Gluten may be one of the more difficult foods to avoid, as it is such a ubiquitous part of the Western diet. When you think that gluten is found in most bread, pasta, bagels, breakfast cereal and baked goods, it’s not surprising that finding foods that are gluten-free can be tricky. Most processed foods contain some level of gluten, and even beverages such as beer have it (from the fermented barley). Nevertheless, for an increasing number of people, going gluten-free may be worth the effort.
Gluten Intolerance on the Rise
Although the number of people who appear to be sensitive to gluten is increasing, it is not only the gluten-intolerant that are flocking to a gluten-free diet. Some people believe it makes them feel better, others believe it will help them lose weight, and some are convinced they are gluten-sensitive, even though diagnostic tests have shown otherwise. It is estimated that Americans will spend approximately $7 billion this year alone on gluten-free products, and only half of those people will have a true sensitivity to gluten.
Twenty years ago in the US, celiac disease was believed to be a relatively rare condition, as it affected only approximately 1 person in 2,500. Rates in Europe at that time were higher, at approximately 1 in every 300 people, a phenomenon that scientists could not explain. It is now believed that the lower rates in the US were due to an underdiagnosis of the problem.
However, not only has there has been a steep increase in the rate of celiac disease diagnosis (with estimates of it affecting approximately 1 in 130 Americans), due to increasing awareness of the condition, but it also appears that people have indeed become more gluten sensitive since the 1950s. Dr, Joseph Murray and fellow researchers from the Mayo Clinic compared blood samples of people from the 1950s with those of today and found that there has been a fourfold increase in cases of gluten sensitivity over the past 60 years.
What Is Celiac Disease?
Not to be confused with a wheat allergy, which is mostly found in children and is caused by an allergy to wheat protein, celiac disease is currently among the most prevalent chronic diseases that affect countries in the West, particularly those who are of European descent. The disease is due to a gluten allergy, which is a protein that can be found in certain grains, most commonly wheat, rye and barley. The allergic reaction damages small intestine’s lining, which keeps it from being able to absorb nutrients.
Whereas you may not have full-blown celiac disease (in which you have an autoimmune reaction to gluten and increased intestinal permeability), you may be gluten sensitive, a state in which your digestive system reacts badly to gluten, causing such unpleasant symptoms as diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain. It may also cause symptoms that are seemingly unrelated, such as aching muscles and joints, headaches, depression, irritability and rashes.
Reasons to Try a Gluten-Free Diet
Interestingly, the majority of those following a gluten-free diet are not actually gluten-sensitive. Some people feel that cutting out gluten provides them with more energy and helps in losing weight. Researchers believe that the damage wheat products cause is due to the way the grain has changed over the past decades. Modern wheat has been bred to be shorter and sturdier than the variety grown during our grandparents’ day, but its gluten content has also increased. As so much of the gluten we get in our diet originates from processed foods high in refined flour, cutting these alone out of your diet can contribute to improved health and weight loss.
Untreated gluten intolerance can lead to more serious problems such as celiac disease, infertility, osteoporosis and cancer, so be sure to get checked if you think you may have it. If this is the case, you can ask your doctor to have a gluten tolerance test done. However, be sure to have the test done before beginning any gluten-free diet, as if you wait until after the diet has begun, the doctor will not be able to be certain of a diagnosis, as the antibodies indicating gluten sensitivity will no longer be in your bloodstream.
Following a gluten-free diet may take some advance planning, but it is easier than you may think. More and more products are coming out every day that are gluten-free, and many restaurants now feature gluten-free items on their menu. When cooking at home, try to eat the foods featured in the Mediterranean Diet, including vegetables, poultry and fish, lean meat, beans, nuts, fruit and olive oil. Foods such as potatoes, rice, corn and quinoa can also be eaten and form the basis of many tasty dishes.