Tackling celiac disease takes a family

More and more children are being diagnosed with celiac disease in the U.S. For their families, getting used to a gluten-free life can be challenging. But there are ways to help ease the transition.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a digestive disease in which a person cannot tolerate gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Even the tiniest amount of gluten causes the immune system to damage or destroy the tiny, fingerlike parts of the small intestine called villi.

“Without villi, nutrients needed for normal growth and development cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream,” says Thomas J. Sferra, MD, Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. “Instead, they pass through the intestine only partially digested.”

Although symptoms vary and can affect many parts of the body, Dr. Sferra says symptoms in children tend to include:

  • Stomach bloating and pain
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Pale, foul-smelling or fatty stool
  • Weight loss
  • Being irritable and tired

Managing a gluten-free life

Only one treatment helps celiac disease: a gluten-free diet. “For most children, avoiding gluten will improve symptoms within weeks and heal the intestine within six to 12 months,” says Dr. Sferra.

Following a gluten-free diet means not eating most grains, pasta, cereal and many processed foods – but the good news is, more and more gluten-free products are available at grocery stores these days. Plus, fresh meat, poultry, fish, eggs, rice, fruit and veggies can be eaten because they do not contain gluten.

Going gluten free can be tricky at first. Dr. Sferra recommends following these tips to help your family:

  • Work with a dietitian to learn which foods to avoid, how to eat a balanced diet and how to read ingredient lists.
  • Check the ingredient lists on medicine, vitamins and lip balm because they may contain wheat.
  • If ingredients are not listed, ask a pharmacist to help you.
  • Avoid additives – such as modified food starch, preservatives and stabilizers – that are made from wheat. Ask your child’s doctor or dietitian for a list of ingredients to watch out for.
  • When in doubt while eating out, ask about ingredients and preparation.
  • Instead of wheat flour, try flour made from gluten-free sources, such as potato, rice, soy or bean.
  • Seek out a celiac disease support group.
Thomas Sferra

Thomas J. Sferra, MD
Chief, Pediatric Gastroenterology,
UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital
Associate Professor,
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

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