Everything you need to know about coeliac disease

From common symptoms to gluten-free snack suggestions

By Rebecca Shepherd, 08 May 2017
Everything you need to know about coeliac disease

Coeliac disease affects 1 in 100 people in the UK. The disease means that eating gluten, which is most commonly found in wheat, barley and rye based foods can make sufferers very ill. 

A few years ago it was very hard for coeliacs to get their hands on good quality gluten-free products and it still can be, but now, says Sarah Collard who is Coeliac UK's Food Policy Officer, "you can find a wide range of specialist gluten-free foods in the supermarkets such as gluten-free pasta, bread and cakes.

“There are also EU-wide rules on the way allergen information has to be provided to consumers on labels of packaged foods and compositional standards for meals served by caterers," Sarah added. “This means that even if a food is not labelled gluten-free you can find out if a gluten-containing ingredient has been used.”

With this week being Coeliac UK’s Awareness Week (May 8 - May 14) we've put some questions to Coeliac UK to find out how you and your family can cope with the disease. 

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye and in the UK it can affect 1 in 100 people. It is not a food allergy nor a simple food intolerance.

Sarah said: "However, if someone in your immediate family has the condition the chances of you also having the condition are significantly increased to 1 in 10. Your immediate family being a first degree relative, parent, child or sibling.

"While we know that around 1% of the population has coeliac disease, the number of people who have a medical diagnosis of the condition is much lower with research indicating only 24% of those with the condition have a diagnosis. This means there are around half a million people in the UK who have coeliac disease, but as yet, have not been diagnosed."

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can vary widely and can be mild or severe.

Sarah said: "Common symptoms of coeliac disease in adults and older children include bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, wind, constipation, tiredness, mouth ulcers, sudden or unexpected weight loss (but not in all cases), hair loss and anaemia. In younger children and babies, symptoms include failure to thrive, diarrhoea, muscle wasting, poor appetite, lethargy and behavioural change."

How to be diagnosed?

If you suspect you or your child has coeliac disease, it is important that you discuss your concerns with your GP.

Sarah said: "The first stage of getting diagnosed is a simple blood test to check for antibodies which can indicate coeliac disease. If the blood test is positive or there is clinical suspicion of coeliac disease, your GP will then refer you to a gut specialist (a gastroenterologist) for an endoscopy with biopsy. This is a simple procedure which looks for damage in the gut typical of coeliac disease. It involves passing a thin flexible tube (an endoscope) through the mouth and into the small intestine where tiny samples of the gut lining are collected. For children, a biopsy may not always be necessary. New guidelines have been published by Coeliac UK and the British Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (BSPGHAN) recommending that children with symptoms of coeliac disease whose blood test shows a high level of antibodies and who also have the genes for coeliac disease, may not need to have a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis."

What is the treatment?

Sarah said: "The good news is that treating coeliac disease does not require medication. Currently, the only treatment for coeliac disease is a strict gluten-free diet for life. Gluten is found in the grains wheat, rye and barley and some people also need to avoid oats, even if they are special gluten-free oats. Common foods that contain gluten include bread, pasta, pizza, cakes and biscuits. It is also found in some processed foods like ready meals, cooking sauces, sausages and stock cubes."

However, while there are a large number of foods and food products that contain gluten, there are plenty that don’t, including:

  • meat, poultry, fish
  • rice, beans, pulses
  • fruit, vegetables
  • eggs, cheese, butter, milk, plain yogurt and cream

Be sure to check the label to make sure the product is suitable for you. Ingredients that contain gluten and other allergens will be emphasised in the ingredients list, for example in bold lettering.

Any snack ideas?

Sarah said: "One of the key challenges for parents of young children is making sure their child understands that they have coeliac disease and the importance of not swapping foods with other children or trying their packed lunch instead."

"Today you can find a wide range of fresh gluten-free breads which are great for sandwiches, as well as wraps, sandwich thins and crackers to add a bit of variety through the week.

"For snack ideas, why not try these: Pack a small pot of houmous* with carrot batons or celery sticks and gluten free grissini*. Cold gluten free pizza* can be a great way to use up leftovers for packed lunches the next day, fromage frais, crème fraiche or natural yogurt can be used as a sweet dip for eating with sliced apple, pear and strawberries. Fruit and veg is the ultimate fast food – apples, kiwi fruit, bananas, satsumas, grapes, berries, carrots, cucumbers, peppers and celery are healthy, gluten-free snacks."

*Check the label to make sure you choose a suitable product.

For more information about coeliac disease visit Coeliac UK. You can view our full list of gluten-free food make online or head into your local store