I would say it’s a little of both. First, let me briefly explain what gluten is. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related gains, including barley, spelt and rye. It is what gives dough elasticity and helps it rise; much desired qualities for making breads and pasta.
On one hand, people without gluten sensitivity are buying gluten-free products with the idea that these foods are healthier to eat. So in this sense, it can be looked at as a health trend akin to fat-free fad (or debacle as I like to call it).
On the other hand, gluten can cause unpleasant and often dangerous symptoms in people who have sensitivity to it. While celiac disease, an auto-immune disease involving an adverse reaction to gluten, was once uncommon, it is clearly on the rise, which might explain the surge in gluten-free products. A study done by the Mayo Clinic found that celiac disease has increased four fold in the last 45 years. What is interesting about this study is that it was able to test frozen blood samples taken between1948 and 1954 and compare them to blood samples from similar recent study groups. This shows that the actual rate of celiac disease is on the rise and not just a rise in the diagnoses of it.
Unfortunately, the study did not say why we are seeing more problems with gluten. One common speculation is that the wheat that is grown today in our country has a much higher percentage of gluten than older varieties.
Gluten sensitivity is actually an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation throughout the body, so the symptom can include a wide range of ailments such as abdominal cramping/bloating, mouth sores, muscle cramping, constipation, night blindness, dry skin, weakness, fatigue, arthritis, osteoporosis, depression, anxiety, dementia, migraines, epilepsy and acne. Since the symptoms are so varied, a diagnosis of gluten sensitivity may be overlooked.
There are different degrees of gluten intolerance ranging from gluten sensitivity to Celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity symptoms can range from mere annoyances to downright debilitating ailments. Celiac disease can be quite dangerous if left untreated (the treatment is eliminating gluten). The disease can be confirmed with a blood test and intestinal biopsy.
Basically, celiac disease is malnutrition. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse states, “When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging or destroying villi—the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine. Villi normally allow nutrients from food to be absorbed through the walls of the small intestine into the bloodstream. Without healthy villi, a person becomes malnourished, no matter how much food one eats.” Eating healthy food does no good unless your body is absorbing the nutrients.
My friend and blogger, Suzanne (http://sthibeault.wordpress.com) is gluten sensitive. Suzanne had been suffering from arthritis. “I had been experiencing joint pain in my fingers for several years,” she told me. “I read an article in The Chicago Tribune, which linked arthritis to an inflammatory response gluten-sensitive people experience when they ingest gluten.” So she gave gluten-free a try. “Hazzah! Clouds part, angels sing! Within a week, my fingers stopped aching for the first time in years,” she said.
My neighbor Ann was diagnosed with celiac disease last year. She went to the dermatologist because of acne that had plagued her since her late teens. A few tests later she was diagnosed with celiac disease. She cut out all the gluten from her — her acne cleared up and she feels great. If she eats even a few wheat crumbs, the acne comes back along with a host of other unpleasant symptoms.
She has a brand new blog, Naturally Gluten Free, where you can read her whole story.
Of course, these anecdotes are not suggesting that giving up gluten will cure your arthritis or clear up your acne, but if you’ve tried everything else, talk to your doctor about food intolerance. In addition to wheat, eggs and dairy can also be culprits.
In the interest of solidarity to my celiac and gluten sensitive friends, I decided to give up gluten for a couple of weeks. I wanted to see if a.) I felt different and b.) how hard it was. I dragged my poor husband along for the ride.
Yes, it is hard, at least until you get the hang of it. There is gluten in everything from, of course, bread, cakes, and cookies to soy sauce, bourbon, lipstick, and the glue on postage stamps. Plus there isn’t always a gluten-free option available when you’re hungry, so you need to be prepared. It can also be expensive. A small loaf of gluten-free bread can run you six bucks.
I also found that gluten free prepared foods, like packaged cookies, in general taste bad. Plus I think processed food is still processed food so I try to steer clear from them, gluten- free or not.
Ann mentioned to me that she finds it easy to go with foods that are inherently gluten free. Mexican and Asian foods are a good place to start as long as you stick to corn tortillas and rice or bean-thread noodles. If you eat dishes that never had gluten in them in the first place, they’ll most likely taste better and won’t break the bank.
I can’t say I felt better, but luckily I wasn’t feeling bad before I started my experiment. I did loose a few pounds but that was mainly because I wasn’t always prepared and didn’t eat the snacks containing gluten that I might otherwise have eaten to get me through the day.
I don’t plan to entirely cut out wheat, but I might pass up some items containing gluten. Wheat cereal, I can do without, but a hot baguette with butter is something I plan to hold on to.
Now that I’m back eating wheat, I try to notice if I feel differently. I’m still experimenting but I think I’m a little congested on the days I eat wheat. Spring, though, probably isn’t the best time to blame wheat for my congestion!
Stay tuned for recipes!