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Why Can’t I Have Just a Little Gluten?

October 7, 2022

A woman sitting on a counter surrounded by pastries and breads. She is frowning sadly at a muffin in her hand.

By volunteer Melissa Coffman, nutritionist

After being diagnosed with celiac disease you may be asking yourself, “Is ingesting a small amount of gluten occasionally really that harmful?” or maybe you are thinking “Surely it won’t hurt to indulge in a few bites during the holidays.” It’s common to wonder these things because a celiac disease diagnosis can be overwhelming, and it is good to ask questions and find accurate answers.

The fact is, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that requires a strict gluten-free lifestyle. Sticking to the diet without cheating is crucial to stopping intestinal damage, healing the small intestine, avoiding other medical complications, and reversing vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Stopping Intestinal Damage and Healing the Small Intestine

The first step in stopping intestinal damage is following a strict gluten-free lifestyle. Once a patient starts following a gluten-free diet, their villi will start the healing process. This healing process journey may look differently for each patient. Research shows that the healing process may take 3 to 6 months of a strict gluten-free lifestyle. For some, especially those diagnosed later in life, it could take up to 2 years.1

Avoiding Other Medical Complications

Celiac disease can leave a patient vulnerable to other health problems, but following a strict gluten-free lifestyle and healing the intestine can reduce some of these risks: 2 3 4

  • Malnutrition
  • Osteoporosis
  • Infertility
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Nervous system disorders
  • Failure to thrive (in children)

Reversing Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies

When the body’s immune system overreacts to gluten in food, the reaction damages the villi that line the small intestine. Villi absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from the food you eat. If your villi are damaged, you can’t get enough nutrients, no matter how much you eat.5 Celiac patients that do not comply with a gluten-free lifestyle are at a higher risk for the following vitamin and mineral deficiencies:6

  • Calcium
  • Copper
  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Niacin
  • Riboflavin
  • Vitamins A, B-6, B-12, D, E, K
  • Zinc

Embracing the Gluten-Free Diet

When first diagnosed with celiac disease, it may be hard to stick with a strict gluten-free diet. One way to lessen the feeling of being overwhelmed is to focus on the foods you can have.

Start by making a list of foods that are naturally gluten-free, then derive a meal plan using these foods. Focus on naturally gluten-free foods and consider avoiding the processed gluten-free foods for now. This will allow you time to learn more about how to read labels and about which food products are safe to eat.

For more help, check out our free Getting Started Guide or the recipe section of our website.

Think you may have celiac disease?

Symptoms Checklist