In recent years, the term “gluten-free” has spread like wildfire. In the United States, celiac disease affects about 1 percent of the population. Gluten sensitivity, a more mild condition, affects 5 to 10 times as many. And increasingly, people with no intolerance to gluten at all are eliminating it from their diet in efforts to be healthier or lose weight. But what accounts for this rise population that is gluten sensitive, and is it really a healthy diet mechanism for those without any health issues with gluten?
Gluten is a compound composed of two proteins, gliadin and glutelin, bound together by a carbohydrate. And what is gluten free food? It is found not only in grains like wheat, rye and barley, but it is also disguised in things like candy, deli meat and potato chips.
In celiac disease, the body attacks gluten as if it were a foreign invader, which damages the intestinal lining and can lead to malabsorption of vitamins and minerals. This can lead to abdominal discomfort, nutrient deficiencies and an increased risk of intestinal cancer. Celiac disease is detected through blood tests or biopsies.
There is also a more mild condition called gluten sensitivity that refers to many different forms of gluten intolerance. The only way to know if you’re affected by this condition is to eliminate gluten and determine if your symptoms get better or worse.
One reason gluten sensitivity seems to be rising is because of detection bias—“The more aware and concerned the health care community is about any given health condition, the more we tend to look for it. The more one looks for any given condition, the more one tends to find it,” said David Katz, M.D. Only recently have health professionals been considering gluten sensitivity as a widespread problem and increasingly been testing for it. Additionally, there have been studies using blood that prove the rates of celiac disease have risen over decades.
So, for those that have no sensitivity to gluten, is going gluten-free really going to help with weight loss? According to Dr, Katz, the answer is not really. “It might [lead to weight loss], but only because avoiding gluten means avoiding a lot of foods, which in turn tends to mean reducing calorie intake,” he says. “That lowering calories leads to weight toss is less than an epiphany.”
Katz argues that while going gluten-free is easier nowadays due to better labeling and more products, it is still a challenge as gluten is found many packaged foods “under a wide variety of aliases.” (You can find more information about hidden sources of gluten on Julie Deardoff’ Chicago Tribune Health Blog). Additionally, he warns, eliminating whole grains like wheat and barley from your diet could lead to decreased fiber intake and worsen the quality of your overall diet.
In summary, for those with a real sensitivity to gluten, going gluten-free is definitely doable and worth it, and it may be even vital to do so. For the rest of the population that is drawn to this weight-loss fad, it is a diet restriction that will make your life harder and is not necessarily a healthier choice, but rather is simply the latest fad diet.
I’ve written extensively about celiac disease and gltuen sensitivities (both are clinically different), as well as detoxification from food intolerance’s.