It seems as if everyone is going to great lengths to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and many processed foods. Are there real health benefits associated with going gluten-free, or is it just another passing fad?
A recently published study in the journal Digestion found that 86 percent of individuals whobelieved they were gluten sensitive could tolerate it. Individuals with celiac disease, a hereditary autoimmune condition that affects about 3 million Americans, or roughly 1 percent of the population, must avoid gluten. Those with extremely rare wheat allergies must also remove gluten from their diet. In addition, those with gluten sensitivity, a condition that affects 6 percent of the population (18 million individuals), should also avoid gluten.
That doesn't explain why an estimated 30 percent of shoppers are choosing "gluten-free" options, and 41 percent of U.S. adults believe "gluten-free" foods are beneficial for everyone, especially when many of those foods are often lower in nutrients and higher in sugars, sodium and fat than their gluten-free counterparts. And much of the growth in the category is coming from cookies, crackers, snack bars and chips.
Thanks in part to a lot of hype from gluten-free evangelists and celebrity wheat-bashing, many Americans are convinced they're "gluten-sensitive" and better off avoiding foods that contain it. "People want to believe that they are gluten intolerant because it's a way for them to avoid carbs, because they also think carbs make them fat," explains registered dietitian Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
To find out how many people are truly gluten-sensitive, researchers from the University of L'Aquila in Italy enrolled 392 patients who believed they had gluten sensitivity into a controlled clinical trial. All of the subjects were instructed to eat gluten-containing foods for two months before their initial diagnostic tests (blood tests and endoscopies, among others) to determine if they had celiac disease or a wheat allergy. All patients then followed a gluten-free diet for six months. After the six-month period, those who did not test positive for celiac or wheat allergies were instructed to reintroduce gluten-containing foods and they were monitored for symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity.
Results? Of the 392 patients, 6.63 percent tested positive for celiac disease, and two individuals (.51 percent) for wheat allergy. Some 27 patients (6.88 percent) were found to suffer form non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Based on this, 86 percent of those who believe they're sensitive to gluten can tolerate it without negative health consequences. And, when you account for those who had celiac or wheat allergy, some 93 percent of individuals who believe they are gluten-sensitive can tolerate it.
Bottom line: Like celiac disease and wheat allergies, gluten sensitivity is not as prevalent as many believe. What's more, eating a gluten-free diet isn't necessarily healthier, nor is it recommended for weight loss -- and it could lead to weight gain.
"Many gluten-free products are higher in calories, fat, sodium and sugar because they need to enhance the flavor and texture to make up for the lack of gluten," explains registered dietitian Marina Chaparro, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For most of us, a diet rich in veggies, fruit, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, eaten in the appropriate portions, is the best way to achieve a healthy weight and reduce risk for chronic diseases.
Julie Upton, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and communications expert specializing in food, nutrition and health. Ms. Upton is a nationally recognized journalist who has written thousands of articles for national newspapers, magazines and e-media including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, U.S. News and World Report, Prevention, Shape, Health, Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Men's Journal. She is co-author of "The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health's 101 Fat Habits and Slim Solutions" (Penguin 2013) and "Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food and Nutrition Guide to Fuel Your Active Life" (Wiley 2009). Upton co-founded Appetite for Health, where she blogs daily about nutrition, fitness and health.