Gluten is a tricky subject to discuss in the health world, because it’s one that can’t be explained in black and white terms. Usually, people choose to take gluten out of their diets for what they think are real, genuine concerns. In reality, a lot of those same people probably see zero health benefits as a result. They only make their diets more difficult and complicated to follow.
However, for people with celiac disease or nonceliac gluten intolerance, gluten really is an ingredient they need to avoid. Friends of mine have such a strong response to coming into contact with gluten that even a few breadcrumbs finding their way into a meal can make them violently ill.
The key, of course, is finding out whether gluten is harming your health, because roughly 85 percent of Americans do not have adverse reactions to eating gluten. I’d like to do my best to give you a quick rundown on where we stand, what the current research tells us about gluten and what’s the best choice for your personalized diet.
Some facts about gluten
As of January 2012, roughly 30 percent of American adults said they wanted to cut down or be free of gluten in their diets. The market research company who reported on this, The NPD Group, said that since they started studying eating habits in1976, Americans have continually expressed a desire to consume healthier foods and beverages. For my parents' generation, that meant avoiding fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium in their diets. However, although many people still wish to cut back on those substances, they are not a growing concern among the population. But gluten has become an increasing concern, at least during the current decade.
What’s caused the rising interest in going gluten-free?
Part of the rising concern is simply a growing awareness of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, and the potential health issues gluten can cause sufferers. In 2003, a large study performed in the United States found that celiac disease occurred in roughly 1 percent of the U.S. population, which didn't seem like a large number until people realized this was 10 times higher than thought at the time.
As a result, many more studies were performed. These studies showed that there were potential health benefits to avoiding gluten for people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, autism and schizophrenia. For autism and schizophrenia, for example, 20–25 percent of those with these conditions saw improvements while eating a gluten-free diet.
The changes related to gluten in recent years
Even though we now know about 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, many people remain unaware of their condition. Part of the problem is that the disease is five times more common now than it was 50 years ago. Many of our health professionals working today probably learned very little about celiac disease in school because there really wasn’t any reason to. Though, certainly, most of them have become more informed over the years, all of that takes time to filter down to their patients and the population at large. So, while we’re going in the right direction these days, finding the right personal choice for you and your family might require some trial and error at home.
Figuring out if gluten really is an ingredient you should avoid
The symptoms of celiac disease can vary a lot from one person to the next. Both you and your child, for instance, could have celiac disease, but your symptoms might be entirely different. Making this even more complicated, some people may not have any symptoms at all.
In any case, the most common include bloating (or a feeling of fullness or swelling in the abdomen), chronic diarrhea, constipation, gas, nausea, irregular bowel movements, stomach pain or vomiting. For children especially, celiac disease does need to be dealt with because it causes them to be unable to absorb the nutrients they need for their bodies to properly develop. If you notice any form of stunted growth or development in your kids, it's worth considering if celiac disease is the cause.
How do you figure out if you should be avoiding gluten?
As I mentioned earlier, roughly 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, and nonceliac gluten sensitivity affects between 5 and 13 percent of Americans as well. There are many variations of these sensitivities, but their health effects are very real. Both of these groups of people should work to avoid gluten and remove it from their diets entirely.
However, for the rest of the population, there is very little evidence that avoiding gluten will offer you any health benefits. Interestingly enough, one study found that out of 7,471 adults who were observed, the 73 eating a gluten-free diet had higher concentrations of arsenic in their urine and mercury in their blood—possibly as a result of including more rice and fish in their gluten-free diets.
Trying the gluten-free diet yourself
Celiac disease remains difficult to diagnose, but it is attempted based on your medical and family history, a physical exam, blood test, genetic test, or a skin or intestinal biopsy. Nonceliac gluten sensitivity remains even harder to diagnose. However, sufferers who try a gluten-free diet do have noticeably positive physical and mental changes.
Still, it’s not going to be easy for you to switch to a gluten-free diet. It requires significant lifestyle changes. However, there’s lots of information and foods out there to get you started. Persistence, your doctor’s help and an open mind remain the keys to your success.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.