With a recent surge in gluten-free food options, you’d think there was a massive epidemic of people getting sick when they ingest gluten. Not so, if you pay attention to, well, facts.
First Things First — What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the spongy complex of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye that allows dough to rise.
The main cause of all the hype is Celiac disease, which can cause patients to develop headaches, tingling, fatigue, muscle pain, skin rashes, joint pain and other symptoms because the autoimmune attack at the root of the disease gradually erodes the wall of the small intestine, leading to poor absorption of iron, folate and other nutrients that affect everything from energy to brain function.
Is Celiac Disease Common?
Despite being a primary reason why many people claim they can’t have gluten, Celiac disease is still exceedingly rare.
Percentage of U.S. population with given disease or disorder
Celiac disease 1%
Bipolar disorder 2.6%
Heart disease 11.5%
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity 8%*
Note: Some rates listed are for adults only
* Estimates place the number between 5% and 10%.
Remember: Gluten sensitivity is not a form of Celiac disease. Celiac is an autoimmune disease in which the body triggers an attack on the intestines every time gluten is eaten. People with sensitivity may have similar symptoms, such as headaches, but they don’t experience the same type of intestinal damage as those with the disease.
Estimated size of gluten-free industry by year
2012 2015 2017
$1.9 billion $5 billion $6.6 billion
How much more expensive gluten-free food is compared to its counterparts
North America’s share of global gluten-free market
Why Not Go Gluten-Free Anyway?
Unless you’re one of the unlucky few who actually have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, removing gluten from your diet won’t necessarily make you healthier.
If you suspect you have either condition, contact your doctor; you can’t self-diagnose either one. And don’t eliminate gluten “just in case.” Cutting out gluten before getting tested will cause test results to be inaccurate.
Think going gluten-free will help you lose weight? It may not. Following a gluten-free diet doesn’t guarantee you’ll drop the pounds. Many gluten-free products contain more sugar and fat than gluten-heavy counterparts.
And some foods that are naturally gluten-free, like potato chips and rice, can be unhealthy in large portions.