Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Should You be Gluten-free?

Wow... It's been almost a month since my last post on The Walking Encyclopedia and, for that, I apologize. Things have been extremely busy and my new blog has taken up much of my attention. But, I wanted to take a moment and address a growing trend: The gluten-free diet.

What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein compound naturally present in wheat and related grains, like barley and rye. The protein is commonly used to improve both the flavor and texture of... well, everything. While it is traditionally featured in baked goods, it pops up in many unexpected locations as a thickening and binding agent.

Gluten Intolerance, Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body has a severe allergic reaction to gluten which, in turn, causes severe damage to the lining of the intestines and prevents the absorption of necessary nutrients from food. This disease can develop at any point in life and the exact cause remains unknown.

But many people report allergic reactions to gluten intake but test negative for celiac disease. For a long time, these people were told by their doctors that it was nothing to worry about. But recent studies show that that's not exactly correct. A 2011 study showed a definite distinction between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, sometimes called gluten intolerance. 

Benefits of a Gluten-free Diet
Even though only about 1 percent of the U.S population has celiac disease and 6 percent suffers from a gluten sensitivity, 15 to 25 percent of Americans eat gluten-free. And the profitability of gluten-free products is sky-rocketing despite the fact that the number of cases of celiac disease or gluten intolerance has not risen. Which means that a lot of healthy people are following a gluten-free diet.

Why? Because the proponents of a gluten-free diet have claimed all sorts of benefits from it including weight loss and even that it could help treat autism. There is no evidence to support either of these claims. Although, it should be acknowledged that people with autism are statistically more likely to also suffer from celiac disease.

Regarding weight loss, it's interesting to note that the opposite may be true. Many gluten-free products are even more full of sugars, fats and starchy flours then their gluten-full counterparts. This will significantly increase the calorie content, as well as the likelihood of weight gain.

Bottom Line: Should I be Gluten-free?
Probably not. While a small minority of people have medical conditions that require them to limit or totally cut-out gluten from their diets, the vast majority of people who follow a gluten-free diet really don't need to .