Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Facts about celiac disease

July 23, 2014

Q.Will you please help me understand some things? My mom thinks I have celiac disease. She wants me to be on a gluten-free diet. She’s actually kind of obsessed with it. When I’m at home I have no choice and I stay on the diet, but when I’m with my friends I eat whatever I want. One of my friends said she Googled it. She says most people don’t really have celiac disease, and being on a gluten-free diet is a fad. If I don’t follow the diet, though, I feel pretty lousy. My question is, do you think my mom is right? We don’t have a family doctor. Am I old enough to go to a doctor on my own? My mom says I’m just hurting myself if I don’t follow the diet. I’m just not sure.


Mary Jo’s response: I can relate to your dilemma. It’s important to trust our parents; at 15, it’s also normal to think independently. My mother was a delightful woman and a dedicated parent, but her distrust of medicine and her deeply held belief in her own instincts created a bizarre approach to illness. One example of her “diagnosis” of illnesses dealt with allergies. She was convinced my seasonal sneezing was connected to food. If I had the misfortune of a runny nose during dinner, she added the foods on the menu to my list of allergens. Soon I was on a strict wheat-eggs-dairy-free diet. My papa intervened, and allergy testing revealed the culprit – pollen in the air.

On one hand, you respect your mom and honor her commitment to your well-being. On the other hand, you’re not sure. I’ll explain celiac disease and a gluten-free diet to you, but I’d like to respond to your last question first. Are you old enough to go to a doctor on your own? Of course. I strongly encourage you to communicate with your mom before you take that step. Be respectful and kind. Explain your desire to seek medical advice. Your mom’s support is vital. Don’t lie to her. If she is unwilling to help you see a health-care provider, you could seek support from another trusted adult in your family. You can always talk with your school nurse or make an appointment on your own, but doing so with parental support would be so much easier. A pediatrician or family doctor can diagnose celiac disease through a blood test or biopsy.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation (, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder (an illness caused when the body is attacked by its own immune system). It is hereditary, which means it runs in families. When people living with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their bodies’ immune responses cause damage to the small intestine. If the lining of the small intestine is damaged, the body cannot absorb nutrients properly. An estimated one in 100 people worldwide are affected by this disorder. A child with a parent or sibling with celiac disease has a one-in-10 risk of developing it.

Common symptoms of celiac disease for young people are diarrhea, weight loss or difficulty gaining weight, abdominal cramps, poor appetite, constipation and fatigue.

Treatment of celiac disease includes a gluten-free diet. Your friend is partly correct. Many more people without celiac disease are going “gluten-free”; a sixth-grader in one of my classes last year told me her entire family’s diet was gluten-free, as well as her extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Three girls who were her friends announced they were also eating a gluten-free diet. I asked if they knew what that meant and was surprised when they declared they actually had no idea, but they ate what their friends ate at school and whatever they wanted at home. Gluten-free appears to be the “diet of the month”.

Your friend is also incorrect, however. People dealing with celiac disease genuinely need to avoid gluten. Their health depends on it. Eating gluten-free allows the intestine to heal.

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. Gluten acts as a glue holding foods together and helping them maintain their shapes. Gluten is in many different types of foods. Reading labels will help you understand if gluten was used in food preparation. Eating fresh produce and meats and avoiding processed foods helps. Be careful when selecting packaged food mixes, lunch meats, sausages, instant cocoa or canned soups.

Some examples of starch-containing foods that are naturally gluten-free are rice, corn, soy, potato, beans, quinoa, kasha, arrowroot, flax and nut flours.

The popularity of gluten-free diets will be helpful if you are dealing with celiac disease. Most restaurants offer gluten-free selections, and most grocery stores have gluten-free sections. Many people find adhering to a gluten-free diet decreases negative symptoms and improves their health.

Good luck with communicating with your mom, with diagnosis, and with treatment if you are affected by the disorder.



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