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What Makes Gluten Free so Popular?

Updated on March 30, 2012

It seems like everyone is hearing about gluten these days. Gluten free packaging is becoming more common, restaurants are offering gluten free meals, and celebrities like Elizabeth Hasselback (author of The G Free Diet) are going public about their gluten free status. A few years ago, the term gluten was rarely, if ever, used. Today, it's on the tip of everyone's tongue. What's fueling the gluten free fad?

Let's start with a basic definition. Gluten is the protein found in certain grains, namely wheat, rye and barley. Although it is a naturally occurring substance, in some individuals the immune system recognizes it as an invader. In these individuals, gluten can trigger an autoimmune response which destroys the little villi responsible for digestion in the intestines. In turn, this causes malabsorbtion of nutrients and can cause gastric distress. When this immune response is triggered, it can't be 'turned off', so individuals who react to gluten have Celiac Disease for life.

Some people react badly to gluten for other reasons. As a protein, it is a potential allergen and responsible for allergic reactions in those with a wheat allergy. It's also the instigator in a variety of food intolerances which are not defined as either Celiac Disease (known to cause damage to the intestines) or a classic allergy (mediated by the IgE cells). Some people believe that gluten is a contributing factor in symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder, a pervasive developmental disorder that causes a wide range of delays in social and communication skills and often includes gastrointestinal issues.

Due to the similarity in their protein, and the potential for cross contamination in the way they are grown and harvested, oats are generally avoided on a gluten free diet as well. There are gluten free oats which have been grown in dedicated gluten grain free fields and harvested on gluten grain free equipment. These are labeled as certified gluten free.

How Prevalent is Celiac Disease?

Celiac Disease is believed to impact at least 1 in 133 individuals. Some professionals believe the number is closer to 1 in 100. Gluten intolerance is more prevalent, but because of the difficulty getting a clear cut diagnosis the exact number is unknown. Wheat is one of the 8 foods known to be responsible for 90% of allergic reactions requiring medical care.

The diagnosis of Celiac Disease has risen significantly in the past 20 years. Part of this is because diagnostic tools such as blood tests have become more accurate. But the main reason may be because of an increase in awareness. As more primary care physicians are aware of Celiac Disease and the wide range of presentation, more are testing for it. Obviously, this leads to earlier diagnosis. Better diagnostic tools and increased awareness may not completely account for the increase in incidence.

In the past 100 years, wheat has been bred to improve it's gluten content (and therefore the 'mouthfeel' of baked goods) to the point that gluten content has increased by fifty percent or more. Add this rapid change to the drastic shift in human diet from vegetable and protein based to grain based and one begins to wonder if we've given our bodies enough time to naturally adapt to the increased grain exposure. Some people believe that the increased exposure to gluten grains, namely refined wheat flour, coupled with the increased gluten content is leading to the increase of gluten intolerance and Celiac Disease.

So...Why, Exactly, is Gluten Free so Popular?

As the diagnosis of Celiac Disease has improved, and the incidence of gluten intolerance has increased, groups like the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) and Celiac Disease Foundation have helped to raise awareness, Support groups have also worked to improve label recognition, and as demand for gluten free foods has risen, more and more companies have begun to provide a variety of safe, gluten free options for those struggliung with gluten intolerance and Celiac Disease. The more visible the term 'gluten free' has become, the more intriguing it has become and the more people have jumped on the bandwagon in search of health.

Not a weight loss diet...
Not a weight loss diet... | Source

Is the Gluten Free Diet a Weight Loss Fad?

No. The gluten free diet may lead to weight loss in those who were gaining weight due to an intolerance to gluten. Some people with Celiac Disease go into 'starvation' mode and their bodies will 'hoard' calories because they aren't getting the nutrition they need. These people are literally starving, but even if they limit their calories, their bodies will store fat because of a perceived limited nutritional intake.

Others experience indigestion that is interpreted as hunger, and they, too, gain weight due to an intolerance. It's also been suggested that various inflammation triggers, like gluten, can cause weight gain. In these cases, a gluten free diet which targets the root cause of a physical health problem will lead to weight loss as the body 'normalizes'.

Sometimes, this leads to the 'gluten free diet' being touted as a weight loss tool. The fact that any specific dietary regimen is referred to as a 'diet' doesn't help this misperception.

Simply giving up gluten grains and buying prepackaged "gluten free" alternatives to bread and pasta will not affect your weight (other than an increase if you rely heavily on prepackaged gluten free goodies) However, a change in lifestyle that results in more emphasis on whole foods, particularly fruits and vegetables and fewer grains and prepackaged foods in general can lead to weight loss. In this case it won't be from gluten free dieting so much as a healthier lifestyle change.

The gluten free diet is popular not because of the common conditions people share, but because of the multitude of conditions purported to be treated by going gluten free. With up to 1% of the population suffering from Celiac Disease, 6 in 1,000 children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and a variety of digestive disorders and complaints that may or may not be improved by going gluten free, it's no wonder that a gluten free diet seems to be so popular.

It's important to keep in mind that there is a medical basis for going gluten free most of the time. It isn't a diet to be taken lightly. It's not easy to avoid all sources of gluten, and those who need to be that strict need as much support as they can get. Someone who gives up gluten because it's the 'in' thing to do can actually hurt those who need to go gluten free by demonstrating that it's not 'that serious'. It's also important to note that the only way to accurately diagnose Celiac Disease is to be tested while still ingesting gluten. Current tests are only able to detect active reactions, and those can take a long time to build up to a testable level. If you are considering the gluten free diet to treat physical symptoms, you should first be tested for Celiac Disease so that there is a medical record of your medical need for a gluten free diet. It's also important to get accurately diagnosed because the way you approach a gluten free diet for gluten intolerance might be different than for Celiac Disease. Those with Celiac Disease can experience extensive intestinal damage and malnutrition without severe symptoms; so they need to avoid gluten even if an occasional indulgence doesn't seem to hurt that much.

Are you gluten free?

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    • icmn91 profile image

      icmn91 5 years ago from Australia

      Gluten Free has become very popular, in fact... so popular that it seems like even kitchen staff at universities have forgotten how to properly label GF foods (more on my hubs on my experience).

    • msviolets profile image

      msviolets 6 years ago

      Micki; I think our current diets are too grain heavy overall! But when you think about how much refined flour we tend to use in day to day cooking, when it would have been a luxury 150 years ago it starts to explain a lot.

      Breastpumpreviews; thanks for asking! I needed some inspiration :-)

    • breastpumpreviews profile image

      Christy Garrett 6 years ago from TX

      Great information and answered my question entirely. Thanks for using my question for this hub.

    • MickiS profile image

      MickiS 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Great hub. Another reason that its believed that gluten intolerance is on the rise (in addition to better diagnostics and awareness) is that we have been overexposed--especially in the United States--to wheat and barley. It has become a prevalent food additive in everything from soy sauce (wheat is a higher percentage of its volume than soy beans) to artificial flavorings made from wheat and barley (malt flavoring is used in Coca-cola, for example).


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