Celiac is an autoimmune disease, not an allergy. As I have delved into the many gluten-free blogs out there since my sister’s and my diagnoses, I have discovered that people don’t like saying they have a disease. In fact, they get quite passionate about the subject. One person wrote, “if you have a peanut allergy, do you say you have a disease? No. I am just allergic to gluten. I do not have a disease.” And while I understand the word disease does have negative connotations, to say that you have an allergy is quite misleading (although probably the quickest explanation to give to a waiter, or what have you.) The bodily response is quite different between the two.
This distinction becomes more important, if you are like me and fairly asymptomatic. I have a lot of people ask, “well, if you asymptomatic, will you go on the gluten-free diet?” If you have an allergy, this is a fairly reasonable question to ask. Mr. F. is allergic to carrots. They make his mouth itch a bit. Since it is a fairly mild reaction, most of the time he just ignores the itchy mouth and eats carrots any way. There is no permanent damage being done by his eating the occasional carrot. This is typical of an allergy--allergic reactions are immediate, occurring within seconds or up to several hours, and leaves no underlying damage (ignoring those extreme allergic reactions that can cause death.) Celiac, however, is not an allergy. It is an autoimmune disorder which means that the body attacks itself. In the case of Celiac, the body damages/destroys the villi of the small intestine--the components that enable a person to absorb nutrients. Regardless of the fact that I experience any sort of distress does not prevent my body from damaging itself when I ingest gluten. Over time, if I continue to eat gluten, I may find the my symptoms worsen. Or, I could become subjected to other conditions such osteoporosis, cancer, or other autoimmune disorders (Lupus, fibromyalgia, hypo/hyper-thyroidism, etc.) due to constant inflammation and an over-worked immune system. Or, I could just go along as is, not experiencing much of anything besides being tired and anemic.
To further confuse the issue, there are people who are just allergic or sensitive to gluten. They do not have celiac (since no damage is done to the small intestine), but they do have an allergic response to eating gluten.
In most scenarios, the distinction is not very necessary, and it is easier to state that you are just allergic to gluten since most people understand food allergies. The difference becomes necessary when people ask, “how much gluten can you ingest and still be o.k.” In that situation, it is akin to asking, “how many times can you break your arm before doing bodily injury?”
Hint: the answer is none.
For those of you who are interested, I have started a baking blog which follows my adventures in learning to bake gluten-free.