Gluten-free Diets Steadily Rise As Celiac Rates Stay the Same

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By Monica Andrade

The number of people avoiding gluten in the United States tripled from 2009 to 2014 compared to the number of Americans who have celiac disease, according to a recent study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal.

Researchers estimated that although 1.76 million people in America have celiac disease, around 2.7 million people have eliminated or decreased their consumption of gluten even though they’ve never been diagnosed with having the disorder.

Dr. Hyun-seok Kim, the study’s lead author, finds the diet popular among females, younger adults ages 20 to 39 and non-Hispanic whites, according to this article.

After analyzing the data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES), Kim and his colleagues found that the percentage of Americans going gluten-free has increased steadily while the prevalence of celiac disease in America remained relatively the same. The NHANES are surveys conducted yearly by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Americans who had celiac disease remained stable at around .68 percent over a five-year period. Meanwhile, Americans who go gluten-free has risen rapidly. From the 2009-2010 period to the 2011-2012 period, there was a .47 percent increase. And then from the 2011-2012 period to the 2013-2014 period, there was a .7 percent increase.

The study is the first to describe trends over time showing the prevalence of people with celiac disease and people who adopt a gluten-free diet without any medical need to, Kim says.

Janis Mena, registered dietitian and nutritionist for University of Florida’s Student Health Care Center, says she believes going gluten-free has gained popularity because of the higher accessibility and also the media.

“I think it’s popular now more so than ever because celiac disease has been around forever and now we actually have more products to assist people,” she says.

Gluten refers to the proteins found in cereal grains, particularly in wheat, that helps food maintain their shape, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Celiac disease is a disorder where people cannot normally digest gluten. Only people who are gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant react negatively toward gluten as their bodies produce an abnormal immune response when breaking it down during digestion. If consumed, gluten will cause the immune system to attack the small intestine, leading to symptoms like diarrhea, bloating and weight loss.

Mena compares having a gluten-free diet to having a vegetarian diet.

“It can be a personal choice based on various reasons,” she said. “People could either go gluten-free because of an intolerance to celiac due to celiac disease or to help them lower their weight because they’ll decrease the amount of wheat products they consume.”

Mena says her only concern about the diet is if people don’t obtain enough minerals from other foods.

“The problem with gluten-free diet is if you give up whole grain bread, you give up more fiber,” she says. “It’s also fortified with iron and folic acid, which are very important minerals for females of a child-bearing age so they have to be very particular with that.”

If people would like to go on a gluten-free diet, Mena recommends replacing the lost minerals with plants.

“Balance is very important for people to follow,” she says. “Especially since we have terrible statistics at UF – only 25% of our students on campus have the necessary portions of fruits and vegetables in their diets.”

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