• Wed, Aug 1 2012

We’ll Say It Again: Eating Gluten-Free Is Not A Fad Or A Scam

gluten free is not a fad

Oh, America. You just can’t seem to stem your incredulity at the increasing popularity of gluten-free eating, can you? A new article out from the Associated Press trods the same tired idea that gluten-free eating is a trendy fad, a scam people are buying into on the premise of healthier eating. But going gluten-free is not a trend, nor a scam: it’s a way of living that has improved the lives and health of lots of American eaters.

The article says:

Faddishness is a big part of it [gluten-free eating]. Americans will spend an estimated $7 billion this year on foods labeled gluten-free, according to the market research firm Mintel. But the best estimates are that more than half the consumers buying these products – perhaps way more than half – don’t have any clear-cut reaction to gluten.

So that means people who haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease (an autoimmune disease triggered by eating gluten, the main protein found in wheat) shouldn’t eat gluten-free items? I don’t see anything wrong with that.

It does seem like there’s some concern that consumers are buying gluten-free to lose weight or be healthier. I agree that a gluten-free diet is not really a great weight loss strategy, but I don’t think this is a case of people blindly following the crowd: I think this is a case of people actually, finally realizing that the food they’ve been eating has been making them feel like crap. And there are some doctors who agree.

In an essay published earlier this year in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Dr. Antonio Di Sabatino and Dr. Gino Roberto Corazza disputed the increase of gluten-free eating, saying that it’s largely a waste of money. They claim that:

Considerable debate about nonceliac gluten sensitivity has recently surfaced on the Internet, with a sharp increase in forums, patients or patient groups, manufacturers, and physicians advocating a gluten-free diet. Claims seem to increase daily, with no adequate scientific support to back them up.

I tested negative for celiac disease, but I do have a gluten sensitivity, so I eat about 80% gluten-free. That may seem “convenient” or “trendy” to some people, but that’s the diet that works for me. I can eat wheat products a few times a week and feel fine, but if I eat lots of cookies, crackers or breads over a short time, my stomach makes its discomfort known through nausea, gas, bloating and other gross, uncomfortable symptoms. Cutting back on processed gluten foods is THE ONLY thing that’s worked for me.

I’m only one of thousands and thousands of people who know that gluten-free eating has changed their bodies (and quality of life) for the better. This is not a fad. It’s a health revolution, of sorts. Dr. Alessio Fasano of the University of Maryland Baltimore County estimates that 6 percent of adults in the United States have gluten sensitivity. Nearly 2 million Americans have celiac disease, and doctors think the number continues to go up because the condition was wildly underdiagnosed over the last few decades.  But why are so many people suffering from celiac disease and gluten sensitivity?

Scientists suggest that there may be more celiac disease today because people eat more processed wheat products like pastas and baked goods than in decades past, and those items use types of wheat that have a higher gluten content. Gluten helps dough rise and gives baked goods structure and texture.

It could also be due to changes made in the actual structure of our American wheat. The wheat we eat today is not the same wheat that our grandparents were eating:

In the 1950s, scientists began cross-breeding wheat to make hardier, shorter and better-growing plants. It was the basis of the Green Revolution that boosted wheat harvests worldwide. Norman Borlaug, the U.S. plant scientist behind many of the innovations, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

When I was in Europe last summer, I ate a mixture of gluten-free items and items containing gluten. My digestive symptoms were almost nonexistent, even on the days I ate full pasta dinners and big Italian pastries. Why? Well, I can speculate that it’s because the wheat products I ate in Italy consisted of a different, better quality wheat than that eaten here in the US. But all I know for sure is that I felt better than I would have across the pond, eating similar foods.

And to me, that’s what really matters here. Whether or not the effects of not eating gluten are imagined, whether or not people are wasting their money on gluten-free items, whether or not you think gluten-free eating is just another healthy eating fad, the bottom line is that lots of people actually benefit from a gluten-free diet. Whether they’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or not, I don’t see what’s trendy about Americans taking control of their health and their diets.

Photo: Shutterstock 

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  • elenor

    It cracks me up that a gluten-free diet is usually associated with weight loss when it is in the media. I have celiac and when I was diagnosed and went on a gluten free diet I actually GAINED weight because my intestines healed and I was able to absorb all the nutrients in the food I ate. I think a lot of people with celiac have the same experience. I was able to lose the weight I gained by eating a gluten free diet in the coming years by cutting out a lot of grains and carbs (not just the wheat/rye/barley) and eating mostly vegetables and a little fruit, protein, and good fats. But I wouldn’t say the weight loss was becuase of my gluten-free diet!