Here's what you need to know about Coeliac disease

Susannah Hickling

Coeliac disease affects one to two in 100 people, so the chances are that if you don’t have it yourself, you’ll know someone who does. But it’s also estimated that 70 per cent of people with the condition aren’t aware they have it. Here are some answers to the important questions:

What is coeliac disease?

It’s an autoimmune disease—a condition where your immune system attacks the body—in which the lining of the gut is damaged by gluten. This means the body can’t absorb nutrients properly. Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye. It’s present in cakes, biscuits, pasta, bread, breakfast cereals, pastry and so it’s a big part of the diet of most of us.

Coeliac disease isn’t an allergy or food intolerance, nor is it a fad. While it’s true that more and more people are going gluten-free in recent years; some have coeliac disease, but for others it’s simply a preference.

 

Who suffers from it?

Anyone. It strikes men and women alike (though women may be more susceptible) and can occur at any age for no obvious reason. It was thought to be a childhood condition, but it’s actually more often diagnosed between the ages of 40 and 60. And it’s a lifelong disease which you’ll need to treat with a gluten-free diet. You’re more likely to get coeliac if a close family member—parent or sibling—has it.

 

What are the symptoms?

Classic symptoms are chronic diarrhoea and weight loss. You might also suffer from constipation, vomiting, stomach pain, mouth ulcers, tiredness and anaemia. There are also long-term complications of living with undiagnosed coeliac disease, including osteoporosis and neurological problems (such as neuropathy—nerve damage), and a higher risk of small bowel cancer.

 

What can you do?

• Don’t automatically cut out gluten if you think you might have coeliac disease but try Coeliac UK’s online assessment at isitcoeliacdisease.org.uk and see your GP for a blood test.

• If your diagnosis is confirmed, see a dietitian who will help you with a gluten-free diet.

• Read food labels. There’s a wide range of gluten-free products available in supermarkets now.

• Always quiz your waiter when you eat out. While more and more restaurants have gluten-free options and by law they have to give you allergen information, it’s always wise to check there’s no cross-contamination or that there are no seasonings made from wheat in the meal, such as stock cubes, or gluten-free food fried in oil used to fry foods containing gluten. It’s a good idea to phone the eatery ahead of your visit.

• Have a coeliac-safe zone in your kitchen. This includes separate cutting boards, colanders and toasters.

• Monitor your bone health. Your GP can refer you for a DEXA scan.