It’s hard not to notice all the products labeled “gluten free” in the store and in restaurants. What’s all the fuss about gluten sensitivity? Is there something to this trend? Should you now avoid the staff of life – bread – as another evil in your diet?
Most experts now agree that gluten sensitivity is indeed both real and on the rise. One study conducted by Mayo Clinic researchersOpens new window compared 50-year-old, frozen blood samples of Air Force recruits to recent blood samples and found a significant increase in gluten antibodies, indicators of gluten intolerance. Fifty years ago, only 1 in 700 samples were positive. Now, 1 in 200 show evidence for celiac disease.
Although the study was looking at the most extreme form of gluten intolerance, celiac disease, doctors say they see an increase in lower levels of gluten sensitivity as well.
Sonoma county gastroenterologist Richard Auld, M.D., has become a believer. "Ten years ago I would have said this was a fad,” says Dr. Auld who in reference to the Mayo research adds, “But gluten allergy - autoimmune disease - is much more common now than 50 years ago.”
Why the increase in gluten sensitivity?
The wheat prevalent in our American diet has changed over the recent past. According to clinical nutritionist Sharon Meyer, C.N.C., of Sutter Health’s Institute for Health and Healing at California Pacific Medical Center in San FranciscoOpens new window, American wheat grain has been altered to produce crops that are more robust, drought resistant, or that bake more easily and attractively. However, our guts may not have adapted to these changes. At the same time, Americans are eating more wheat than ever, from that morning muffin to the sandwich at lunch and the pasta for dinner.
Children who eat wheat-based products very early in life – before 3 months of age – may develop a sensitivity as well, says Dr. Auld. He notes that prolonged breastfeeding of infants may help protect against gluten intolerance.
So how can people know for sure whether or not they’re dealing with this growing problem? Unlike celiac disease, mild to moderate gluten sensitivity may not show up in blood tests, leaving people wondering whether or not they’re gluten sensitive. Experts recommend adults follow a careful protocol of eliminating gluten from their diets to see if they notice a difference in suspected symptoms (see the link to our companion article below for tips and instructions). Although safe for adults, children require special considerations when evaluating gluten sensitivity. Always consult with a doctor first.