For up to 70,000* New Zealanders with coeliac disease, eating 100% gluten free is the only way to manage their life-long condition, but for many thousands more, cutting out gluten before they are professionally diagnosed could be detrimental to their health.
This Coeliac Awareness Week (June 14-20) Coeliac New Zealand is warning anyone who might notice issues with gluten or have a family history of coeliac disease, and hasn’t been tested for it, not to put yourself on a gluten-free diet but see a health care professional first.
“You can’t get a proper diagnosis for coeliac disease if you’re already following a gluten free diet, so it’s important to talk to your health care professional, before thinking about going gluten-free – even if you feel better without it,” says Professor Andrew Day, Professor Andrew Day, Medical Advisor for Coeliac NZ and Head of Department and Cure Kids Chair of Paediatric Research at University of Otago, Christchurch.
With up to 200 different symptoms of coeliac disease that go far beyond the digestive system – from bone and joint pain to skin rashes and mouth ulcers – symptoms can be vague or even non-existent, so up to 80% of people with coeliac disease are unaware they have it. However, that doesn’t mean damage is not occurring; left undiagnosed, coeliac disease can cause long-term poor health and even osteoporosis, depression and an increased risk of throat and intestinal cancer.
1 in 70 New Zealanders are at risk of coeliac disease and Coeliac NZ has an online assessment anyone can take to see if they should see a healthcare professional about the condition https://coeliac.org.nz/an-online-test/
Risk of coeliac disease is increased in those with a family history of the condition or with other autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes. The condition can be diagnosed at any age, and it often starts in childhood.
Dana Alexander, spokesperson for Coeliac NZ says, “Coeliac Awareness Week is a timely reminder to follow your gut feeling and talk to a health care professional if there’s a chance you could have coeliac disease, before undertaking the challenging task of removing all gluten from your diet.”
Although it might seem simple, removing gluten, including trace amounts from the diet can be a difficult task, as wheat and the other cereals (barley, rye and oats) that contain gluten are found in a wide range of foods, alcohol and even pharmaceuticals every day. The high cost of gluten-free options, risk of cross-contamination when eating out, and confusion of reading food labels can add to the challenge and put treatment at risk.
While a gluten-free diet has become popular over recent years, there is no evidence to suggest it is a healthier choice for healthy people – even if it is the only treatment for coeliac disease.
“Eating gluten-free can mean you miss out on essential nutrients in your diet including the B vitamins and fibre often found in wheat-based foods. It can also mean you cut out foods you could otherwise be enjoying – something a coeliac would never wish upon a healthy person,” Ms Alexander says.
Coeliac NZ supports people of all ages to navigate the complexities of eating gluten free, manage coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity long-term, and live a healthy life with programmes including the Crossed Grain Logo and Dining Out Programme. Coeliac Awareness is proudly sponsored by Countdown, Lee Kum Kee, Bluebird, Bakels, Healtheries.
*An estimated 60-70,000 New Zealanders have coeliac disease, though 80% are unaware of it.