More People Are Avoiding Gluten Despite Lack of Medical Need to Avoid Gluten

By
Mmm, gluten.Photo: Soren Hald/Getty Images

For people with celiac disease, eating gluten can damage their small intestine and lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, not to mention cause extremely unpleasant GI symptoms in the short term. But for others, the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye has become synonymous with “thing that healthy and/or skinny people avoid at all costs.” And, according to new research, they are increasingly avoiding it despite the lack of a medical need to do so.

For a paper in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) between 2009 to 2014. There were 22,278 people over age 6 who’d had a blood test for celiac — regardless of the result — and followed a gluten-free diet. Of those people, 106 (or 0.69 percent) had been diagnosed with celiac, while another 213 (or 1.08 percent) did not have the disease but still avoided gluten. (That translates to an estimated 1.76 million and 2.7 million people, respectively.)

The authors found that while celiac-disease rates had remained relatively stable during the study period, people following a gluten-free diet had more than tripled: The rate was 0.52 percent from 2009 to 2010, 0.99 percent from 2011 to 2012, and 1.69 percent from 2013 to 2014.

It’s possible that increased numbers of people avoiding gluten could be linked to the plateau in celiac disease, they said, but there are also many people who think gluten is the devil and nixing it is just healthier overall and can help them lose weight. Conveniently, food manufacturers have made sure there are lots of products for the increasing subgroup of GF people.

True, there are those who have fewer GI problems when they cut out gluten, a.k.a. self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity. But in an accompanying editorial, Daphne Miller, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, argues that these people could be reacting to a group of starches known as FODMAPs that ferment in the large intestine and are also found in fruits and vegetables. Dr. Miller says that others might find relief not because they’re eating less gluten, but because they’ve cut back on processed food. Sorry, gluten-free cookies.