Celiac and Obesity – Is There a Connection?

Celiac disease is a far more common condition among the general population of the United States than is commonly realized. It is a widely held belief that celiac disease is closely linked to malnutrition. Most celiac are underweight. As a result, if you are suffering from obesity, most doctors do not care to check for celiac disease. But, recent researches have shown that there are definite links between celiac disease and obesity. It is necessary to understand the basics of both to identify this link.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a type of autoimmune disease. Its characteristics are as follows:

  • Celiac disease is an extreme form of gluten intolerance found in some people. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other wheat products. Some people are intolerant of gluten. They cannot digest it properly.
  • If you are gluten intolerant and still eat gluten, your body will have an immunological reaction. Antibodies are released in the body which damages the villi. The villi are small finger like projections present in the wall of the small intestine. They are richly supplied with blood vessels. As the food is processed in the small intestine, the nutrients are released. These nutrients are absorbed by the blood vessels through the villi.
  • Celiac disease is an extreme form of gluten intolerance. You can get this disease at any point of time in your life, though people with a family history of celiac are at a higher risk. There is no known cure of celiac disease. However, you can avoid the symptoms by eating a strictly gluten free diet.
  • Since the villi are damaged in celiac disease, it is commonly supposed that celiac disease leads to malnutrition. The villi become rounded and short and cannot absorb nutrients efficiently. Hence, people with celiac disease are underweight and suffer from malnutrition.

Celiac disease and obesity – the link

Till recently, celiac disease and obesity were thought to be unrelated. However, the following studies have been found other evidence:

In 2006, Dr. William Dickey published a paper in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. In this paper, he concluded that of all the celiac patients he tested; only five percent were underweight. This same study found that 39% of these patients were overweight and 13% were obese. Hence, it can be said that obesity is far more common in celiac patients than malnutrition.

Another study was undertaken in the Celiac disease center in the University of Columbia. The study was conducted from 1981 to 2007 and examined 369 patients who were proven to be suffering from celiac disease. Several rigorous testing procedures were applied. The study showed that malnutrition was a common condition, especially in females with high incidence of diarrhea as a symptom of celiac disease. But at the same time, it was also found that quite a percentage of the celiac patients – mostly male – were obese. When a rigorous gluten free diet was followed, it was seen that while those patients with low BMI attained the normal range, 50% of those who were obese also attained normal BMI.

Conclusions about celiac disease and obesity

The mechanism of celiac disease itself is not well understood. It is definitely an extreme form of gluten intolerance. It can develop at any time of life. It is not clearly understood how you can gradually develop celiac disease though those with a family history of gluten intolerance are more vulnerable.

The link between gluten intolerance and obesity is even less understood. It is supposed that since the villi become flat and round shaped, the blood vessels fail to properly absorb the necessary nutrients. Your body does not get enough nutrients. This sends a false signal to the hypothalamus of the brain. The hypothalamus secretes a hormone called leptin. This hormone instructs you when to eat more or less. As the nutrient absorption is disturbed by the celiac disease, wrong signals are sent to the hormone leptin. This leads to false eating patterns and obesity is the result.

However, since malnutrition and deficiency disorders are far more common problems associated with celiac disease, if you visit your doctor with obesity, you are not likely to be checked for celiac disease. The link between obesity and celiac disease is not widely accepted even now. However, if you are having recurrent bouts of unexplained illnesses like diarrhea, rashes, allergies, itching, and pain in throat, swelling and you are obese, and then you can try the gluten free diet for some time.

A gluten free diet is one where you will have to eliminate all those foods, beverages and cosmetics which may contain gluten. Any items containing gluten like wheat, rye, barley, oats etc are strictly off limits. If you follow this diet for two to three months and see an immediate improvement in these conditions, then you should know that you probably have celiac disease and your obesity is also a direct result of that.