Why Are so Many Americans Eating Gluten-Free?
For most, it’s probably completely unnecessary to eat gluten-free, yet it’s estimated that about 1 in 5 adults “actively try to include gluten-free foods in their diet.”
As part of its annual Consumption Habits poll, in July Gallup surveyed 1,009 Americans about the foods they do and don’t include in their diets. For the first time in the poll’s history, “Gluten-free foods” was included as a category.
The results found that 21 percent of Americans include gluten-free foods in their diet, 17 percent of Americans avoid gluten-free foods and 58 percent don’t think about gluten-free foods at all.
The reason for this growing trend? Many industry experts say it’s because the term “gluten-free” has become deceivingly synonymous with eating healthy.
"For the most part gluten has become the new 'it' thing to blame our weight loss struggles on," says Chris Cooper, a Precision Nutrition coach and a NSCA certified fitness professional. "[It’s] caught on in part because we want to blame something for why we've gained weight or why we can't lose weight. It's easier to just demonize a certain food group than to actually take a hard look at our nutrition and make a real change."
Right now, we know for sure that people with celiac disease need to avoid gluten because it damages their small intestine. However, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, one in 133 Americans (or about one present of the U.S. population) suffer from celiac disease.
In other words, a very small portion of the population has a diagnosed medical reason to avoid gluten.
As for all the other people excluding this protein from their diet, well, evidence is inconclusive, but some experts argue that it’s possible to have a “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.”
“A person can have a positive gluten sensitivity or allergy, but not yet have measurable damage to the absorptive folds of their small intestine, as determined by a biopsy,” says Dr. Alexander J. Rinehart, a practicing chiropractor, double-board certified clinical nutritionist and certified nutrition specialist. “These individuals would have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.”
According to Rinehart, if you're sensitive or allergic to gluten an inflammatory response is triggered by your immune system when it's consumed.
On the other hand, Rachele Pojednic, a researcher at Harvard Medical School with a Ph.D. in nutrition says there have been very few clinical trials examining the effects of eliminating gluten from the diet in non-celiac patients.
“In those that have been done, like one reported in the journal Gastroenterology in 2013, there was no evidence that a gluten-free diet improved gastrointestinal distress in patients with self-reported gluten sensitivity,” Pojednic said. “Based on studies like these, we just don’t have the evidence to say that the gluten protein in isolation is actually the problem.”
Based on this evidence, it seems many Americans are following gluten-free diets simply because it’s become a popular trend.
That’s not to say that eliminating gluten from your diet — even if you don’t need to for a medical reason — is a bad thing, but the problem for many is the fact that food manufacturers have caught on to the gluten-free trend (according to Gallup gluten-free food sales spiked 63 percent from 2012 to 2014), and now use it as a way to add a more healthful appeal to their products — even if they’re not exactly healthy.
For example, Ana Goldseker a Certified Nutritional Consultant and Director of Nutrition for Nava Health and Vitality Center initially made the mistake of building her gluten-free diet around mostly packaged foods.
“Sure, these things were all gluten-free, but they were also laced with sugar, salt and other refined grains," Goldseker said. "How can someone get healthy on that? None of it is real, whole food."
Additionally, Pojednic warned that while cutting gluten out of your diet may lead to a reduction in calorie-intake initially, even while still avoiding gluten, over time many people find ways to reintroduce those calories back into their diet.
The bottom line: unless you have celiac disease, you probably don’t need to eat gluten-free. If you suspect you may have a sensitivity to gluten, experimenting with a gluten-free diet won’t do any harm, just be sure to stick to mostly whole foods (like fruits, veggies and lean protein sources) instead of turning to packaged, processed foods that have no gluten, but are likely filled with other unnecessary additives.