Understanding Celiac Disease versus the Gluten-Free Craze

Fad diets seem to come and go everyday. They gain popularity because they are often simple. They promise “one simple rule” or an “easy fix” to being more healthy, but often times, they can lead to the spread of misinformation.

During Celiac Awareness Month, we decided to take a look at the latest trend that was born out of a real disease: the gluten-free trend. “Gluten-free” has become a buzzword for food along the same lines as “non-GMO,” “organic” or “natural.” Something that used to signal safe ingredients for those with celiac disease now seems to imply overall healthiness of a food product for the rest of the population.

In fact, gluten-free is not the healthier option if your diet doesn’t require avoiding gluten. Gluten is a protein, and cutting gluten from your diet reduces the intake of necessary nutrients. Gluten-free diets can also lead to weight gain.  In a review of studies on nutrition and celiac disease published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers said that a gluten-free diet “seems to increase the risk of overweight or obesity.” The authors attributed that to the tendency for gluten-free foods to have more calories, sugars, and fat than their regular counterparts.

A small amount – only about one percent – of the population suffers from celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is consumed. The cure for celiac disease is to eliminate gluten from the diet. Gluten is a protein that is found in bread and pasta – foods that come from wheat, barley and rye.

Celiac disease seems to be on the rise. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Gastroenterology shows that celiac disease is four times as common as it was in 1950. As more people became diagnosed, the prevalence of gluten-free food options has increased, but the attention paid to the dietary restriction may be declining.

As blogger Celia Kaye wrote in her post, “What’s so bad about wheat?” a friend recently commented “wheat is so bad for you anyway.” For Celia, who has gluten sensitivity, wheat is bad for her digestive system, but she wondered why her friend seemed to think that gluten was bad for everyone.

According to author Alan Leinovitz, professor at James Madison University and author of the new book, “The Gluten Lie,” gluten-free dieting has gone from something no one had heard of 30 years ago, to a full blown popular movement. He says that the gluten-free gained popularity through the influence of similar fad diets like the “Paleo” diet and the Atkins diet, that preach avoiding processed foods and carbs.

So how did the myth that gluten-free diets are healthy for everyone, including the 99% of the population who do not have celiac disease, spread? Celia Kaye blames the Internet. In her post, she points out that anything can be put out on the Internet and it isn’t subjected to studies or peer reviews. It’s easy to write a catchy title that grabs people’s attention and fill it with unfiltered information. There are a lot of health blogs out there that promise a “quick fix” to getting healthy. That’s the kind of content people are reading online.

We at the National Wheat Foundation know that celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disease that is affecting one percent of our population. This May we want to help spread awareness of celiac disease and silence the misinformation about gluten. If you think you may have celiac disease, it’s important to get tested to confirm. Look at the science behind gluten, and think about whether you are making choices about your diet based on science and health or the latest trend.