If an entire quarter of the population does something, is it still just considered a fad? According to USA Today, an astonishing 25% of us now consider ourselves intolerant to gluten. We forgo common food staples such as bread, pizza, and pasta in hopes of avoiding the harmful effects of gluten.
Gluten-Free is everywhere.
And the numbers keep rising: as of the latest collected data in 2013, the number of people is up significantly even from 2011 with no signs of slowing down. The rise has continued for more than five years now and the pace is accelerating, too.
Colleges now feature gluten-free diet food in their dining facilities. Are kids avoiding pizza in college? You bet. That alone signifies the strength of this so-called fad.
The market has quickly risen to the occasion: gluten-free products are everywhere too. It’s hard not to notice the abundance of items on grocery store shelves catering to the gluten-free folk. The gluten-free diet might now be the biggest of eating trends we’ve ever seen, rivaling the Atkins diet, the no-carb trend, and the fat-free craze of two decades ago.
But are that many people really unable to eat gluten?
Are we really so intolerant of gluten? Turns out the answer is more complex than most people realize. In fact, the gluten-free diet has sparked controversy both among doctors and the general public. To sort it all out, let’s take a look at the three ways people can be intolerant of gluten. They are, in order of severity of the intolerance:
- Wheat Allergy
- Gluten Intolerance
- Celiac Disease
The difference between the three conditions is pretty significant, and that’s where the confusion begins. While people who suffer the mildest problem (wheat allergies) are able to handle other gluten products like barley, people in the other two groups cannot. On the other end of the severity spectrum, people with celiac disease have some pretty serious internal issues should they ingest even the tiniest bit of gluten. For these people, we’re talking intestinal chaos and disruption of daily life.
Here’s what you can expect if you have any of the three gluten-intolerant conditions listed above…
There are actually three types of gluten intolerance.
You’ve heard of food allergies. They cause symptoms like like swelling in the mouth or throat, hives, congestion and when the allergy is severe, anaphylaxis. This can be life-threatening.
When someone with a wheat allergy comes into contact with wheat (which sometimes includes inhaling wheat flour!), his or her body produces an allergy-causing antibody. People with Celiac disease, on the other hand, suffer a full-blown immune system reaction… much more serious.
Wheat allergies are just that: allergic reactions to wheat. Glutens from other grains aren’t a problem. This is where a lot of the confusion comes into play. They must avoid wheat gluten but barley gluten, for example, is just fine.
What they need is a wheat-free diet, not the all-encompassing gluten-free diet, although both work just fine to exclude the allergens people with a wheat allergy must avoid.
It’s very easy to mistake any digestive-type problems for a wheat allergy. This happens a lot, too, simply because of the trendy nature of gluten-tolerant conditions and the popularity of the gluten-free diet.
Actual gluten intolerance is something that exists mostly in the public perception. It’s not an allergy like wheat allergies, and it’s not a disease like celiac disease. It’s simply the public perception that following a gluten-free diet makes you feel better.
You see, when people adopt a gluten-free diet, they’re giving up a lot that’s bad for them anyway, regardless of its gluten content. Look at the list of things that contain gluten (bread, pasta, beer, cake, gravy, sauce, crackers, cereal ) and you’ll see a lot of foods that cause problems for everyone, not just gluten-intolerant people.
People on a gluten-free diet are advised to stay away from processed foods because you just never know what’s in them that might contain gluten. There’s also the issue of cross-contamination: even foods that don’t contain gluten might have been processed in a facility where gluten-containing foods were present.
The problem is that while tests and studies have been performed to sort out what’s going on in this mysterious group of people who aren’t wheat-allergic nor do they have celiac disease, doctors still don’t know what’s going on.
It seems clear that some people do have problems with gluten. The rest, however, might actually have problems with other substances found in wheat products…sugar, for example.
What’s also clear is that there are some truly wacky claims on the internet:
- gluten makes people depressed (“pizza makes me sad!”)
- gluten gives you arthritis
- gluten gives you anxiety
Science may someday prove these connections to be true but for the moment it’s all speculation, scientifically speaking. The research that’s out there has been brought under the microscope and criticized for methodology concerns.
Celiac disease is real, but it affects only around 1% of the population. With all you hear in the media about this condition, you’d think it was much more prevalent. This is the one that’s probably underdiagnosed, however. Doctors aren’t quite up to speed on celiac disease despite the public’s so-called thorough knowledge of this condition. There are people out there walking out of doctors’ offices with diagnoses of irritable bowel syndrome, vitamin deficiencies, and psychological problems. Now they even think celiac disease is being misdiagnosed as autism in kids. The two are certainly interlinked.
So, what are we to make of all this?
Probably the most important thing to keep in mind is that celiac disease is the most underdiagnosed and the most severe of the three gluten conditions in our world. Secondly, remember that wheat allergy is rare and most likely overdiagnosed.
If a gluten-free diet makes you feel better, ask yourself one thing: is it really the avoidance of carbs, sugar, and chemicals found in processed food that’s making you feel better? Following a gluten-free diet is expensive, difficult, and annoying. Be sure it’s worth the effort!