Twenty percent of Americans have either completely eliminated or cut back on their gluten intake according to a study published in JAMA in 2016. However, gluten-free products weren’t designed for dieters or health conscious people looking for the latest solution to their digestive issues. They were made for people with Celiac disease, a condition that affects just .01 percent of people worldwide.
Gluten is a type of protein found in a lot of staple foods like wheat and rye. Most people don’t seem to have any problem with it, as pasta and bread-lovers can attest.
However, people with Celiac disease can’t digest gluten properly. In fact, eating it triggers a dangerous immune response that damages the small intestine. In order to protect their digestive systems and absorb all the nutrients they need, people with celiac disease have to avoid gluten altogether.
The study published in JAMA showed that in the U.S., the occurrence of Celiac disease was pretty between 2009 and 2014. Just about .77 percent of the 22,278 Americans surveyed had the disease. And yet, people who ate gluten-free tripled during the same time period.
Why are So Many More People Banning Gluten from Their Pantries and Their Plates?
Although there aren’t any clear answers, there are top 5 reasons more people are going gluten-free.
1. To Treat Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)
Although most doctors haven’t recognized NCGS as a real condition, many people believe that they are sensitive to gluten, although not in the same way people with Celiac disease are.
Gluten sensitivity triggers an immune response, but people who suffer from it don’t have the same genetic markers as Celiac disease, and their immune systems don’t attack their small intestines in the same way. Instead, they experience a variety of symptoms, such as bloating, headaches, diarrhea, and even energy levels.
Despite skepticism, new research indicates gluten sensitivity is a real condition. A small study of 80 people who are sensitive to gluten found that they had a weak intestinal barrier and that their immune systems really did respond to gluten, triggering their symptoms.
The study was small and there still aren’t any tests for NCGS, so more research is needed. However, it does provide some evidence for NCGS, and may explain why more people are choosing to eat gluten-free.
Still, this probably can’t account for the 20 percent of Americans that opt for gluten-free products. So there must be more to the picture.
2. To Lose Weight
Many people think going gluten-free will improve their health and may help them lose weight. When Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed over 1,000 Americans in 2014, 63 percent said eating gluten-free could improve their physical or mental health.
Since cutting out gluten necessarily means doing away with many high-calorie foods like bread, pasta, and many processed foods like pizza, cookies, and crackers, it has potential for weight loss.
In reality, however, doctors say people with Celiac disease who go gluten-free actually gain weight as they recover from their illness. As with many diets, whether you lose weight or eat healthily or not depends on each individual and the food choices they make.
Gluten-free products often have less fiber and fewer nutrients or vitamins and often substitute gluten for fat. They may also have just as much sugar or other ingredients you probably wouldn’t classify as healthy, like preservatives and food coloring.
Still, as long as you make sure you are getting all the vitamins, nutrients, and calories you need, there’s no reason going gluten-free can’t be healthy.
3. To Improve Mental Health
The Consumer Reports survey also showed many people think gluten may improve mental as well as physical health. In fact, it may be more likely to improve mental health in people with NGSC than help them lose weight.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, a studyby Dr. Jessica Biesiekierski actually showed no link between gluten and symptoms in people who think they have NCGS. However, people who believed they had NCGS still reported feeling worse when they ate gluten products. The catch? Researchers didn’t tell them which foods were gluten-free, and which weren’t. Yet somehow, they always felt worse with gluten.
Researchers think it’s because gluten can negatively affect mental health in some people, perhaps in the following ways:
- It could increase cortisol levels, a stress hormone.
- Gluten may influence a neurotransmitter important for regulating emotions, serotonin. In rat studies, wheat decreased serotonin.
- Gluten may create something called exorphins, which are similar to the endorphins your body naturally creates. Since they are so similar, they could affect the brain or the intestines.
- People with Celiac disease have different than people who don’t have the disease. It’s possible that it’s gluten itself that affects gut bacteria in some people, which in turn could affect mental health.
Whatever the case may be, some people report feeling much better after taking gluten out of their diets.
4. It’s Popular
Perhaps more people are choosing gluten-free products simply because celebrities have gone a long way to help with the branding – gluten-free is popular, so why not try it?
ABC News reports Zooey Deschanel, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Chelsea Clinton are among the many celebrities experimenting with a gluten-free diet. Their star influence goes a long way to promote the diet, especially Miley, who told her fans to “try no gluten for a week.”
It’s not just celebrities, though. Some well-known health experts, especially in the paleo movement, also advocate going gluten-free.
Just a decade ago, gluten intolerance was a lesser-known disease, but with the rise of the gluten-free diet fad, awareness has grown. Since gluten is in the spotlight, however, it also means more people opt for gluten-free products. Everyone else is doing it, right?
5. There’s More Demand, so there’re More Products, Which Means More Options
If you tried shopping for gluten-free food even ten years ago, you probably had to do quite a lot of searching. However, as people learned more about eating gluten-free and searched for a way to be healthier or cure mysterious symptoms, demand for gluten-free products grew, and kept growing.
According to Food Business News, 32 percent of millennials say they don’t mind paying more for great gluten-free food. Buying certainly supports the trend, with gluten-free purchases increasing 68 percent between 2012 and 2014.
Manufacturers recognized the growing market for gluten-free products and seized it. Now, they’re making millions, there are more options on the shelves, and more people who are willing to buy it, especially since there’re so many choices.
Gluten-free is a rather misunderstood diet, mostly because for some, it isn’t a “diet.” People with Celiac disease really need to eat this way.
For people who believe they’re sensitive to gluten, understanding why they have the symptoms they do and if gluten is really to blame is essential. Before you decide to eat gluten-free, you should always talk to your doctor. If you have symptoms, cutting out gluten might delay treatment, or it might even cover up some other, underlying condition. Some studies show it might not be gluten that causes symptoms in people with sensitivities, rather certain sugars in the intestine called FODMAPs.
Whatever you decide, the most important thing is to eat healthy foods that make you feel good about yourself, and improve your overall wellbeing.