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Why are so many going gluten free? And should they?
A book called Wheat Belly is on the New York Times bestseller list, focusing on claims that eating wheat is a health hazard.
Early in August, the FDA released a new set of standards for the labeling of “gluten-free” products, which have soared in popularity—and profitability—partly due to increased knowledge about celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which the body reacts to the gluten protein found in grains by attacking it, causing inflammation and a whole range of symptoms. How many Americans have celiac disease is in dispute. FDA figures put it at 3 million.
But the desire to go gluten free now includes many others: People with Crohn’s disease and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), those who have self-diagnosed as being “gluten sensitive,” those who think it will aid weight loss, and those who believe, like the cardiologist who wrote Wheat Belly, that genetically modified wheat is simply unhealthful.
David Katz, M.D., director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, published a 2011 Huffington Post article in which he wrote, “Studies based on blood kept in storage clearly indicate that actual rates of celiac disease have risen over recent decades, as much as four-fold in the past half a century. There is more to this story than better detection.”
Yet Dr. Katz does not tout going gluten free as a magic bullet for all that ails ya, cautioning, “…it is still quite hard [to go fully gluten free], given the widespread use of gluten in packaged foods, under a wide variety of aliases. The effort is well justified for those who are truly gluten-sensitive, but potentially much ado about nothing for others just caught up in the trend.”
But many people have found relief of ongoing symptoms by adopting a gluten-free diet, including those who have conditions other than celiac disease.
Thirteen-year-old Errin Foster is the son of well-known local radio personality Eric Foster. When Errin was 11, he began repeatedly throwing up and losing weight. “One day, when he stepped out of the shower, I realized how much weight he had lost,” Foster recalls. “We immediately took him to a pediatrician, who diagnosed him with Crohn’s disease [an inflammatory bowel disease].”
Errin was put on prednisone, a steroid that often causes a whole other set of symptoms. The Fosters wanted to find a different solution, so they found Dr. Youhonna Al-Tawil, director of East Tennessee Children’s Hospital Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition Services. Besides prescribing Remicade, commonly used to treat Crohn’s, Dr. Al-Tawil suggested an almost gluten-free diet for Errin.
Now the entire Foster family eats a nearly gluten-free diet. “Errin has to stay away from anything with seeds. Fast food is limited to some choices at Subway. And as a young man, that has been difficult at times,” says Foster. But, he says, Errin’s symptoms are now under control, and he has embraced his role as an educator about his condition. “And my wife and I also feel much healthier,” Foster says.
Chattanooga State theatre arts professor Jeffrey Parker was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was 18, and has been coping with the condition ever since. “The symptoms can be pretty serious. I have been on every regimen over the years,” he says. A theatre colleague introduced him to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), created in the 1920s by Dr. Sidney V. Hass, and popularized by the 1994 book Breaking the Vicious Cycle by biochemist Elaine Gottschalk. SCD, which is gluten free, also restricts many other types of foods.
“It’s essentially a two-year plan. After that, you can try reintroducing certain foods,” says Parker. “So far, I have found it to be incredibly effective.” The idea is to give the body time to heal itself and “detox,” he explains. “I feel better than I have in years.” (It’s worth noting that many doctors remain suspicious of the SCD, and many people find the diet’s restrictions too onerous.)
In 2007, local graphics designer Robin Seaman began noticing skin and joint problems and “foggyheadedness.” A cousin suggested she try removing certain foods from her diet, and she did, for a year. “When I began adding foods back in, especially ones with wheat, the symptoms began to return,” she says. “I didn’t associate it specifically with gluten.” Then, last Christmas, when she was making a family-tradition braided bread, her hands “started to feel like they were on fire.” She immediately cut out all foods with wheat gluten.
“I have not been diagnosed with celiac disease,” she says, “but I have gluten intolerance.”
Like Foster and Parker, Seaman notes that it’s now far easier for those trying to avoid gluten to eat out and find products in mainstream grocery stores. “For example,” she says, “5 Guys Burgers and Fries is very careful to avoid cross-contamination. I can eat fish tacos, and there are sushi restaurants now that have gluten-free soy sauce. More and more restaurants have gluten-free menus or items on their regular menus that are gluten free.”