The Real (and Not So Real) Reasons Why People Are Going Gluten-Free

There is no denying that the popularity of the gluten-free diet is growing by leaps and bounds. For individuals who have celiac disease, it is a known fact that the consumption of gluten causes serious health risks. And although the research into non-celiac gluten sensitivity is not as clear-cut, there are many people who will say that following a gluten-free diet (one without wheat, barley or rye), has helped them to resolve a wide variety of medical problems, ranging from migraine headaches and ​IBS. The rising rates of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity beg the question, "Why now?" 

"It's not your grandmother's gluten."

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There is much debate as to whether or not modern gluten-containing plants are different than their ancestors. Many people purport that modern wheat, with its shorter root systems resulting from selective breeding for quick growth, has higher levels of gluten than in the past. However, a comprehensive review of data spanning from the 20th to the 21st century did not find support for this theory. The review does suggest that other factors, such as changes in wheat genetics and farming practices, may have created a wheat that triggers symptoms in people with some underlying biological vulnerability.

"It's the GMOs."

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Some people attribute the rise in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity to the use of genetically modified seeds (GMOs). However, as of this writing, no GMO wheat is yet being grown in the United States.

"We are eating more wheat than ever before."

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It is an established fact that intake of gluten-containing food products has risen sharply over the past few decades. (Although interestingly, there is some slight reduction in the consumption of wheat in the past few years, most likely due to the gluten-free trend). This increase in consumption does parallel the increase in celiac disease diagnoses, but it is hard to draw any firm conclusions about this as there are other factors, such as increased awareness, that can account for the increase in celiac disease rates.

It has been noted that whole wheat products, which have increased in popularity for their health benefits, often have increased gluten added to them to them to add to their attractiveness to consumers.

Why would an increase in consumption of gluten-containing foods result in an increase in reactivity to such foods? One theory suggests that, in certain individuals, an increased intake of gluten triggers a change within the immune system, causing it to become reactive to gluten proteins. However, more research needs to be conducted before there are any solid answers.

"Animals are eating more grains than ever before."

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It is true that the amounts of grains in the diets of animals that are sold for meat products have increased dramatically over time. However, gluten proteins are broken down through the process of animal digestion. Thus, there is no indication that grain-fed meat is responsible for the rising rates of gluten sensitivity problems.

"It's trendy."

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There is no denying the fact that many people are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. Some people are mistakenly thinking that a gluten-free diet is healthier or that it can result in weight loss. In fact, one of the greatest risks of going gluten-free is weight gain and its associated risks, if one is to choose to increase the consumption of gluten-free processed foods. Food manufacturers have been quick to take advantage of the gluten-free trend and are producing products which often have higher calorie counts due to the increased amounts of sugar and saturated fats added to make the product appealing. The only people who need to follow a gluten-free diet are those with celiac disease, a wheat allergy or a gluten sensitivity identified through the use of an elimination diet.

"Our guts are leaky."

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This theory refers to a condition in which there is increased permeability in the lining of the intestines. There is growing evidence that increased intestinal permeability may be playing a role in the development of celiac disease, and this may be true as well for gluten sensitivity. The theory holds that junctions within the lining of the intestines have become damaged, allowing particles to penetrate, and initiating an immune system reactivity.

A related theory has to do with changes in the bacterial makeup of the large intestine. It is theorized that the balance of gut bacteria plays a role in immune system reactivity, perhaps resulting in increased intestinal permeability. The makeup of our gut bacteria has been affected by many factors associated with modern life, including:

  • Antibiotic use
  • Increase in hygiene practices (hygiene hypothesis)
  • Our modern diet, with its increased intake of processed foods and decreased intake of dietary fiber.
  • Lessened intake of fermented foods
  • Increased stress levels

"It's not the gluten at all."

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Another theory holds that in cases of gastrointestinal symptoms attributed to non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten is not to blame, but rather certain carbohydrates known collectively as FODMAPs. FODMAPs (found in things like wheat, garlic and onions) have been associated with an increase in gastrointestinal symptoms in people who have IBS. This theory is based on the results of a small study in which patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity did not experience an increase in gastrointestinal symptoms when given gluten while following a low-FODMAP diet. Most gluten-containing foods also contain fructans, one of the FODMAP types. Thus the improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms that many people experience when they go gluten-free may actually be due to lessened intake of fructans.

What to Do If You Think You Have a Gluten Sensitivity

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If you have been considering going gluten-free it is essential that you speak with your physician to be tested for celiac disease, as the test is only accurate when you are still eating foods containing gluten. If celiac disease is ruled out, you can try an elimination diet to see if your symptoms improve with a gluten-free diet.


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Fasano, A. "Gluten Freedom" Nashville:Wiley 2014 Print.

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Kasarda, D. "Can an Increase in Celiac Disease Be Attributed to an Increase in the Gluten Content of Wheat as a Consequence of Wheat Breeding?" Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 2013, 61:1155–1159.

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Visser, J., "Tight Junctions, Intestinal Permeability, and Autoimmunity" Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2009 1165:195-205.