Deb is a freelance writer and mom. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, toddler son and a sweet but neurotic corgi. Deb is a runner who has completed two marathons and countless other races. She is also a certified yoga instructor. She blogs regularly about parenting and life as a young urban professional mom at Urban Moo Cow.

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Behind the Gluten Free Diet

I live above an organic grocery store. (Before you pass out from envy, I must confess I also live literally* across the street from a major highway. You win some, you lose some.) I’ve noticed a curious trend. Gluten free options are taking over the store: muffins, crackers, pasta, you name it.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a gluten free diet is one that “excludes the protein gluten. Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).” It’s used to treat celiac disease, since gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines of people with the disease.

Wheat not gluten free

Makes sense so far.

But a 2012 study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found “the prevalence of celiac disease in the United States was 0.71% (1 in 141), similar to that found in several European countries [and] most persons who were following a gluten free diet did not have a diagnosis of celiac disease.”

Although another more recent study found the incidence of celiac disease is growing in North America, it still did not explain the wild proliferation of gluten free foods. After all, according to the National Institutes of Health, there are only about two million people in the U.S. with the celiac disease.


Gluten Sensitivity

A study in the October 2012 issue of Biomed Central Medicine classified three types of gluten-related issues: allergies (wheat and other), autoimmune responses (i.e., celiac disease) and, essentially, ‘other,’ or those with gluten issues where the other two culprits are ruled out.

As for a cause in the uptick in the gluten sensitivity, the researchers postulated that “the selection of wheat varieties with higher gluten content has been a continuous process during the last 10,000 years, with changes dictated more by technological rather than nutritional reasons.”

Bagels not gluten free

Possibly. But they also noted that the idea of gluten sensitivity contributed to a “global market of gluten-free products approaching $2.5 billion in global sales in 2010.” I’m always suspicious of strict diets, especially when someone is making a lot of money promoting them. (Good riddance South Beach Diet, Atkins Diet, Blood Type Diet and “Fat-Free” Cake.)

This February 2013 post in the New York Times Well blog discusses the controversy. The doctor interviewed is a clear gluten-sensitivity doubter. He believes the number of people with true gluten sensitivities is limited to one percent of the population, and that a gluten free diet does nothing for someone without a true sensitivity or celiac disease.

Yet academic medical research is often behind on new, counter-intuitive or alternative explanations and remedies for ailments. Studies take a long time to conduct and publish, and the medical establishment is sometimes wary of non-Western approaches.


I want to hear from you: Do you have experience with gluten sensitivity? Has a gluten free diet worked for you or someone you know?


* I am a strict grammarian who despises the rampant misuse of the word “literally.” But in this case, I really literally live across the street from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway!


Images courtesy of AdamR and Marcus /

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Comments (4)

  1. Rachael Herrscher 04/13/2013 at 9:44 am

    My mom has celiac, and I got tested and showed that I had elevated levels in my system (gliadin and a few others I can’t remember?). So I don’t technically have celiac, but my dr. said that my levels were probably where my moms levels were in her 30’s. She was diagnosed with Celiac in her 50’s.

    My entire life gluten has given me a slight stomach ache, made me bloat, and left me feeling uncomfortable for a few hours after I ate. I never drew the connection that it was the gluten until I had my blood work done.

    I feel better without gluten in my diet. I don’t bloat, my joints don’t ache, and I don’t carry as much weight in my mid section.

    Whether it’s our carb heavy diet or gmos or just genetics, I think there are plenty of people out there who feel better without gluten in their diet. I put sugar in the same category – and ultimately, all of those starchy carbs and sugars are responsible for the obesity in our country along with a bunch of other inflammatory diseases.

    As for the gluten free products, I don’t really buy them. I don’t think they are necessarily healthy – just replacements. So I stick to more of a paleo type diet and just forget the breads (and sugar) etc.

    • Deb 04/15/2013 at 9:51 am

      Hi Rachael, thanks for commenting on my piece. Your response is so interesting and similar to the conversation that has been going on on my Facebook page. I didn’t realize you could have something akin to “pre-celiac”.

      And I agree that sugar is a big problem in this country (and elsewhere)!

  2. Tea 04/12/2013 at 10:30 pm

    I know a woman who has celiac disease. She’s roughly nine hundred years old (seriously, she’s probably close to 90), and is the sweetest, tiniest adult person I know. But I also know about 14 people who don’t eat gluten- mostly, I think, because they’re following a trend. Whatevs, more bread for me.

    • Deb 04/15/2013 at 9:49 am

      Tea, you are TOO FUNNY. More bread for me, too, I guess, although I’m not sure that is the best idea. Thanks for coming by.