Understanding coeliac disease

If you’ve seen one of our recent ads on TV, you’ll know that we made an oversight when it comes to talking about gluten. We’ve since realised that we should be helping to dispel the myths surrounding gluten intolerance and coeliac disease, which is why we want to help set the record straight. While a gluten-free diet has become a bit of a fad recently, the misconception that everyone can simply choose when they do or don’t want to have gluten is far from the truth. 

In speaking with Coeliac Australia and getting the facts straight from the experts, we understand the seriousness of coeliac disease and the impact it has on so many Australians. 

The facts

Although one in 70 Australians has coeliac disease, 80% are undiagnosed. Typical symptoms of coeliac disease include gastrointestinal upsets, anaemia and nutrient deficiencies, fatigue and joint pain. Untreated, the long term complications of coeliac disease can include dental enamel defects, mouth ulcers, hair loss, osteoporosis, abnormal liver function, loss of coordination and pregnancy complications. 

When you read a list like that, it’s understandable why those that have coeliac disease don’t see jokes about a gluten-free diet as much of a laughing matter. 

The myths

To get a better understanding of coeliac disease and some of the many challenges people with coeliac disease can face, we’ve listed some of the most common myths below. It’s time to get myth busting!

Myth: A gluten-free diet is just a fad

Fact: For those with coeliac disease, going gluten-free is a must! While some people might choose to cut out gluten from their lifestyle, those with coeliac disease are cutting it out as a necessity. If not, they risk damage to their small intestine, as well as other serious health complications.

Myth: In small amounts, gluten is fine

Fact: A breadcrumb worth of gluten (e.g. about 50mg) is enough to harm someone with coeliac disease. Even with no obvious symptoms, small intestinal damage can still occur – you can’t rely on the absence of symptoms to confirm tolerance of gluten. 

Myth: Coeliac disease is rare

Fact: As we mentioned earlier, research shows that one in 70 Australians has coeliac disease, so it’s far from rare – although, most of these cases do go undiagnosed. This highlights the importance of following up with your GP if you have any symptoms that may suggest coeliac disease.

Myth: Spelt and oats are gluten-free

Fact: If you’re adjusting to a gluten-free diet, be aware that spelt is a type of wheat and so it does contain gluten. For those with coeliac disease, it should definitely be avoided. When it comes to oats, under the Australian Food Standard, they cannot be labelled as gluten-free. Pure, steel cut or wheat-free oats are not ‘gluten-free’. Research shows that most people with coeliac disease are able to tolerate ‘uncontaminated’ or ‘wheat-free’ oats; a medically supervised oat challenge is required to find out if you are able to eat oats. So, again, porridge lovers, keep this in mind if you’re coeliac!

Myth: Grain fed meat, poultry and eggs contain gluten

Fact: All fresh, unprocessed meats, animal milk products (milk, cheese, butter, etc.) and eggs naturally don’t have any gluten in them, so they’re fine for those on a gluten-free diet. Gluten will not be present in the meat, milk or eggs from an animal just because it’s own diet has contained gluten. 

Myth: Gluten friendly menu items

Fact: Don’t be fooled if you see ‘gluten friendly’ on a restaurant menu, as it’s not actually permissible under Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). For someone with coeliac disease, the only acceptable phrase to look for is ‘gluten free’ – while someone who is avoiding gluten for other reasons might be fine with the term ‘low gluten’. 

Myth: Gluten isn’t as serious as other allergens

Fact: The long term complications of untreated coeliac disease can be very debilitating and even life threatening. In order to protect those with coeliac disease and allow them to make informed food choices, gluten is declared by FSANZ as an ‘allergen’. This requires gluten to always be declared when present in a food product and any claims surrounding gluten must abide by the FSANZ code.

The experts

For those who may be concerned they are suffering from coeliac disease, the best thing you can do is head to your GP and get checked out. Do not trial a gluten-free diet until you have been tested.

As Coeliac Australia President Michael Bell says, “We urge people with persistent symptoms to consider coeliac disease. Don’t rule it out because it isn’t well known in your family or community.”

For those who have been newly diagnosed with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance, Coeliac Australia’s Dietitian, Penny Dellsperger, has some words of advice.

“Don’t panic! You’re not alone,” she says. “The first step is to contact Coeliac Australia. Resources and support are available to help teach you about coeliac disease and the gluten-free diet. It’s also important that you see a dietitian who specialises in coeliac disease, they will provide tailored advice and not only step you through the gluten-free diet, but also ensure your diet is balanced.”

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This material has been prepared for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on as, a substitute for health and medical advice from a qualified health professional. You should seek the advice of a qualified health professional regarding your health and/or a medical condition.