The gluten-free food craze is fueling a multibillion-dollar growth industry. And as many as one in three restaurant-goers are asking for gluten-free menu items in Los Angeles and New York, by some accounts. Facebook has more than 1,000 groups with "gluten free" in the name and there’s even a dating group called "Gluten-free singles."
But is going gluten-free the right choice for everyone and are there any downsides to consider?
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Those questions are driving a healthy debate pitting gluten-free advocates, who say such foods help promote weight loss and lower inflammation, against health experts who argue there is no major benefit except for people with celiac disease, whose bodies can't process the protein in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains.
Until recently, most doctors took a dim view of gluten-free diets for people without celiac disease, noting some contain fewer vitamins, less fiber, and more sugar.
But that view is changing with a growing number of nutritionists, and some doctors, now saying gluten-free foods are nutritionally equal to or better than their gluten-containing counterparts — even for individuals without celiac disease.
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Dr. Robert Newman, a certified nutritionist and wellness expert from East Northport, N.Y., tells Newsmax TV that gluten-free diets aren’t for everyone. But for many people with gastro-intestinal problems who may have sensitivities to gluten (including some who have not been diagnosed with celiac disease) will benefit from eliminating the protein from their diet.
“Really what we’re talking about is a spectrum — from celiac disease, a disease process, to just a sensitivity to gluten,” he explains. “You can have a whole myriad of symptoms that [be addressed] by going gluten free.”
In an interview on Newsmax TV’s new Meet the Doctors program, Dr. Newman notes many products containing gluten from wheat, barley, rye, and other grains are high-calorie foods that can contribute to high blood sugar and obesity. He adds that a number of foods are naturally free of gluten, as are many ancient grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, teff, buckwheat groats, and millet.
For people who are having unexplained gastro-intestinal problems, he recommends consulting a doctor. A blood test can indicate a strong possibility of gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Going gluten-free for a period of time, and monitoring any changes in symptoms, can also provide a clue for people with gluten sensitivities.
“I really think you need to go to your physician to get diagnosed,” he advises, noting genetic and antibody blood testing is available. “If you’re having that whole myriad of symptoms and you just can’t solve it and all of a sudden you go gluten-free for, let’s say two weeks, and you feel so much better, that’s a great response.”
Gluten-free diets are a relatively new health trend. A decade ago, most Americans had never heard of gluten. Today, many restaurants and food manufacturers are retooling recipes to capitalize on the growing interest in gluten-free products. Global retail sales of gluten-free products have nearly doubled since 2007 to $2.1 billion, according to a recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal.
About three million Americans suffer from celiac disease and must avoid gluten. For those individuals, the protein triggers an autoimmune response that damages or destroys the tiny, finger-like outgrowths (called villi) that line the small intestine like a microscopic carpet. Villi absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, but when they are damaged, it can cause malnutrition, serious weight loss, deficiencies in many nutrients, and exhaustion.
The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimates another 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivities and experience gastrointestinal discomfort when they eat products containing the protein.
Part of what’s driving the trend toward gluten-free diets is a growing interest, particularly among aging baby boomers, in adopting healthier eating habits, as well as in other aspects of life. Food manufacturers have sought to capitalize on the trend over the past decade by producing not only gluten-free products but those labeled "low carb," "all-natural," "organic," "non-GMO," "dairy-free," "probiotic," and "hormone free."
Some health experts say we are focusing too much on what we eat, and not enough on how much we eat — and the fact that Americans are becoming ever more sedentary.
Federal health statistics show Americans are consuming nearly 500 more calories per day, on average, than in the 1970s. And over the last two decades the number of sedentary Americans — those who say they get no regular physical activity at all each day — has risen over the past two decades to about 50 percent.
Regardless of whether you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, Dr. Newman and other nutrition experts say it’s important for everyone to eat a balanced diet of foods with high-quality nutrients.
“There are so many foods you can eat instead of gluten-free foods,” he says.
Wheat flour-based foods can be replaced with nutrient-packed whole grains, such as quinoa, teff, or whole-grain rice (brown, red, black, or wild). Fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, beans, and nuts are naturally gluten-free.
As the gluten-free craze takes hold, it is also likely to prompt food makers to reformulate popular foods that are now off-limits to people who can’t eat them. In fact, it’s already happening.