February is American Heart Month and unfortunately, most of us know someone who has had aheart attack or stroke. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States; in fact one in every three deaths is from heart disease and stroke, equal to 2,200 deaths per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Also, more women die of heart disease than all forms of cancer combined, and CVD is the most common cause of death in patients with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. It can be difficult to detect, for example some of the symptoms can include: bloating/gas, diarrhea and/or constipation, fatigue/lethargy, joint pain, and headaches, all of which are common symptoms for many of us! But if you have one or more of these symptoms this does not mean you have a sensitivity to gluten or celiac disease. If you suspect that you have Celiac disease, you may want to get tested. It is important to note that one needs to be consuming gluten for accurate results. The first step would be to have a blood test to test for certain autoantibodies, which is a protein. If you test positive, an intestinal biopsy would need to be performed to confirm the diagnosis. Celiac disease is hereditary, so if a family member has been diagnosed, you may want to get tested too. Internationally, one-percent of the worldwide population has celiac. On the west coast of Ireland and Sub Sahara (Ethiopia) the statistics are slightly higher with 1 in 65 being diagnosed, and Northern China and India have a higher rate than the rest of Asia.
Recent findings show inflammation is a risk factor for atrial fibrillation (Afib), an irregular and often rapid heart rate, and there is a positive correlation between celiac and Afib, in both before and after diagnosis. Therefore, patients with celiac disease have an increased risk of Afib. If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease you are at a 19% increased risk for coronary heart disease, which is the narrowing of the coronary arteries. The reason for the inflammation and increased risk for celiac patients is unknown. One theory is that the increased risk may be related to poor dietary compliance. A gluten-free (GF) diet is not an easy diet to follow, unless you love to cook all your own meals! Let’s look at some of the issues with the GF diet.
Typically a wheat-based diet is naturally high in fiber and B-complex vitamins, and it offers great taste, variety and palatability. Wheat based foods are required by the FDA to be enriched or fortified with iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and folate. Specialty gluten-free products on the other hand are not required to be enriched or fortified, and these products do not typically offer all of the nutrients the body requires. GF products use starches that are dry, which causes foods to crumble; therefore the manufacturers add fat, sugar, salt, and palm oil to compensate for texture. So, compared to wheat-based products you receive an increase in fat and calories, and a decrease in fiber and B-complex vitamins, leading to nutrient deficiencies, increased risk of heart disease, and weight gain.
So if you have celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten I would suggest using a “food as medicine” approach to your diet. You should focus on WHOLE foods versus highly processed GF-free packaged foods, use nutrition-dense alternative ingredients, and learn some culinary skills for cooking with GF-free foods. Here are a few grains you may want to add to your GF diet. Buckwheat, a great source of protein, is high in fiber and a good source of B vitamins. Use it in soups, hot cereal, and pasta dishes (it has a nutty taste). Millet, which is one of the oldest grains, is high in magnesium, vitamin A, B-complex, and fiber (good as a side dish). If you can find millet flakes, you can eat them as a cereal or use for baking. Another great grain is quinoa, which is high in protein. In fact, it is very similar to the protein you get from milk. Also, quinoa is a good source of fiber, B-complex, and iron. Quinoa can be used as a side dish, in salads, for baking, and with pasta.
February is the month to focus on heart health. As you can see, if you have celiac this is even more of a challenge. I suggest you visit the CDC website at www.millionhearts.hhs.gov and take the “Million Hearts™ pledge”, which includes being physically active for at least 30 minutes most days of the week and knowing your ABCS. Ask your doctor if you should be taking Aspirin every day. Find out if you have high Blood pressure or Cholesterol, if you do, get effective treatment. Finally, if you Smoke, get help to quit. Everyone should strive to eat a heart-healthy diet, especially if you have celiac. This would include being aware of you calorie intake, including fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, and limit your sodium and trans fat intake. Also remember, if you need help with how to make these changes look for a Registered Dietitian, who is the best source of practical, affordable and credible food and nutrition information!