Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, oats and barley and is responsible for the elastic texture of dough. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape and acts as a glue (hence, where the word 'gluten' comes from), holding foods together.
2. Who should stay away from gluten?
A lot of people eat a gluten-free diet. However, only people with Celiac disease (about 3 million Americans or 1% of the population are afflicted with celiac disease) really *need* to eat a gluten-free diet. Celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue, is an autoimmune disorder that results in damage to the small intestine when foods with gluten are eaten. When someone with celiac disease consumes something with gluten, their bodies' immune system overreacts to the protein and starts to destroy the lining of the small intestine. When the small intestine is damaged it cannot properly absorb nutrients from food and this can lead to malnutrition, severe diarrhea, abdominal pain, anemia, loss of bone density and a myriad of other symptoms.
3. Why have gluten free diets become so popular for people without Celiac disease?
The gluten-free has become so popular, that about 30% of Americans are trying to eliminate or decrease their gluten consumption. Even products that never contained gluten in the first place like potato chips and popcorn are being marketed for their lack of gluten. There are even gluten free dating sites!! I can’t wait until someone tries to market gluten-free water! Many people claim that going gluten-free has helped their GI distress and even if it is just a fad, it’s making you healthier, right?
Let's set the record straight: There is no evidence that going gluten-free has any health benefits. Actually, the reverse is true. Going gluten-free when you do not have Celiac disease actually increases the chance that you will gain weight and possibly develop diabetes. A recent study by Harvard University that included over 200,000 patients has found that decreasing your gluten intake can increase the risk of developing diabetes by as much as 13%. Many gluten-free foods are high in calories, fat and sugar while being low in actual nutrients. When people eat too much of these highly processed low nutrient food, they gain weight and this increase their chances of developing diabetes.
4. Why are so many people sticking to a dietary regimen that offers no tangible health benefits and actually makes them actively unhealthier?
Unfortunately the gluten-free food fad is shrouded in a healthy halo, and millions of people perceive it as the healthy thing to do for their digestive tract. If you are concerned that you may have celiac disease, go to your provider and you can get a simple blood test that will provide you with an answer. If you do not have celiac disease, then you are more likely to benefit by focusing on a diet that is rich in nutrients and staying away from highly processed foods.