Imagine suffering from painful bloating and digestive problems your whole life, to the point where you can’t go out with friends, have sleepovers growing up, or get through a romantic weekend away without frequent, awkward runs to the bathroom—and have no idea why. This is life for Shauna Sampson, who, due to an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease, can’t process wheat and other common grains. The worst part? For the first twenty-five years of her life, she didn’t realize she had it.
“The crazy thing is, no one had heard of it back then,” she says. “Now, everyone’s talking about being gluten-intolerant.”
Sampson is right—from segments on the Today show to entire Whole Foods aisles dedicated to gluten-free goods, this food sensitivity seems to be on the rise across the United States (Heck, Chelsea Clinton even had a gluten-free wedding cake).
For around 1 percent of the U.S. population, gluten (the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, bulgur, matzo meal, semolina, spelt, and a handful of other grains) harms sufferers’ ability to absorb nutrients—often resulting in severe pain and discomfort.
Then there’s the newer contingent of gluten avoiders. Rose Copperman, a twenty-four-year-old teacher, cut gluten out of her diet just a little over a year ago, at the advice of a trainer helping her lose weight.
“Right away, I started dropping pounds,” she says. “I cut the cake lying around the office, downing beers with coworkers, and chowing down on bread with my meals.” Though it was challenging at first, Copperman says her diet still resembles her previous one, just with healthier carbohydrates. She can find gluten-free bread, cereal, and even cookies at most markets.
All the buzz brings up a number of questions: Is gluten intolerance really on the rise? Or are more people, like Copperman, just giving the lifestyle a try? And how practical, really, is leading a gluten-free life?
“‘Celiac disease,’ ‘wheat allergy,’ and ‘gluten intolerance’ are often used interchangeably,” says Suzanne Girard Eberle, a certified sports dietician and nutrition therapist in Portland, Oregon. “However, there is a difference between these three medical issues.”
Celiac disease, though highly damaging to the system, can silently wreak havoc on those who have it—since many lack noticeable or unique symptoms. Those who do have perceptible signs suffer from persistent diarrhea, bloating, and stomach discomfort after eating wheat (and other gluten-containing products)—issues that are easily attributed to a number of other ailments. “This is a lifelong condition—there is no cure,” says Eberle. “The treatment is to avoid all gluten.”
The autoimmune condition means more than just an upset stomach and awkward bathroom situations. With celiac disease, the body’s immune system actually attacks normal tissue, including the small intestine’s hairlike projections, called villi, which absorb vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. As villi are slowly destroyed, the body absorbs fewer nutrients, leaving sufferers with a range of malnutrition-related health problems, like iron deficiency, anemia, and osteoporosis.
What about people who don’t have celiac disease but whose bodies indicate gluten intolerance? Another possibility is a wheat allergy, in which the body undergoes an allergic reaction in the skin, mouth, lungs, and even the digestive tract. Symptoms include a rash, wheezing, lip swelling, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, says Eberle.
Sensitivity to gluten is yet another thing. It happens when someone experiences intolerance—sort of like people who are lactose-intolerant do when they eat ice cream. “GI symptoms with wheat or gluten intolerance may include gassiness, abdominal pain, abdominal distention, and diarrhea,” says Eberle. “These symptoms are usually transient and thought not to cause permanent damage.”
Since there are a variety of different causes for reactions to wheat—and these causes can be easily confused with other health problems—seeing a doctor for testing is the only effective way to decipher whether gluten is truly the culprit.
Are We Increasingly Intolerant?
The sudden profusion of gluten-free products isn’t a reflection of more people’s actually suffering from gluten intolerance, but a combination of increased diagnoses and nonallergic folks giving the lifestyle a try—a new diet that magazines and television are popularizing. “Many people are self-diagnosing themselves as having an allergy to gluten, due to misinformation,” says Eberle. “I’m unaware of any actual surge in confirmed [cases].”
She credits media hype with playing on our ongoing fascination with diets, quest for weight loss, and distorted fear of food. “That said, there is an increase in people diagnosed with celiac disease, thanks to increased education and awareness,” she says. This includes newer diagnostic methods, such as blood testing.
Because of this heightened awareness surrounding celiac disease, gluten-free fare has become the fastest-growing health-food category. Last year, around 5 percent of the foods and drinks in the United States were marketed as gluten-free, according to Innova Market Insights, and this number is only projected to rise over the next few years.
How Feasible Is a Gluten-Free Life?
Thanks to companies’ manufacturing a growing number of appetizing gluten-free goods and supermarkets’ including a gluten-free smorgasbord in their aisles, it’s become easier to live gluten-free without sacrificing flavor or variety. For people like Sampson, “even a few years ago, it was much more difficult,” she says. Certain gluten-free grains, like oats, can be contaminated with wheat during processing, and therefore dangerous, despite their technically being gluten-free. Silent ingredients, such as food additives, as well as products like toothpaste, lipsticks, medications, and vitamins, often contain hidden gluten, too. “It used to take me hours to grocery shop,” Sampson says. Today, there are oats clearly marked as gluten-free, and a bevy of beauty products, vitamins, and toiletries that are ensured against contamination during processing. “I was always sick before I cut out gluten,” says Sampson. “Now I’m healthy and happy, and I eat flavorful foods every day.”
But can you miss out on key nutrients by eliminating gluten? Yes, says Eberle. “It all really depends on what foods you eliminate, and to what degree,” she says, “as well as what you eat instead.” A recent study found that a significant number of people with celiac disease don’t get their daily recommendation of key nutrients, such as iron, calcium, vitamin D, fiber, and B vitamins. So if you’re currently avoiding gluten, or even considering it, it’s important to consult a doctor to be sure you’re meeting your nutritional needs. Doubtful? Take a walk down the gluten-free aisle of your nearest gourmet grocery store—and just try to resist those gluten-free doughnuts.