The Gluten-Free Paradox

About a month ago, Jimmy Kimmel took to the streets to ask self described gluten free dieters what, exactly, that meant (you can see the clip here).  Many of them couldn't answer, nor did they know what "gluten" was.  Gluten, derived from the Latin word meaning "glue," is the protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and some oats (unless they're labeled Gluten Free) and gives elasticity to dough and helps it to rise.  People who have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, are allergic to gluten and when consumed, the protein damages the tissues of the small intestines and prevents the body from absorbing the vitamins and nutrients that it needs.  Between 2-3 million people living in the United States consider themselves "gluten free," but only 10% of that number have been diagnosed with the disease.  There aren't hard set numbers on those living with a gluten sensitivity so depending on who you ask in the medical profession, the numbers range from 6-30% of people have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity. 

The sensitivity or intolerance isn't a food allergy, but a physical condition in your gut, where undigested gluten proteins hangs out in your intestines and are treated by your body like a foreign invader.  This causes irritation in your gut and flattens the microvilli along the small intestine wall. Without active microvilli, you have a decreased area with which to absorb the nutrients from your food, which could lead to malabsorption, chronic fatigue, nutrient deficiencies or skin rashes.

Herein lies the paradox: many people who eat a gluten-free diet don't have celiac disease, but many people who are living with celiac disease don't eat gluten-free.  Reason? They haven't been diagnosed. 

Ten years ago, the rate of celiac disease was 1 in 2500; today, it's estimated to be 1 in 133 people worldwide. There are speculations as to the increase, but no clear cut reason.  Some doctors think it's the over-processing of grains that have led to the increase, while others claim the growing number is due to the awareness of the disease.  Books such as "Wheat Belly" and "Grain Brain" discuss the growing rate and reasons in detail.  (Rodale News also has an informative piece today titled "7 Surprising Reasons to Give Up Wheat").

I'm not a doctor or health care professional, but if you decide to pass on the gluten, there are a few considerations.  1) Gluten free does not mean the product is healthy. Just like the "fat free" or "vegan" designation on products, food companies add ingredients such as sugar, oil or salt to make up for the lack of fat, animal bi-product and/or gluten.  2) Going gluten free forces the consumer to closely read labels, as the protein hides in food products you wouldn't even consider such as: soy sauce, couscous, soups and fast food/restaurant french fries. 3) Like any food-restriction, it encourages you to prepare and cook more foods at home, which is always a healthier option (since you know exactly what is going into the food and onto your family's dinner table.)

What's your take on the "gluten-free" eating: fad or fact?