diet. This is why it is also known as a gluten free diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, triticale (hybrid of wheat), rye, oats, barley and food products that contain any of these grains. It’s an important protein as it creates the elasticity in baked products and is often used as a thickening agent.

While those with coeliac disease must follow a gluten free diet, it is also paramount that there is no cross-contamination between gluten containing foods and gluten free foods. For example, someone with coeliac disease must use a designated gluten free toaster to ensure zero cross-contamination from gluten-containing toast crumbs. If cross contamination occurs this will result in damage to the small intestine and likely common symptoms such as; diarrhoea, nausea, flatulence, abdominal discomfort, tiredness and weakness.

The gluten free diet requires lifestyle changes and learning new skills such as reading and interpreting food labels. A strict gluten free diet has positive implications for health. It reduces the adverse side-effects of coeliac disease such as digestive issues, nutritional deficiencies, weight loss and tiredness.

How would I know if I had Coeliac Disease?

It is important to note that symptoms vary for individuals with coeliac disease and many people may not complain of any symptoms at all, yet still will experience detrimental damage to their small intestine (silent coeliac disease).

Common symptoms include persistent gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g. diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, flatulence, cramping, bloating, abdominal pain, steatorrhea), and prolonged fatigue, weakness and lethargy. However, keep in mind that there are many other possible causes of these symptoms.

If you suspect you have coeliac disease, there are simple tests that can diagnose the condition. For the tests to be accurate, gluten must be present in your diet. Once a person has avoided gluten for a while, it becomes difficult to establish if he or she has coeliac disease.

Going gluten free just because?

Increased popularity has risen around a gluten free diet with many opting for the diet despite not having coeliac disease. Let’s bust a few myths….

Myth 1 - “A gluten-free diet is healthier.” A gluten-free diet is NOT healthier, unless you have coeliac disease, gluten sensitivity, or other gluten-related disorders.

Myth 2 - “A gluten-free diet is good for weight loss.” Whether or not a diet promotes weight loss is not related to the presence or absence of gluten.

It’s important to understand the impacts a gluten free diet may have on someone who does not necessarily need gluten taken out of their diet. Removing gluten from the diet can set you up for some nutritional deficiencies. For instance, there are many nutrients normally found in foods containing gluten, like cereals which are a major source of folate and B vitamins.

It is always recommended to speak with a health care professional such as your GP and an Accredited Practicing Dietitian before you decide to go gluten free.

For a FREE consultation with an Accredited Practicing Dietitian visit the UQ Nutrition and Dietetics Clinic.

Last updated:
18 March 2021