Separate fact from fiction to get the real story behind the gluten-free hype
With gluten-free delivery pizza, cookies, cakes, and even dog food on the market, it's clear that the interest in gluten-free eating isn't slowing down.
This May, in honor of Celiac Awareness Month, we're looking at some of the most common misconceptions about celiac disease and a gluten-free diet.
1. A gluten-free diet can benefit anyone. People who suffer from celiac disease struggle with digestive problems, malnutrition, and more. That's because gluten—a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley—triggers an immune response that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine. That, in turn, can interfere with the absorption of nutrients, causing malnutrition, anemia, diarrhea and a host of other problems.
Other gluten sensitivities exist, but for the general population, gluten is not harmful. Forgoing gluten when you don't have a problem digesting and processing it will not necessarily help you lose weight or make you healthier. While many gluten-free foods are our most healthful options (think: fruit, vegetables, lean proteins), gluten-free diets are not by default healthy.
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2. Celiac disease is a rare condition. Celiac disease is one of the most common hereditary autoimmune disorders in the U.S., with about 1 percent of Americans—that's one out of every 141 people—suffering from the disorder, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
3. There are many ways to treat a gluten sensitivity. Currently, the only way to treat celiac disease is with a strict gluten-free diet. There are several supplements on the market that claim to help people digest gluten, but these are not based on clinical research and it's unclear if they have any effect. Researchers are currently testing a vaccine and, separately, medication in clinical trial, but nothing is available yet.
4. If it isn't bread, it's gluten-free. Gluten can pop up in surprising places. While bread, cake, pasta, pizza crust, and other wheat-based foods are obviously full of the protein, unless otherwise specified, some surprising foods can also offer a dose of gluten. Foods such as pickles (it's the brining liquid!), blue cheese, and even hot dogs can be inappropriate for those who eat gluten free. What's more, some medications and cosmetics use gluten as a binding agent, so it's best to check those labels as well.
5. Celiac disease is a nuisance, but it isn't life-threatening. Sure, the stomach pain, bone pain, skin rash, and digestive issues are more distressing than fatal, but some celiac sufferers really are at risk. According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, if left undiagnosed or untreated, celiac disease can lead to the development of other autoimmune disorders, infertility and even, in some very rare instances, cancer.
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6. Gluten intolerance is an allergy. Celiac disease patients have an autoimmune disorder that causes an immune reaction triggered by gluten. There are many people for whom gluten has an adverse effect, but who do not have celiac disease. In those instances, a person may have what's known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity or he or she may have a wheat allergy.