The new fad in diet and nutrition is clear: go gluten-free. Everyone from popular food bloggers to best selling cookbooks like Danielle Walker’s Against All Grains, tout complete elimination of gluten from one’s diet. Health-conscious grocery stores devote whole sections to gluten-free foods, and restaurants pride themselves on offering creative gluten-free options. Gluten-free pasta, gluten-free cookies, gluten-free crackers… The marriage of elevated costs of gluten free products and gluten-free packaging as an effective marketing strategy seems to have created a corporate interest, fueling the industry. You can commonly spot a gluten-free label on food items naturally without gluten, such as frozen vegetables and potato chips. In addition, grain-free advocates, such as Dr. David Perlmutter a board certified neurologist and fellow of The American College of Nutrition, present research demonstrating the improvement of conditions ranging from insomnia to Alzheimer’s when grains (and thus gluten) are eliminated from the diet. These marketing strategies and popular endorsements affect the subconscious decision making process of consumers.
So, does going gluten-free end all of our dietary problems? Should you rid your pantry of every comfort food you love, from fresh bread to pasta, crackers, and more? For people diagnosed with celiac disease, the answer resounds with a clear “yes”. Celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder, causes gluten peptides to pass through the gut cell barrier from one side to the other intact, leading our bodies to react to them as a foreign ‘invader.’1 For these people, the consumption of gluten leads to an immune response which attacks the gut linings preventing the body from properly absorbing nutrients and causing intense gastrointestinal discomfort. Current estimates show that celiac disease affects roughly 1 in 133 people in the U.S. Untreated celiac disease may lead to serious medical problems, ranging from anemia, multiple sclerosis, neurological conditions, intestinal cancers, and more.2 If your medical provider suspects celiac disease, the diagnosis can be confirmed through an endoscopic biopsy.
Importantly, negative reaction to gluten consumption does not equal a diagnosis of celiac disease. Discomfort after gluten consumption can indicate a non-celiac gluten sensitivity (commonly referred to as “gluten sensitivity”). An estimated 18 million Americans display gluten sensitivity, compared to about 2.5 million Americans with celiac disease.3 Currently, no diagnostic tests exist to reliably prove gluten sensitivity. Anecdotal evidence espousing the success of gluten elimination diets can be found online in impressive quantities, in print, and even on T.V. Symptoms that suggest gluten sensitivity include gastrointestinal discomfort, weight loss, “foggy brain,” frequent headaches, and rough skin. If this is the case, discuss your symptoms with your medical provider.
What about the other 300 million Americans without clinically diagnosable gluten sensitivity or celiac disease? Unfortunately, there is no panacea. Going gluten-free does not magically solve all of your medical problems, though the current trend may lead you to believe otherwise. The medical community currently agrees that strict avoidance of gluten provides no identifiable benefits for the average American not sensitive to or allergic to gluten. Traditionally advocated by most nutritionists, diets geared toward long-term positive health incorporate freshly prepared foods, vegetables, and whole grains.4 Many experts warn that gluten-free diets should only be adopted if you are diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, in part because gluten-free products often contain much higher sugar and fat content to increase palatability.5 Without proper guidance, a gluten-free diet may contradict the original plan of eating healthier.