Gluten - Casey Giltner


When it is and isn’t healthy to go gluten-free.

Store shelves, restaurant menus and even bakeries are rapidly evolving to include a myriad of gluten-free items, as sensitivities to the protein seem to be increasingly prevalent. Cutting out gluten has become as become a go-to for the treatment or prevention of certain diseases, general wellness and weight-loss. For some the change can be revolutionary in addressing their health concerns, for others it can be exceedingly challenging and garner little reward. When is going gluten-free good for you, and when should you scrap the substitutes?

The elimination of gluten is the standard treatment for those suffering from Celiac disease, a condition in which specific proteins found in wheat and some other grains cause the body to attack the wall of the small intestine, leading to GI distress and malabsorption of key nutrients. Once largely unrecognized, diagnosis of Celiac disease appears to be on the rise. The Mayo Clinic, one of the world’s largest celiac treatment and research centers, states that incidences of diagnosis have quadrupled since the 1950s. The Center for Disease Control found that 0.71% (1 in 141) people in a 2012 study suffered from the disease, yet the Mayo Clinic believes that only 1 in 5 people with Celiac have been diagnosed. Signs and symptoms include chronic diarrhea; anemia; itchy, blistery skin rash; headaches; fatigue; numbness and tingling in hands and feet; issues with balance; joint pain; acid reflux and heartburn and other maladies. Diagnosis of Celiac disease and the subsequent elimination of gluten-containing grains and the abundance of foods that include gluten-containing derivatives such as soy sauce and certain packaged food additives, can alleviate painful symptoms and allow sufferers to reclaim a life hampered by sometimes debilitating discomfort.

The recommendation of gluten-free diets is starting to extend past just celiac sufferers. Doctors are increasingly turning to dietary changes, including the elimination of gluten, for people suffering from auto-immune diseases and other difficult to treat disorders. Many people suffering from disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and fibromyalgia have found a reduction in pain, inflammation and other symptoms just by cutting out gluten. Dr. David Perlmutter, board-certified neurologist and Fellow of the American College of Nutrition, encourages parents of children diagnosed with ADHD to have them tested for gluten sensitivity, as “going gluten-free can lead to remarkable changes in a child’s behavior.”

It’s not just those suffering from medical issues that are turning to gluten-free lifestyles. In 2013, noted survey research company Nielsen reported that the percentage of households purchasing gluten-free goods more than doubled from its 2010 data collection, going from 5 percent to 11 percent. In the same year, sales of gluten-free foods soared to $10.5 billion, and Forbes Magazine predicts that number will reach $15 billion by 2016. Many of these people have seen reductions in headaches, gastrointestinal distress, and skin problems while seeing boosts in energy and mood. For some, the simple elimination of gluten-containing products makes a lasting difference on their overall health and wellness.

But is gluten the culprit in every case? “The number of people who are genuinely gluten sensitive cannot be growing as fast as the market niche is growing,” argues Michael Pollan, noted food writer and professor at University of California Berkeley. “There are people who feel better when they get off gluten, which may not have anything to do with the gluten." Pollan believes that dietary changes that often go along with the removal of gluten may play a role in how dieters feel. Those switching to a gluten-free lifestyle on a quest for better health often adopt a whole host of healthier habits that may also have a positive impact their health. It’s often hard for people to pinpoint if they feel better because they removed gluten or because they are eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing the intake of refined carbohydrates and the subsequent blood sugar spikes and crashes, or focusing more on protein intake.

Besides healthier living, one of the main reasons people seem to be adopting gluten-free diets is weight loss. While eliminating gluten in the form of processed, refined grains – white pastas, cookies, cakes, pastries – can lead to healthier dietary changes, swapping the aforementioned products with a gluten-free counterpart may not lead to the kind of changes people want to see on the scale, or otherwise.

What many of these products lack in gluten, they make up for with a host of overly refined starches, gums and fillers. "You have to replace the gluten with something so the majority of processed gluten-free products are held together with oil, butter and eggs," claims Margaret Weiss, of the Kogan Celiac Center in Livingston, New Jersey. "They tend to be higher in fat, calories and sugar, and lower in fiber, vitamins and minerals." The swap not only inherently has more calories, but the lack of fiber and essential nutrients can lead to lower satiety and a faster digestive process, stimulating hunger sooner and potentially increasing overall daily caloric intake.

For food companies, the gluten-free trend is quite advantageous. Catalina Marketing, who analyzes consumer trends, observed that the average price of a grocery basket of a gluten-free shopper was approximately $100, a large leap in the $33 average of the typical consumer.

“There are truly people out there who need gluten-free foods for health reasons, but they are not the majority of consumers who are driving this market,” according to Virginia Morris of branding and consumer interaction firm Daymon Worldwide.

Today’s media and advertising industries rely heavily on buzz words and phrases that make a big impact and help drive consumer interest and choices. “Gluten” has become synonymous with unhealthy foods. In an effort to “eat better” and “live cleaner” many people are turning to gluten-free products for better health and weight loss. People interested in starting a gluten-free diet would likely benefit from a trip to their doctor to talk about signs and symptoms that they think may be related to gluten-sensitivity. For those who are concerned about weight, consulting a nutritionist before making dramatic dietary changes can often lead to more lasting results. Finding a plan that increases fruits, vegetables and whole grains may help move the scales a little more than simply cutting out gluten.