The gluten-free diet has been called the low-carb diet of the decade. The diet intended for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is being intensely hyped by celebrities, athletes and the weight loss industry. However, a new study found that most people with celiac disease aren’t on a gluten-free diet and most people who do go gluten free have no medical reason for doing so.
Gluten intolerance and celiac disease
The media spectrum is full of stories about celebrities and athletes who have been transformed by getting rid of gluten in their diet. Increased public awareness of celiac disease has cast a negative light on gluten, the protein in wheat, barley and rye flour that gives raw dough a taffy-like texture.
It’s been estimated that about one percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease, a severe allergy triggered by gluten that damages the small intestine and inhibits absorption of nutrients from food. Other people suffer from a less serious gluten sensitivity that causes abdominal distress and fatigue.
A blood test is used to diagnose celiac disease. Gluten intolerance may be diagnosed if bloating and diarrhea are the usual result of consuming gluten after celiac disease has been ruled out. Meanwhile, more gluten-free products are becoming available on supermarket shelves and more people are buying into the trend.
Gluten the new popular villain
The gluten-free diet is a fad that won’t last, according to celiac researchers Antonio Di Sabatino, MD and Gino Roberto Corazza, MD. In an essay published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers from Italy’s University of Pavia addressed the hype about gluten-free eating.
“Claims [about gluten-free diets] seem to increase daily, with no adequate scientific support to back them up,” they write. “This clamor has increased and moved from the Internet to the popular press, where gluten has become the new diet villain.”
A classic fad diet
Apparently the hype is reaching the wrong people. According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, about 1.6 million people in the U.S. on a gluten-free diet haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease. Ironically, about 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, but around 1.4 million of them are unaware that they have it.
In a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, Joseph Murray, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist, wrote, “There are a lot of people on a gluten-free diet, and it’s not clear what the medical need for that is. It is important if someone thinks they might have celiac disease that they be tested first before they go on the diet.”
More gluten irony
Most people who are going gluten-free are doing so to lose weight. Gluten-free is low carb because wheat flour is the main source of carbs in the Western diet. Dr. Peter Green, director of Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center in New York, told ABC News that most celiac and gluten sensitivity patients who stop eating gluten products actually gain weight, since avoiding gluten helps their digestive systems to work better.
It’s all in their heads
The benefits of a gluten-free diet for the general population could be mostly psychological, according to Tricia Thompson, R.D., a Massachusetts-based dietitian and founder of glutenfreedietitian.com. She told Eating Well that when people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance go gluten-free, “they do feel better and more energetic, but that’s only because they were feeling so sick before.” She added that without a medical reason for following a gluten-free diet, “there’s probably no benefit.”