Saturday, October 25, 2014 · 6:12 a.m.

Fresh and Fit: Gluten intolerance, fact or fad?

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Gluten intolerance is such a common affliction that many grocery stores cater to those suffering from it with an aisle or section of gluten-free foods. (Photo: Celiac Corner, MGNOnline)

With the increasing amount of processing our food goes through and the staggering introduction of various genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into our diets, it seems that most people are bound to have some kind of food vulnerability. In recent years, gluten intolerance in particular has received much time in the public eye. We have more gluten-free foods and accessible dietary plans for those with sensitivity to gluten than we did 20 years ago. This is wonderful news for those who have been diagnosed with some kind of aversion to gluten. But when Miley Cyrus tweets, “For everyone calling me anorexic I have a gluten and lactose allergy. It’s not about weight it’s about health. Gluten is crapppp anyway! [sic],” the skeptic in me yearns for the truth. Is gluten-free living just a fad diet touted by attention-seeking celebrities, or is it a growing health risk?

The basics
Gluten is basically a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and foods processed from these grains. It also gives dough its elasticity, helping it keep shape and rise. Gluten intolerance, or gluten sensitivity, is a fairly ambiguous term that describes a wide range of disorders in which gluten has an adverse affect on the body. The spectrum includes a more mild sensitivity to gluten, wheat allergy and celiac disease.

It’s important to remember that an allergy to wheat and celiac disease are not one in the same. The difference is in the mechanism. When someone has a wheat allergy, the body produces an allergy-causing antibody to the proteins found in wheat. A wheat allergy is also more rare and is often outgrown in childhood. Celiac disease, however, is an autoimmune disorder in which gluten causes an abnormal immune system reaction in the small intestine.

The generally experienced symptoms of any kind of gluten sensitivity include bloating, abdominal cramping, joint paint and diarrhea. However, testing is necessary to confirm or refute the presence of a specific allergy or disorder.

There is no medicinal cure for those with gluten sensitivity, and treatment involves staying away from gluten and regular medical follow-ups.

The facts
Apparently, the folks over at the Mayo Clinic shared my incredulity of the rise of gluten intolerance and decided to look into it. In 2009, Dr. Joseph Murray, gastroenterologist, and his research team compared blood samples of Americans in the 1950s with blood samples of people today, specifically looking at celiac disease. The results? The prevalence of celiac disease is actually increasing. This research confirms that about 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, which makes it about four times as common as it was 50 years ago. And though the verdict is still out on why, some theories point to different wheat-processing methods used today and wide use of gluten as a texturizer in modern food processing.

One percent may sound small, but that translates to about 1.8 million Americans with celiac disease, while an estimated 1.4 million people with the disease are unaware that they have it. And in addition to the uncomfortable symptoms described above, celiac disease damages the lining of the small intestine when an affected individual eats gluten. This prevents the body from absorbing essential nutrients and is therefore a major health risk that should be treated seriously. Gluten-free diets are an effective way of keeping those suffering from celiac disease or any kind of gluten sensitivity safe and healthy.

The fad
Despite the health benefits for those who are actually gluten intolerant, it seems that many people are adopting a gluten-free diet in a Regina George-like method of “[losing] three pounds” ("Mean Girls" movie reference, by the way) and not because they have been diagnosed with any kind of gluten intolerance. Why?

Gluten-free diets among the undiagnosed are on the rise (approximately 1.6 million Americans) and are often used as a way to lose weight because of the restricted diet and low carb intake. But not only is this hazardous if you are not gluten sensitive because it can deprive your body of essential nutrients—like fiber, folate and zinc—but it is also not really an effective weight-loss strategy. In fact, many gluten-free snacks, like pretzels, contain more fat and calories.

So sorry, Miley, but gluten is not “crapppp” for those who are tolerant to gluten no more than milk is for those who are lactose tolerant. Gluten is not a toxin. Making the decision to cut gluten from your diet should be about keeping yourself safe after a gluten sensitivity diagnosis and not about making a fashion statement. Eating less fatty foods and exercising regularly is a much better—and more cost-effective—way to lose weight.

While following restrictive dieting plans is dangerous, being a part of the 1.4 million living undiagnosed with celiac disease is even more risky. If you think you may be gluten intolerant, be wise and talk with your physician about getting tested.

Rashad J. Gober is a gym junkie, avid runner and freelance writer whose interests include pop culture and healthy living. But he's not a doctor, so his suggestions are no substitute for medical advice. Feel free to contact him via Twitter or email with any comments or suggestions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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