Less than a decade ago, few people had heard of gluten. Now that’s all changed. Thousands across North America are choosing to reduce or completely remove the common protein from their diets to improve their health. “Gluten-free” foods now line grocery store shelves and most people are at least familiar with someone on a gluten-free diet.
But what exactly is gluten and what harm does it really cause for your health? It’s a discussion worth talking about in May, which is National Celiac Awareness Month. Celiac disease is the autoimmune disorder that is mainly to blame for the need to avoid gluten in the diet. The prevalence of celiac disease has skyrocketed in the United States with a four-fold increase in Americans being diagnosed since 1950 (1). Even greater than the rise in the number of those diagnosed with celiac disease is the rise in the number of people diagnosed with gluten sensitivity or intolerance (2).
For those who don’t have these conditions, gluten is a harmless and a nutritious source of protein found in wheat, rye, oats, and barley. But for those with celiac disease, gluten can trigger an immune response in the small intestine causing damage to the absorptive lining. This damage can cause a host of negative symptoms including increased risk for malnutrition due to an inability to absorb essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
According to the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, more than 300 different symptoms are reportedly caused by celiac disease. Among those symptoms are gastrointestinal (GI) conditions such as persistent diarrhea or constipation, bloating, abdominal pain, vomiting, and weight loss. Additionally, non GI-related symptoms have been reported as well: fatigue, rash, joint pain, and fertility issues.
Because symptoms vary so widely from person to person—with up to 38 percent of affected individuals reporting no physical symptoms at all—celiac disease is difficult to diagnose. In fact, the Celiac Disease Center estimates that 97 percent of those with the disease are unaware they have it. Adding to the mystery, gluten sensitivity is just a cluster of symptoms. Unsure of the cause, or really the response, gluten sensitivity mimics discomforts experienced in celiac disease without the destruction to the intestine.
Generally, the treatment for gluten-related disorders is to exclude all gluten-containing products from the diet. As the public and medical professionals labor to gain ground in diagnosing the often broad clusters of symptoms, it’s difficult to avoid marketing gluten-free as a health tonic to the public.
Should those without celiac disease or any gluten sensitivity avoid gluten? The answer here is probably not. As long as symptoms don’t appear after eating gluten, there is really no reason to cut out the valuable amounts of the protein. However, it’s true that eating gluten-free might have ancillary benefits such as resulting in reduction of empty calorie foods such as bread, crackers, and pizza. Those who avoid these processed varieties also tend to substitute them with more healthy alternatives such as fruits and vegetables.
Those who think they may have symptoms associated with gluten sensitivities should make an appointment with a physician for appropriate testing.
Fortunately, as the prevalence of gluten intolerance and sensitivity has grown, so have the food options available for the people living with the disorder. For example, all Isagenix products are free of gluten with the exception of SlimCakes. Isagenix Greens! also currently contain gluten although the product is in the process of being reformulated and will be gluten-free in the very near future. Because there is always a possibility of cross-contamination, Isagenix also goes the extra mile in assuring that products labeled “gluten free” are tested for gluten by independent laboratories.
1. Rubio-Tapia A, et al. Increased prevalence and mortality in undiagnosed celiac disease. Gastroenterology 2009 Jul;137(1):88-93. Epub 2009 Apr 10.
2. Di Sabatino A, Corazza GR. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: sense or sensibility? Ann Intern Med. 2012 Feb 21;156(4):309-11.