Cheating on the Gluten-Free Diet

Eating pizza

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If you have celiac disease but you don't get any symptoms from eating gluten, you might wonder if you can cheat on the diet without any major health repercussions down the road. Unfortunately, cheating has the potential to really harm your health, even if you don't feel immediate effects from it.

If your doctor diagnosed you, then you certainly have celiac disease ​(regardless of symptoms) ... and that means your small intestine was actually physically damaged because you were eating gluten, even though you didn't have noticeable celiac disease symptoms.

Celiac Without Symptoms Is Surprisingly Common

It's not that unusual these days to get diagnosed without major symptoms—in fact, one 2006 study showed that 20% of diagnosed celiacs were asymptomatic at the time their conditions were discovered.

It's possible to begin to show symptoms once you've been diagnosed, even if you didn't have them before—as some who cheat on the diet will tell you, your symptoms often get worse once you've gone gluten-free. But it's also possible that you'll never be able to tell if you've ingested gluten.

Nonetheless, having the condition (even without symptoms) means you're at risk for all sorts of complications of celiac disease, including osteoporosis, malnutrition, infertility and several different types of cancer, including a type of aggressive lymphoma that's linked to celiac disease.

Do you really want to risk it? Really?

What About Just a Little Cheating?

Following a strict gluten-free diet can be a major pain—believe me, I know! So it's certainly tempting to cheat if you don't notice any symptoms when you do—lots of people are tempted to cheat even when they know they'll pay for it the next day.

But if you cheat on your diet, even a few times a month, your intestines will stay damaged, and you'll remain at high risk for all those other scary conditions I listed above.

It's possible (although admittedly unlikely) that your first warning sign of unnoticed damage from cheating could be a cancer diagnosis. It's more likely that you will eventually notice celiac disease symptoms, although they may be more neurological than digestive in nature — that's something I've seen fairly frequently. You might also wind up with osteoporosis, or with another autoimmune disease.

What Are the Risks?

There's no way to know. You could get a serious condition that you wouldn't have gotten if you had followed the gluten-free diet more carefully. But it's also possible that you could live a long life eating gluten and never get cancer or any of the other conditions associated with celiac disease. It's a gamble.

Yes, the gluten-free diet can be difficult to follow, and there are many reasons celiacs give for eating gluten. But there's an abundance of new gluten-free products on the market, including good gluten-free beer, fun gluten-free pretzels and many different varieties of gluten-free pizza.

Also, more restaurants are becoming gluten-savvy, and many are providing gluten-free menus. So sticking to the diet isn't as tough as it used to be, and it could be one of the best things you can possibly do for your future health.

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  1. Goddard CJ, Gillett HR. Complications of coeliac disease: are all patients at risk?Postgrad Med J. 2006;82(973):705-712. doi:10.1136/pgmj.2006.048876

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