It seems like everyone is going gluten-free—your best friend, your mom, your neighbor, the entire Internet. Supermarket shelves are lined with products touting the label, restaurants are offering gluten-free options, and online blogs and recipes abound. So, what’s the deal? If so many people are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon, there must be something to it, right? Let’s see what the research says.
What is Gluten, Anyways?
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten is a name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. It acts as a glue to help foods maintain their shape, and can be found in foods like breads, soups, pastas, cereals, beer, food coloring, and a wide range of other food products.
For a small percentage of the population, about 1%, eating gluten can be catastrophic. Those with Celiac Disease absolutely cannot tolerate gluten, even in small amounts. Just a bite of the ingredient can cause abdominal bloating and diarrhea, but worse, it can trigger an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine, ultimately preventing the absorption of nutrients from food. This leads to serious symptoms like osteoporosis, infertility, nerve damage, and seizures. Another relatively small portion of the population, about 5.7%, suffers from gluten sensitivity, which can generate similar symptoms without the intestinal damage For this 6 or 7% of the population, the gluten-free “fad” is a blessing. But what does this mean for the rest of us?
The Gluten-Free Diet: Just a Fad?
If only less than 7% of the American population suffers from a mild to severe gluten sensitivity, why is it that gluten-free diets have become such a sensation? It may have something to do with all of the articles and talk show hosts out there insisting that avoiding gluten can help you lose weight, fight infertility, overcome fatigue, treat diabetes, and even reduce the symptoms of autism. But, there isn’t really any scientific evidence to back up these claims.
Time Magazine would argue that big money has something to do with it: U.S. sales of “gluten-free” products have skyrocketed in the past four years. Products that never contained gluten to begin with have recently started marketing themselves as “gluten-free” to encourage dieters to buy their product. Unfortunately for the American population, unless you suffer from Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, a gluten-free diet will not benefit you.
Something to Consider
One of the problems with the gluten-free diet is that it is extremely challenging to follow—in order to avoid gluten you must either cut out entire food groups, or opt for gluten-free alternatives. In both scenarios, you could be missing out on necessary vitamins and nutrients, and you probably won’t be getting enough dietary fiber. Fortified cereals and breads are a huge source of B vitamins, and while there are now many gluten-free alternatives for those products, most are not fortified. So, if you believe you have gluten sensitivity, contact your doctor and consult with a dietician to ensure you are properly treated.
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