You finally have something to attribute those symptoms to: celiac disease. Now comes the realization that you need to get rid of the gluten in your diet.
"There's an initial disbelief when people learn they have to give it up," says Mark DeMeo, MD, a gastroenterologist at Rush University Medical Center. That's understandable, given how common gluten is.
It's a protein contained in wheat, barley and rye, which means you'll find it in bread, pasta and cereal made with these grains. It also shows up in countless processed foods and beverages — including ones you'd never suspect, such as soy sauce and cake frosting.
But the only way to help the small intestine heal — and stay healthy — is to stay gluten-free. So how do you start?
Your game plan
The best first step is to pick a date to be completely gluten-free, says DeMeo. That date shouldn't be more than a month away — and you'll want to ask your doctor about specific timing.
"Use this transition time to gradually eliminate gluten from your diet," he advises. Once you pick the date, DeMeo suggests the following strategies:
- Consult a registered dietitian who regularly counsels people with celiac disease. This professional can be your guide to eating — and learning to enjoy — a gluten-free diet.
- Be a label reader. If any of these words are on a food label, gluten is present: barley, graham, malt, rye, wheat, wheat germ, spelt or semolina. Instead, look for alternatives like rice and nut flours.
- Load up on foods that are naturally gluten-free. Look for foods on the outside aisles of the grocery store: fresh fruits and vegetables; unprocessed meat, fish and poultry; and most dairy products.
- Discover new gluten-free products. There's a rapidly growing variety, from pasta to pizza.
- Finally, the key to a successful change is to concentrate on what you can eat, not what you can't, says DeMeo.
"In the big picture, you actually have an abundance of choices, and over time, your new diet will become second nature," he says.
Why going gluten-free is important
"Avoiding gluten is a lifelong must for anyone with celiac disease," DeMeo stresses.
That's because when people with the disorder eat even a tiny amount of gluten, their immune system attacks and damages the lining of the small intestine.
That damage can keep needed nutrients from being absorbed in the bloodstream and cause diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain and weight loss. It can also raise the risk of serious health problems, including anemia and even certain cancers.
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