Elation is not a common response when told you have an incurable disease, but for many who have endured countless mysterious symptoms, and often gone misdiagnosed for years, being told they have celiac disease is a chance to reclaim health. “The day I went on a gluten-free diet was the best day of my life,” says Alice Bast, 48, of Philadelphia. “My doctor had given me a recipe to live.”
Once considered an obscure malady, celiac disease now affects one out of every 133 Americans, according to a watershed study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2003. Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder, meaning the immune system treats gluten—the elastic protein in wheat, spelt, barley, and rye—as a toxin. Celiac disease is four times more common today than it was five decades ago, according to 2009 research performed at the Mayo Clinic. For every person with celiac, experts believe there may be many more who have nonceliac gluten intolerance, “a condition in which you may experience a wide range of digestive problems in response to gluten, but unlike celiac, there is no appreciable damage to the intestine,” says Joseph Murray, MD, a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist.
Diagnosis has improved in recent years, and with a 28 percent annual growth in the gluten-free food market, those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance have many more options these days. Still, the gluten-free journey isn’t without its bumps and roadblocks. Here’s how to navigate easily through every shopping trip, and each meal—and nourish yourself while avoiding gluten.