Chances are high that someone you know has adopted a gluten-free diet, but what's the deal? Like other popular diet trends (think: low-carb, Paleo or vegan) adopting a gluten-free diet has become quite popular — but is it a good idea?
Why is gluten a big deal?
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. In a person who has celiac disease, gluten triggers an autoimmune response that inflames and damages the lower intestines and leads to a host of other health-related issues. Symptoms may include chronic fatigue, brain fog, weight loss, diarrhea or abdominal pain. But many people with celiac disease may be symptom-free. While it is estimated that nearly 2 million people have celiac disease, most of them remain undiagnosed.
On the bandwagon
Following a gluten-free diet has become popular for a variety of reasons. Many people may not suffer from celiac disease, but still have an intolerance or sensitivity to gluten that causes symptoms. "This is something that we're just beginning to get our heads around," says Daniel Leffler, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. "There is a tight definition of celiac disease, but gluten intolerance has been a moving target."
Others may adopt gluten-free eating because they feel it offers health benefits. With celebrities like Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly cutting out gluten to detox, the hype will likely continue. "As a registered dietitian, I encounter patients who need to be gluten-free for medical reasons and others who are jumping on the latest band wagon," says Madeleine Berg, M.S. R.D. C.D.N. "There is no medical indication that eating gluten-free is beneficial to people who do not have a sensitivity or celiac disease, so why would someone needlessly restrict their diet?" A recent study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that a full 80 percent of study participants who were following a gluten-free diet did not suffer from celiac disease.
Does the hype help or hurt?
Until fairly recently, finding gluten-free items in the grocery store or at a restaurant was virtually impossible. For the small percentage of the population that actually suffers from celiac disease, the increase in availability must seem like a blessing. But how has it really affected them?
We spoke with allParenting Editor Laura Willard, who has celiac disease. "All of the gluten-free diet hype has been both great for those of us with celiac disease and detrimental to us," she says. "It has brought far more awareness to the gluten-free diet and therefore, more options at restaurants and grocery stores."
"However, as a result of some people following a gluten-free diet by choice, some people take those of us who follow it out of absolute medical necessity less seriously, and can be less careful about cross-contamination," Willard adds. She recalls a recent experience at an upscale, well-known restaurant when she discovered graham cracker crumbs sprinkled in her sorbet after she had taken several bites. "The server responded to my concerns by saying, 'It wasn't much, though. It should be okay, right?' Nope! It might as well have been a donut! I spent hours very ill — think the stomach flu — and another week in serious pain," she says. "And every exposure is damaging to the stomach of someone with celiac disease. So, like most things in life, there are upsides and downsides."
As with any major dietary change, it is best to consult with your medical professional before trying a gluten-free diet.