The science of gluten-free

By Ruth Chan, Features Staff Writer

More than 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease, the affliction that forces people to eat a gluten-free diet, according to the National Institute of Health.

But what exactly does being “gluten-free,” and having celiac disease mean?

Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Associate Professor Joan Salge Blake said celiac disease is a disease of the small intestine that has a strong genetic link.

“Celiac disease involves damage of the small intestine. It is genetically inherited and people who have this, when they consume gluten, have an immune response,” Blake said. “Because of this, they have damaged the inside of their small intestines and are unable to allow nutrients to be absorbed.”

Blake also said that damage of the small intestine could lead to malnutrition if left untreated.

“This leads to not only gastro-intestinal distress, but potentially malnutrition because they are not getting the nutrients they need, which is very serious.” Blake said.

College of Arts and Sciences Junior Duran Ward has been dealing with celiac disease since his junior year of high school.

“My first few years were a little bit rough. I didn’t know a lot about celiac disease nor did I have a clear understanding of what gluten was,” Ward said in an email with the Daily Free Press.

“To make a long story short, it was a pretty big hassle at the time, especially being a multi-sport athlete, because it was hard to supplement my diet,” he said. “Things like Twizzlers, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, cold cuts for sandwiches and other seemingly random things all contain gluten.”

However, there is an upside to all of this. Blake said that because there is a genetic link with celiac disease, people can detect their symptoms earlier and get diagnosed. They can then remove gluten from their diet, allow their GI tract to heal and go on to eat healthily.

Since gluten is found in all wheat, rye and barley products, being gluten-free can be difficult. However, it is possible to have a very healthy diet even if you have to avoid gluten.

Blake said it is easy to substitute gluten products with other foods.

“You can have corn, beans, potatoes, soy and rice [in place of gluten products],” he said. “From a nutritional standpoint, you can meet your nutrient needs using grains such as rice instead. You can also have other starchy types of carbohydrates in place of wheat.”

Ward agreed, and said his diet consists of a lot of meat, potatoes, corn, rice, vegetables and beans.

Symptoms of celiac disease are unpleasant, though. They include diarrhea, constipation, vomiting and weight less. While many hope for a cure, the only cure that is currently available is to simply stay away from gluten and wheat products.

Ward recalled his reaction to eating gluten.

“For [people with celiac disease], eating gluten can be very dangerous but everyone reacts differently,” he said. “I would simply have an upset stomach for a while, lose weight easily, get headaches, or I couldn’t hold food down if I ate something with gluten in it.”

Both Blake and Ward feel that Boston University has a lot to offer when it comes to helping students with gluten-free diets. Blake said that BU has dietitians in the nutritional center who work closely with on campus food services to ensure that they have foods available for people who have this issue.

“I made suggestions about different gluten free items and they became more readily available,” Ward said, in regards to introducing gluten-free products in BU dining halls. “Now in the West dining hall they even have a special gluten- free room, which is a huge improvement compared to the years prior.”

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