RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Walk down the aisles of any grocery store nowadays and for every box of crackers, you’re likely to see its gluten-free counterpart a few aisles over. One of the faster-growing sectors of the food industry, gluten-free foods have multiplied over the fast few years, mostly due to the growing need of people with celiac disease—which, according to a new study published in this month’s issue of Gastroenterology, is four times more common today than it was 50 years ago. However, many people are opting to go on a restrictive gluten-free diet because they think it’s healthier. But is it really?
THE DETAILS: Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that causes affected individuals to have an immune-system reaction to the protein gluten, which is found in wheat (all types, including semolina, durum, spelt, kamut, and faro), rye, and barley. The reaction triggered by the gluten damages the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing nutrients, which can lead to vitamin deficiencies that harm the brain, nervous system, bones, liver, and other organs, as well as stunt the growth of children with the disorder. Symptoms of celiac disease make it difficult to diagnose, as they can be vague and hard to pinpoint, for instance, diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue, unexplained weight loss or gain, and unexplained anemia.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one in 133 people are afflicted with the disorder, but nearly 97 percent of them go undiagnosed. And that can actually shorten people’s life spans, based on the results of the study published in Gastroenterology. The authors followed 9,133 Air Force personnel for 45 years and found that members with undiagnosed celiac were four times more likely to die within those 45 years than people who’d been diagnosed with the disease.