Is it just us, or is everyone gluten-free these days? We'll bet you know a few people in your circle that are on this popular diet, or perhaps you've nixed gluten yourself. Either way, from gluten-free bread to gluten-free shampoo, it seems as if gluten-free is the way to be. Or is it?
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According to a New York Times article, 2016 projected sales of gluten-free products rings in at a whopping $15 billion compared with 2013's sales of $10.5 billion. Even the Girl Scouts Organization has jumped on board, when they released their gluten-free chocolate-chip shortbread cookie in 2014.
What Is Gluten Intolerance, and Why Does Everyone Seem to Have It?
Gluten is a protein found in rye, barley and wheat products used to hold food together so it maintains its structure — kind of like glue. Gluten intolerance is when the body, particularly the gut, can't properly digest gluten. But the ingredient itself is natural.
In 2014, William Davis, M.D., New York Times best-selling author of "Wheat Belly," helped bring gluten intolerance into the spotlight, showing that gluten sensitivities range from the very minor to a serious life-altering diagnosis of celiac disease. Since then, gluten-free ideology has made its way across the nation and into the celebrity circuit of Hollywood.
Should you subscribe to the gluten-free diet? First, let's start off by touching on the symptoms that are associated with gluten intolerance.
Signs You May Be Intolerant to Gluten
According to Gluten Intolerance School, an amazing resource for all things gluten-free, here are some of the most common symptoms associated with gluten intolerance:
- More frequent exhaustion and fatigue
- Mood swings
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as cramps, diarrhea, constipation and gas
- Body aches in the bones, muscles and connective tissues
- Dizziness, loss of balance
However, the most effective way to find out whether you are allergic to gluten is to visit your doctor for a proper allergy test.
5 Theories Surrounding the Increase in Gluten Intolerance
There are many conflicting theories around gluten intolerance, specifically its rise in America. Here are the most popular theories surrounding the subject.
Theory #1: Losing Touch With “Old Friends” Hypothesis
It's believed that as a baby you need a certain amount of exposure to particular microbes in order to build the proper immunities to fight them off later in life. And there may be some truth to this.
Some believe gluten intolerance is a result of losing touch with bacteria — which theorists refer to as "Old Friends." According to Dr. McCombs, creator of The Candida Plan, losing touch with Old Friends means, "We have gradually lost touch with microbes like bacteria, parasites, fungi, etc., that we evolved with."
Underdeveloped countries still have parasitic worms and organisms found in unfiltered water as well as fermented veggies and soil. Though this sounds yucky, surprisingly, they don't seem to struggle with the allergies that developed countries struggle with. According to an Old Friends theorist, this is now wreaking havoc on our systems.
In a study published in a 2015 issue of Australasian Science, patients diagnosed with celiac disease (an autoimmune disease that reacts to gluten) were given worm therapy (purposefully infected with the hookworm). Researchers found that participants were able to ingest gluten without harmful effects to their immune systems.
These researchers stated, "The findings from this small proof-of-principle clinical trial were very encouraging as they provide realistic hope that worms, or some factor that the worms release into the body, could be a potential new therapy for managing celiac disease."
So do we need more worms in our tummies? It may be hard to stomach, but it's plausible.
Theory #2: There Is Too Much Wheat in the American Diet
Wheat is the main ingredient in most of the food Americans eat today. When humans were the hunter-gatherer type, there wasn't much wheat in their diets because they could get far more protein and nutrients from other things. Today it's all too easy to grab the convenient, yet highly-processed, foods at the grocery store that are packed with wheat gluten.
According to Donald D. Kasarda, researcher with the United States Department of Agriculture, the U.S. has tripled its amount of wheat gluten consumption in the past 40 years. This is another hypothesis for why we are noticing more gluten intolerance cases: We are simply eating too much, and the body is literally getting sick.
There is currently no quantifiable scientific data to support this hypothesis, but like most things in life, too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing.
Theory #3: Overuse of Antibiotics
There's no arguing that doctors are overworked these days — people can get an antibiotic prescribed to them over the phone.
In a 2014 study published in JAMA, researchers found that doctors prescribed more antibiotics when they worked longer shifts. After merely four hours of working, there was an increase in prescriptions given to patients — whether they were needed or not. There are instances when it is vital that antibiotics be taken in order to fight off illness, but research is finding that it's not nearly as often as they are prescribed.
FamilyDoctor.org offers some sound advice: "Do not expect antibiotics to cure every illness. Do not take antibiotics for viral illnesses, such as for colds or the flu. Often, the best thing you can do is let colds and the flu run their course. Sometimes this can take two weeks or more."
According to Dr. Martin Blaser, author of "Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues", the cause of most modern-day food allergies and digestive issues are also due to the overuse of antibiotics. Most antibiotics do not have the ability to target specific problem microbes and will instead attack all of them.
And don't forget that we need microbes in our guts: They are essential to our well-being and health. When these microbes in the gut are destroyed, the body no longer has the ability to break down food properly — and food allergies and illness ensue. Actually, There Is Not an Increase in Gluten Intolerance
Theory #4: Actually, There Is NOT an Increase in Gluten Intolerance
There is a long list of celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling and even former president Bill Clinton, who are openly gluten-free, giving the diet fame. Some theorists believe gluten-free is becoming a fad diet, and, according to some research, the numbers of diagnoses are not going up.
Some researchers speculate proper testing is not being conducted and that there is an overdiagnosing occurring that might quite possibly be more harmful than good.
In a 2016 study published in the Nutrition Bulletin, researchers stated, "It is therefore unlikely that the health of more than a small proportion of the population will be improved by eliminating wheat or gluten from the diet. In fact, the opposite may occur, as wheat is an important source of protein, B vitamins, minerals and bioactive components."
Furthermore, they believe their scrupulous diagnosing criteria are needed in order to accurately determine whether or not there is an increase in intolerance. Once the accurate testing takes place they feel the numbers will decrease significantly.
Theory #5: Maybe You Have a Different Digestive Issue
A gluten-free diet may actually hurt you if you don't need to be on it. The University of Chicago Medicine Celiac Disease Center states, "There's no benefit to a gluten-free diet for those who don't have a medical reason for it."
Changing from a normal diet to a gluten-free one is a huge undertaking. It takes determination and knowledge. So be sure you do the proper testing in order to find out what adjustments you need to make in your daily diet.
The Gluten-Free Society offers a self-test that you can take to help you identify symptoms. You can also get tested and see your doctor about more serious conditions like celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome, which is commonly mistaken for gluten intolerance.
What Do YOU Think?
Are you on a gluten-free diet, or have you ever been on one? Did you notice feeling any different? Which of these theories is your favorite? Do you love or hate the new gluten-free fad? Let us know in the comments section!
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.