Twenty percent of Americans say they actively try to eat gluten-free foods, according to a new Gallup poll. Gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye, is an increasingly controversial topic in the food and diet world.
The market for gluten-free snacks ballooned by 163 percent from 2012 to 2014, and consumers are gobbling up gluten-free goodies for a couple of reasons. First, awareness of celiac disease and gluten sensitivities is higher than ever before. Second, there's a health halo encircling gluten-free products: The diet is often associated with health and weight loss, even though there is no evidence that those unaffected by a diagnosed gluten intolerance would benefit from nixing the protein from their diets. A recent study published in the Journal of American Academy of Physician Assistants confirms that despite their popularity, gluten-free diets are not healthier for the general public than gluten-filled diets. In truth, other studies show gluten-free products are nutritionally similar, if not identical, to their gluten-filled original versions.
“Our research confirms much of what we already knew – while the gluten-free diet is a legitimate therapeutic tool for those affected by gluten-related disorders, there has been a corrosion of common sense from people needlessly jumping on the fad diet bandwagon,” recent study co-author Glenn Gaesser, a researcher and professor at Arizona State University, said in a statement.
“In fact, people who eliminate gluten may end up gaining weight because these foods often have more calories than their gluten-containing counterparts," he added.
While gluten-free products are taking over grocery store shelves, only about one percent of Americans have celiac disease, the serious illness in which the consumption of gluten damages the small intestine. Gluten-free breads, chips and cereals that were first manufactured for a gluten-sensitive group are now continuously marketed to a mostly gluten-tolerant population. "People who have celiac have every right to eat a crappy tortilla without gluten," registered dietitian and Hummusapien blogger Alexis Joseph told The Huffington Post. "Gluten free products that help people with celiac aren't healthier, they just help people with celiac and gluten intolerances enjoy their foods in a safe way."
The misinterpretation linking gluten-free with healthier eating may have formed out of timing: Joseph noted that celiac awareness started to reach the mainstream around the same time grain-free and paleo diets became trendy. Grain-free and paleo approved foods are often whole foods, which Joseph explained are the key to a healthy diet. "Limiting those refined foods that inherently have gluten -- snacky carby foods -- is a smart way to eat," she said, but replacing gluten-filled snack foods with gluten-free snack foods probably won't trim your waistline.
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