Gluten-Free Diet Q&A

What is a gluten-free diet and who is it best for?

Registered dietitians (RDs) and medical doctors recommend those with diagnosed celiac disease adhere to a gluten-free diet. Individuals with celiac disease suffer from a variety of symptoms, gastrointestinal and otherwise, whenever they consume gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley and (possibly) oat. It is an immune system response.

Even if a physician is able to rule out celiac disease, you can still suffer from a ‘gluten sensitivity.’ This is hard to prove or disprove because it is based on numerous non-specific symptoms such as gas, bloating and abdominal pain, headaches and skin conditions (without another likely cause)…even depression. If symptoms become less severe or disappear by following a gluten-free diet, it might be right for you. However, following a gluten-free diet is not easy and can be expensive. In addition, and gluten-free food products are not necessarily healthier, despite popular belief.

Why have gluten-free diets gained popularity within the past decade?

A combination of factors is likely responsible for the gluten-free diet’s popularity. The number of official diagnoses has increased significantly in the 10 to 12 years. This is mainly due to an increase in Celiac disease incidence and increased public awareness.

According to the University of Chicago, it is estimated that just over one in 130 individuals suffer from Celiac disease in the U.S., but twice as many individuals experience ‘related’ symptoms. Celiac disease runs in families, particularly among first degree relatives. Some [experts] believe that Celiac disease is related to our development and foods we ate when we were young. The theory is that some decades ago we were not exposed to certain antigens in the environment that are present today. In past years the environment/food supply was “cleaner” than it is now. Whether or not this is true, these theories are transmitted through media and appear in books, fueling the gluten-free diet rage.

Because of increased public awareness and diagnoses, bookstores, restaurants, supermarkets and products have followed suit, attempting to keep up with the demand by jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. There is also the celebrity trend angle. The gluten-free diet has become a popular venue (with celebrities) for promoting overall health, alleviating numerous ailments and aiding in weight loss. It is not a weight loss diet, however, celebrity diets tend to influence the public. Finally, there is the ‘eating gluten-free is healthier’ belief. At least 1/3 of those that purchase gluten-free products believe that they are actually healthier than conventional options. Gluten-free food products may be less nutrient-dense, lower in dietary fiber and higher in calories than their whole grain counterparts.