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Wellness

Fewer People Are Sensitive To Gluten Than Commonly Believed

By Julie Upton for U.S. News

It seems as if everyone is going to great lengths to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and many processed foods. Are there real health benefits associated with going gluten-free, or is it just another passing fad?

A recently published study in the journal Digestion found that 86 percent of individuals who believed they were gluten sensitive could tolerate it. Individuals with celiac disease, a hereditary autoimmune condition that affects about 3 million Americans, or roughly 1 percent of the population, must avoid gluten. Those with extremely rare wheat allergies must also remove gluten from their diet. In addition, those with gluten sensitivity, a condition that affects 6 percent of the population (18 million individuals), should also avoid gluten.

That doesn't explain why an estimated 30 percent of shoppers are choosing "gluten-free" options, and 41 percent of U.S. adults believe "gluten-free" foods are beneficial for everyone, especially when many of those foods are often lower in nutrients and higher in sugars, sodium and fat than their gluten-free counterparts. And much of the growth in the category is coming from cookies, crackers, snack bars and chips.

Thanks in part to a lot of hype from gluten-free evangelists and celebrity wheat-bashing, many Americans are convinced they're "gluten-sensitive" and better off avoiding foods that contain it. "People want to believe that they are gluten intolerant because it's a way for them to avoid carbs, because they also think carbs make them fat," explains registered dietitian Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

To find out how many people are truly gluten-sensitive, researchers from the University of L'Aquila in Italy enrolled 392 patients who believed they had gluten sensitivity into a controlled clinical trial. All of the subjects were instructed to eat gluten-containing foods for two months before their initial diagnostic tests (blood tests and endoscopies, among others) to determine if they had celiac disease or a wheat allergy. All patients then followed a gluten-free diet for six months. After the six-month period, those who did not test positive for celiac or wheat allergies were instructed to reintroduce gluten-containing foods and they were monitored for symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity.

Results? Of the 392 patients, 6.63 percent tested positive for celiac disease, and two individuals (.51 percent) for wheat allergy. Some 27 patients (6.88 percent) were found to suffer form non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Based on this, 86 percent of those who believe they're sensitive to gluten can tolerate it without negative health consequences. And, when you account for those who had celiac or wheat allergy, some 93 percent of individuals who believe they are gluten-sensitive can tolerate it.

Bottom line: Like celiac disease and wheat allergies, gluten sensitivity is not as prevalent as many believe. What's more, eating a gluten-free diet isn't necessarily healthier, nor is it recommended for weight loss – and it could lead to weight gain.

"Many gluten-free products are higher in calories, fat, sodium and sugar because they need to enhance the flavor and texture to make up for the lack of gluten," explains registered dietitian Marina Chaparro, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For most of us, a diet rich in veggies, fruit, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, eaten in the appropriate portions, is the best way to achieve a healthy weight and reduce risk for chronic diseases.

Think You're Sensitive to Gluten? Think Again originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report.

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Walnuts
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Walnuts are chock-full of heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory nutrients, and are the only good nut source of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), HuffPost Healthy Living earlier reported. That means they help promote blood flow, which in turn allows for efficient delivery of oxygen to the brain. And research presented at the 2010 International Conference on Alzheimer's found that mice with the disease who were regularly fed walnuts had improved memory, learning and motor skill coordination, according to MyHealthNewsDaily.
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Olive Oil
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Olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fats, which have been shown to actually slow brain aging.
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Berries
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Animal studies have long indicated a link between berry consumption and brain health. But a recent study published in the Annals of Neurology found that a diet high in blueberries, strawberries and others were linked to a slower mental decline in areas like memory and focus in a large sample of middle-aged women, reported TIME's Alice Park.
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Coffee
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Caffeine, the mild stimulant found in coffee, improves mental acuity, though the drink's enthusiasts -- who guzzle 120,000 tons of the stuff each year -- likely already know that. Aside from caffeine's brain boosting effects, coffee's antioxidant richness helps maintain brain health. And some research suggests that drinking coffee can actually stave off depression in women.
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Spinach
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Spinach is rich in the antioxidant lutein, which is thought to help protect against cognitive decline, according to researchers from Tufts University. And a longitudinal study at Harvard Medical School found that women who reported eating the most leafy green and cruciferous vegetables had a markedly lower rate of cognitive decline, compared to those who ate the least.
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Dark chocolate
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Antioxidant-rich dark chocolate is healthy for your whole body, but its caffeine content is thought to play a role in maintaining mental acuity. What's more, chocolate is rich in flavonoids, a class of antioxidant that helps to improve blood flow (and thus brain health) by regulating cholesterol and lowering blood pressure.
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Avocados
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Avocados are full of monounsaturated fats that improve vascular health and blood flow, making them another brain food.
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Water
When a person becomes dehydrated, their brain tissue actually shrinks. And several studies have shown that dehydration can affect cognitive function. Dehydration can impair short-term memory, focus and decision making, according to Psychology Today.
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Wheat Germ
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Wheat germ is a rich vegetarian source of choline -- a nutrient that is involved in the body's production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that boosts memory, according to Shape. Eggs are another good choline source.
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Beets
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Beets are a good source of naturally-occurring nitrates, which help improve blood flow to the brain, according to Shape.
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Garlic
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Garlic may help stave off some forms of brain cancer, according to research published in Cancer, the medical journal of the American Cancer Society. Investigators found that the organo-sulfur compounds in garlic actually worked to kill glioblastoma cells -- a type of malignant tumor cell.