What could be better than bread fresh from the oven? Or, a mile-high stack of pancakes for Sunday brunch? Believe it or not, these wheat-filled foods are nothing but trouble for a group of people with Celiac disease.

Celiac disease (CD), or celiac sprue, is an autoimmune disorder brought on by a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye called gluten. Because gluten is found in nearly every cereal, bread, flour, and pasta, it can turn a seemingly normal menu into a minefield for a person living with CD.

Did You Know?
Autoimmune disorders occur when your immune system over-reacts to a substance that is normally found in your body. It ends up attacking its own cells because it recognizes these substances as a threat. Your body essentially turns on itself.

Gluten is an especially stubborn breed of proteins. When most proteins hit our small intestines (where the nutrients from our food gets absorbed), they are broken into smaller units called amino acids. If a protein were a human pyramid, then amino acids are the individual people stacked on top of one another. Gluten is the kind of human pyramid that never quite falls down completely – no matter how hard our small intestine tries.

Most of us eat and digest gluten with a reckless sense of abandon. People with CD have a genetic Achilles heel, where the presence of gluten causes something of a mutiny in their small intestine. Your immune system is the antivirus software of your body. When it detects large amounts of foreign particles, it goes into full attack mode. When someone with CD eats gluten, it triggers a reaction within the small intestine. The immune system then attacks the cells that line the small intestine—known as villi—causing an unpleasant rainbow of intestinal problems including diarrhea, gas, pain, bloating, vomiting, constipation and physical wounds within the digestive tract that prevent absorption of even the best nutrients, leading to malnutrition.

Did You Know?
It is said that about one in 133 people in the United States have celiac disease, while there could be as many as 250,000 Canadians living with it – many still undiagnosed.

Anyone who suspects they have celiac disease is advised to speak with their doctor. The best treatment is to stop eating foods with gluten altogether. But before you swear off French toast and spaghetti forever, there are many gluten-free alternatives available in the grocery store and at many restaurants. These foods use alternative flours and starches, such as potato or rice flour, to supplement almost anything that would normally have wheat, rye, or barley. So you can sleep easy–a life without wheat can still be delicious after all.

Learn more!

Canadian Celiac Association

Celiac Disease Foundation

TeensHealth celiac disease


Carrie, D.M. & Chan, N.K-C. Celiac disease in North America: the disabling experience. Disability & Society. 23(1): 89-96

Fasano, A. 2009. Surprises from Celiac Disease. Scientific American. 301(2)

Article first published August 4, 2011

Photo Credit:Steve Satushek/Getty images

Kerry Hollingsworth

I'm a young professional, enthusiastic about all things science and education. I have an (Hons) B.Sc in Forensic Science and currently work for an educational publishing company. While every science is worth studying, I hold a special place in my heart for genetics, evolutionary biology, biological anthropology, biochemistry and space science.

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