While an estimated 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease, a whopping 29% of the American population say they’re trying to cut back or eliminate gluten from their diets. So why are so many people avoiding gluten if only 1% of the population has celiac disease?
Science is showing more and more that this is not black and white – there are reasons that go beyond the latest trends explaining why so many people are avoiding gluten.
While many people have dismissed this huge boom in gluten-free dieting as a fad with no scientific basis, studies are slowly beginning to show us that it is more complex than what it seems. The gluten-free movement is gaining lots of followers who are giving up gluten for health reasons other than celiac disease.
Many people are going gluten-free because the removal of gluten from their diet successfully alleviates a wide variety of symptoms, from joint pain to eczema to migraine headaches – and of course the common stomach and digestive ailments. What’s most interesting is that although often times people following a gluten-free diet are viewed as fad followers or pretentious trendy dieters – recent studies are painting a different picture entirely. These people aren’t just being neurotic about their sensitivity to gluten, and aren’t just following the latest diet trends. Here is what we know:
You don’t have to have celiac disease to have adverse reactions to gluten. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is much more common, with rates as high as 6-8% of the population. Many of the symptoms of gluten sensitivity are similar to those of celiac, including bloating, stomach pain, fatigue and diarrhea, as well as bone and joint pain.
Studies have shown gluten to potentially cause intestinal inflammation and leaky gut even in those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. This is especially prominent in individuals diagnosed with IBS, but can happen to others as well. According to a recent study, 13% of British adults claim to experience symptoms when they eat gluten-containing foods, yet only 0.8% of the population has been formally diagnosed with celiac disease. And when scientists decided to check their gut tissue using a high-magnification microscope, they indeed found the small bowel having a very rapid negative response to gluten consumption. While this isn’t celiac disease – clearly something is happening to these people when they eat gluten.
It is actually really hard for our systems to break gluten down in the gut. While plenty of people have digestive systems that do manage to handle gluten, it is not at all surprising that there are also lots who don’t. New research is linking gluten to inflammatory problems and even autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroid disease.
Negative press and misinformation surrounding the gluten-free diet puts up a barrier to the approximately 85% of people who are currently not diagnosed with celiac disease, along with the plethora of others who deal with gluten sensitivity and other ailments related to gluten. Fear of being questioned, judged and analyzed by peers can lead people to delay or reject testing and diagnosis, and isolates the gluten-free community. Until we uncover more facts about this phenomenon, what it means and who exactly it affects, it is important to acknowledge that many people have reasons to avoid gluten. Instead of a “fact vs. fad” approach we are instead faced with a more complex and dynamic situation – lots of people are negatively affected by gluten consumption.
While we are constantly learning more about the variety of health reasons why people may benefit from avoiding gluten, celiac disease comes with its own unique set of symptoms and treatment specifications. If you think you are suffering due to gluten consumption, testing for celiac needs to be a top priority. Check out this blog we did on 5 reasons to test for celiac before going gluten-free! But if you’ve taken these steps, been given a negative diagnosis and are still certain that gluten is the source of your symptoms, odds are you are probably correct, and your food intolerance deserves to be taken seriously.
What we can say for sure is that there is still a lot to learn. While we debate and deconstruct these issues – this fascinating topic and the science associated with it is quickly unfolding in front of us and we can’t wait to keep you updated as new and improved research is done!