Visited the supermarket lately? If so, you’ve probably noticed the explosion in the number and variety of gluten-free products. In fact, by next year, sales of gluten-free goods are expected to reach $ 15 billion annually, that’s up from $ 10.5 billion just a couple of years ago, according to Mintel, a market research company.
You may even have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon yourself — a recent survey found that almost 30% of adults are looking to avoid gluten. That’s a lot of people willing to eliminate gluten – a protein found in an array of foods – from wheat, rye, and barley to many processed foods.
But is the sacrifice worth it? Are there real health benefits to giving up gluten or is this just the latest diet craze?
The research is clear that people with celiac disease, a hereditary autoimmune disorder that affects approximately 3 million Americans (about 1% of the population) must avoid gluten to control their condition. Those with rare wheat allergies must also remove gluten from their diet. And people with gluten sensitivity, a condition that affects 6% of the population (18 million individuals) should also stop eating gluten.
While the majority of Americans don’t need to go gluten-free, many are doing so anyway. A recently published study in the journal Digestion found that 86% of individuals who thought they were gluten sensitive could tolerate it with no negative effects.
So why are so many cutting gluten from their diet? According to some experts, it could be that the gluten-free evangelists and celebrity wheat-bashers have convinced them that they should avoid gluten. “People want to believe that they are gluten intolerant because it’s a way for them to avoid carbs, because they also think that carbs make them fat,” explains Vandana Sheth, RD, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Problem is, avoiding gluten can backfire because it can make the diet deficient in essential nutrients, and many gluten-free foods are actually higher in calories, added sugars and saturated fat compared to their gluten-containing counterparts. “Just because a product is gluten free does not automatically make it healthy. Often, gluten free products are made with refined, unenriched, gluten free grains that are typically low in fiber, iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus and zinc,” says Sheth.
The Bottom line: Gluten sensitivity is not as common as many people believe. What’s more, eating a gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily healthier nor is it recommended for weight loss—and it could likely lead to weight gain. If you suspect you may have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, check with your physician before giving gluten the boot.