As more and more of your friends go gluten-free, you may be wondering: Is there something to this latest diet craze? Is gluten intolerance a thing? Is it getting more common?
The answer is, simply, no.
Only about 1% of people worldwide actually have celiac disease, the rare genetic disorder that makes people intolerant to gluten, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.
In other words, in a room of 100 people, chances are one has celiac, and that number is not on the rise. In fact, a study published this month found that the prevalence of celiac has remained basically unchanged since 2009.
As for all those people who say they don’t have celiac but are just “sensitive” to gluten, a 2013 study out of Monash University suggested that’s probably not true.
So what’s really going on when people stop eating gluten?
Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor at James Madison University who studies the intersection between religion and medicine and who wrote the book “The Gluten Lie,” says it essentially comes down to a mix of psychology and behavioral change.
In the book, Levinovitz interviews Peter Gibson, the Monash University professor of gastroenterology who helped write the 2013 study concluding that non-celiac gluten “intolerance” was probably not a thing. Gibson says the real reason that many people who have cut out gluten claim to feel healthier is simply because they’ve changed their diets.
“I’ve noticed [this] lots of times, even with family members,” Gibson told Levinovitz. “They’ve decided they’re eating a lot of takeaway foods, quick foods, not eating well at all. They read this thing about gluten-free, and then they’re buying fresh vegetables, cooking well, and eating a lot better.”
In other words, while cutting gluten may seem as though it helps you lose weight or clears up your complexion, the reality is that 500 other things could be the real cause.
“Blaming the gluten is easy, but you could point to about a hundred things they’re doing better,” Gibson said.
“When it comes to food sensitivities, people are incredibly unwilling to question self-diagnoses,” Levinovitz wrote. “No one wants to think that the benefits they experienced from going gluten-free … might be psychological.”
On top of that, connecting what we’ve eaten to physical symptoms is incredibly difficult. Studies have shown that not only do we have trouble remembering what we ate when we ate it, but we’re also poor judges of what’s healthy and what’s not.
So rather than jumping to self-diagnose, see a doctor. And stick to the science.