Celiac Sprue, or Why Some People Just Can't Eat Bread and Pasta

Danger Level: Medium 

What is it?

Celiac Sprue (or just celiac for short) is a disease causing the gut to absorb poorly the food that we eat.

Who gets it?

One out of every 113 people in the United States has the disease (that’s almost 1%!). It is more common in Caucasians, especially of European origin. It can happen in childhood, but also can appear suddenly in the elderly.

What causes it?

People with celiac, for unknown reasons, are sensitive to a type of protein called gliadin, which is part of gluten. Since gluten is present in wheat, barley, rye and oats, they have to avoid all foods that contain them. This includes most breads, pasta and cereals. It’s a little known fact, but gluten can also be found in French fries, soups and even candy.

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Pasta – One of the many things celiac patients have to avoid.

The gluten in the diet damages the intestine, so that it is unable to absorb the food you eat (whether it contains gluten or not).

How does it feel?

It can vary, going from diarrhea and weight loss (because of the inability of the intestine to absorb food), to anemia and bone diseases (because of problems with absorbing specific things in food, like iron and calcium).

How is it discovered?

There are a few things that can be done in order to discov

er celiac in a patient:

1. Blood tests: can find special antibodies in your blood (these are molecules that usually fight infections). These antibodies rise only in celiac, but it’s not known whether they cause the disease or just appear in it.

2. Biopsy of the intestine: Although these antibodies will appear in celiac, it is necessary to do a biopsy in order to be certain that we’re talking about celiac. That’s because we wouldn’t want to start the (pretty harsh) treatment without being completely sure 100% that this is indeed the disease.

The biopsy will show that the intestine is damaged. That damage will magically disappear after starting treatment, which is also part of the diagnosis.

How is it treated?

The only treatment, unfortunately, is a completely gluten-free diet. People with celiac have to check the ingredients on foods they buy to see that they actually don’t contain gluten. 

What happens after treatment?

As said before, the intestines will “magically” heal and all the symptoms of the disease will go away.

A not well known but important fact is that celiac patients have a bigger chance of developing lymphoma (a type of cancer) than the rest of the population.


The bottom line: How do I avoid it?

Celiac is a genetic disease, so avoiding it is not an option. What you can do, once you know you have it, is avoid foods that contain gluten. You can find a list of such foods here. You can also try one of the various resources on the Web, like Sure Foods Living.

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