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Gluten-free diet offers treatment for autoimmune disease

by Brittany Chin
Dietetic Intern
Given all the gluten-free products on the grocery shelves, including on popular items such as crackers, pasta, rice and bread, some people assume the diet must be the new weight loss craze.

Think again.

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. There are no nutritional or weight loss benefits associated with a gluten-free diet in a healthy person. In regards to a healthy lifestyle, eating whole grains, such as whole wheat, rye and barley can benefit a person’s diet greatly. However, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), for those diagnosed with celiac disease (CD), a gluten-free diet is the only method of treatment.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one in every 133 people has celiac disease and nearly 97 percent go undiagnosed. Celiac disease is a hereditary and lifelong autoimmune disease that affects not only adults, but children as well. For those diagnosed with celiac disease, when gluten is consumed, the immune system responds by destroying the villi in the small intestine resulting in malabsorption and malnourishment. Symptoms of celiac disease are very similar to those of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, including abdominal bloating and pain, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation and weight loss. Long-term complications, such as anemia, osteoporosis and cancer of the intestine can result from untreated celiac disease as well (NDDIC).
So what does a gluten-free diet look like? Below are the recommendations from the American Dietetic Association.

Gluten-free foods allowed include corn, buckwheat, soy, rice, potatoes and legumes.

Foods with gluten to avoid include wheat (including all flours), barley, rye, triticale (a cross between wheat and rye) and processed foods that may contain wheat, barley or rye such as sauces, soups, potato chips, gravy, some cold cuts and many more. Be sure to always check the label on processed foods for gluten.
This list is just a sample. For information, consult a physician and/or a dietitian who specializes in celiac disease.

A gluten-free diet not only may assist those with celiac disease, but recent studies show that there may be a “brain-to-gut connection” between autism and a gluten-free diet. According to the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry in 2008, a gluten-free diet may help in decreasing the amount of peptides that are thought to contribute to the origin of autism and its behavioral symptoms. The effect of gluten-free diets on autism is still inconclusive, and further studies are being conducted on this topic. An autistic child’s pediatrician should be consulted before making any dietary changes.

The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness indicates that it can take up to 10 years to accurately be diagnosed with CD. For  information on CD and the gluten-free diet, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation at, the NDDIC at and the American Dietetic Association at

Friday, Nov. 5, 2010

The Catalyst Online is published weekly by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to The Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.