Gluten-free for Older Adults: A Trend or a Necessity?

In recent years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of going gluten-free.  Social media touts the health benefits and food labels can add to the confusion.  When caring for older adults, it’s important to ask, “Is this just a trend or a medical necessity?”

For some older adults, gluten-free dining is the only proven treatment for celiac disease.  Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disease that damages the small intestine.  It is diagnosed in elders, over the age of 55, at two times the average of other age groups.


Long Term Health Complications

Celiac disease impacts the digestive system by destroying villi in the small intestine. Villi are small finger-like structures that are responsible for adsorbing all the nutrients to help fuel the body, brain and immune system.  No matter how much healthy food the elder eats, they are at considerable risk for malnutrition.  Complications of poor nutrition include fatigue, anemia, depression and anxiety, weight loss and decreased mobility, disturbance of balance control, memory loss and accelerated dementia.

Healing Foods

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and some other grains.  Completely removing gluten from the diet will stop damage to the small intestine and improve nutritional status. Individuals following a gluten-free diet can still enjoy a variety of foods and beverages. 

With a few modifications, elders can still enjoy many of their favorite foods and beverages at mealtime.


Try these tips for serving a well-balanced gluten-free diet:

✓   Serve a variety of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables.

✓   Lean meat, poultry, eggs, fish and seafood is gluten-free in the natural form. 
      Avoid breading or batters that contain wheat flour.

✓   Include milk, yogurt, cheese and other low- fat dairy products, as they are
     naturally gluten-free. Check labels on processed foods to be sure.

✓   Beans, seeds, soy, nuts and nut butters are gluten-free. Include these plant-
      based proteins for added health benefits.

✓   Choose alternatives to wheat flour; try rice, quinoa, potato, bean or soy flour.

✓   Serve plenty of beverages to prevent dehydration and improve digestion.  Good
      choices are water, fruit or vegetable juice, milk, soy or almond milk, and coffee
      or tea. 

✓   Season foods with onion, garlic, ginger, herbs, spices, vinegar, mustard, salt or pepper
      for added flavor and aroma.

✓   Check food labels for gluten-free designation.  Do not serve foods containing
      wheat, rye, barley, or other gluten-containing grains.

Diagnosing Celiac Disease

Symptoms of celiac disease can mimic many other conditions and may include digestive upset, fatigue, bone or join pain, arthritis, seizures and dermatitis.  If you suspect celiac disease, work with the elder’s health care provider.  Screening and diagnosis can be done with a simple blood test.

Unfortunately,  there is no cure for celiac disease, but symptoms can be managed and damage may be repaired with a diet free of all gluten.  If you care for elders with celiac disease, its imperative to train staff in preparing gluten-free meals.  Learn which foods can still be a part of a healthy, balanced diet. Elders will appreciate the extra effort by their caregivers and enjoy their meals more.


National Institute of Health. Celiac Disease. NIDDK. June 2016. Web. 13 Jan. 2017.

Chef Beth Scholer, CC, CDM, CFPP, is a food scientist, culinary instructor, author and founder of Caregivers Kitchen. She is passionate about empowering caregivers to make positive nutritional changes and mealtime meaningful for those in their care.   She can be reached at