How Common Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease, aka gluten enteropathy, affects one of every 133 Americans, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.  That’s much more common than we thought a couple decades ago.  Read about celiac disease symptoms and physical signs at or the NDDIC link.

I read a few paleo diet/lifestyle blogs regularly.  In case you didn’t know, paleo diet advocates shun wheat and other grains.  Recent paleo converts often report how this or that symptom or physical condition improved when the dieter “went paleo,” often attributing the improvement to cutting out wheat products.   Wheat contains a protein—gluten—that causes disease in people who have celiac disease.  Other sources of gluten are barley and rye.

Visit WebMD for details about celiac disease:

Click to see one definition of the paleo diet:

An article in the Wall Street Journal implies that star tennis player Novak Djokovic’s recent winning streak is attributable to a gluten-free (and low-carb) diet.  Click for details: 

Here are Dr. Barbara Berkeley’s thoughts on Djokovic:

Or is Djokovic playing so well because of the CVAC pod?:

If cutting out wheat from your diet improves or resolves bothersome medical symptoms, it makes me wonder if you have celiac disease.  Other possible explanations include placebo effect and coincidence.  And if you switch from a standard American diet to paleo, you’re doing more than just eliminating gluten.

I reviewed several sources for the prevalence of celiac disease in the U.S.  The best figure is one of every 133 residents. 

Most countries have a prevalence of roughly one of every 350 citizens.  Prevalence varies by country and ancestry; celiac disease is at least twice as common in whites of northern European lineage.

Full-blown classic celiac disease is relatively easy for doctors to recognize, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Adults more commonly have one or two milder, nonspecific manifestations such as fatigue, malaise, depression, malnutrition (especially low iron, folate, or vitamin D), neuropathy, belly pain, headaches, thin bones, diarrhea, or a rash.  I’m glad to see increasing physician and public awareness of gluten intolerance.  If it’s not considered as a cause of these symptoms, it’ll never be diagnosed and treated appropriately.

Celiac disease is being diagnosed more often because of the availability of blood tests that help us screen for it.  If you think you have celiac disease, consider getting one of two blood tests: IgA antibodies to tissue transglutaminase, or IgA endomysial antibodies.  If that test is positive and symptoms or physical signs suggest celiac disease, the next step is usually a small bowel biopsy.

Steve Parker, M.D.

Update August 31, 2011: Tom Naughton reviewed Dr. William Davis’ new book, Wheat Belly, yesterday.  In the book, Dr. Davis notes that modern wheat varieties are vastly different from their ancient ancestors, different even than wheat of 50 years ago.  The modern varieties apparently contain much more of the gluten proteins that trigger immunologic celiac symptoms. 

Update September 13, 2011: A recent study of adult type 1 diabetics at a U.K. teaching hospital found celiac disease in three of every hundred cases.

References: (about one in a hundred US residents affected), University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center (one in 133 Americans affected), and (one in 3000 (sic) North Americans affected), (in most countries, one in 350 have celiac disease), National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (one in 133 in U.S.).


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7 responses to “How Common Is Celiac Disease?

  1. Pingback: How Common Is Celiac Disease? | Low Carb Daily

  2. Helen

    I stopped eating wheat about three years ago after reading Gary Taubes “Good Calories, Bad Calories”. I had a few relapses but basically managed to eliminate every chronic symptom that had plagued me my entire life. If took two and a half years for me to link the two. I guess that means the placebo effect wasn’t responsible. Stomach problems, skin problems and joint problems have all disappeared. I will NEVER make wheat a part of my diet again and can’t emphasize enough how miraculous the transition was….

    • Helen, I’m so glad you got better. In your case, there’s probably no need for a celiac blood test to convince you not to eat wheat! You might want to be sure your progeny know about this issue, since it could be heritable.


  3. Emily Deans

    I agree that celiac is especially egregious, however, more and more data is coming out like this study (a very well-designed RCT of gluten-free vs gluten for patients with IBS sx – GF wins but no one can figure out why, pathology wise, despite some heroic efforts):

    In my own case, gluten gives me no GI symptoms whatsoever, but I do have to say that when I do cheat and have a few slices of pizza, or some breaded something-or-other, I will very often get a spot of acne the next day, or a bit of eczema under my rings. This finding has been repeated several times in the year and a 1/3 that I have been mostly gluten-free. I don’t think it is placebo (though you never know) or coincidence.

    For my part, I find it interesting that we can’t find a truly healthy population that eats gluten (other than the Swiss who ate the rye sourdough) – and I don’t see the downside to taking it out of the diet if you aren’t a big bread or pasta fan (I’m not.)

    For the majority of the population (excluding celiac, where micromolar hits of gluten are detrimental) the dose makes the poison, along with the inflammatory response But yes, the evidence is mostly circumstantial 🙂

  4. I was a big bread and pasta eater, but gave them up to lose weight. I wasn’t picking on wheat or grain products in particular — just on high-carb foods. At first, my attention was on weight-loss, so it took me a while to realize my digestion had improved. Something I used to eat but not longer do had been negatively affecting my GI-tract for years. I suppose it could be potatoes or rice, but I think it is most likely wheat. The more I read about wheat/gluten intolerance, the more it sounds like me. I’d say my intolerance is relatively mild, more irritating than debilitating, but I’m glad to be rid of it.

    • Hi, Jim. Good to hear from you.
      Since I cut way back on wheat in 2009, I notice when I do eat a wheat serving such as a dinner roll that it gives me a stuffed feeling (in my stomach), out of proportion to the size or calories in the serving. I think it’s real. Not a big deal, just curious. Avoiding carbs such as wheat helps me manage my weight.


  5. One out of every thirty three out of three hundred million people in the united states alone is quite a a lot of people!