Reporting Jason DeRusha
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s a fascinating conundrum: Researchers at Mayo Clinic believe about 1 percent of Americans have Celiac Disease and that perhaps 6 percent have a gluten-intolerance.
But 29 percent of Americans tell researchers they’re trying to avoid gluten. Why?
And does going gluten-free make us healthier?
“I was having a lot of health problems,” said Stephanie Meyer, a Twin Cities cook, recipe creator and food writer who went gluten-free three years ago.
“The gluten reaction was immediate and clear,” she said.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Mayo Clinic researchers say cases of Celiac disease are increasing.
People with Celiac disease have trouble digesting gluten, causing severe medical issues. Fads aside, the new study suggests more people are truly getting sick from the gluten found in wheat, rye and barley, but the reasons aren’t clear.
Meanwhile, the market for gluten-free food is up 33 percent since 2009.
“I feel like everyone I know who eliminates gluten benefits,” Meyer said.
But is going gluten-free a good idea for all of us?
“Gluten-free is not going to benefit most people,” said Heidi Greenwaldt, a registered dietitian at University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview.
“People mistakenly think going gluten-free is a magic bullet to weight-loss, which isn’t necessarily because of the gluten; it’s because you’re cutting back on your calories,” Greenwaldt said.
Cutting out processed foods and eating fruits, vegetables and lean meats is obviously a healthy choice.
“Certainly if you’re cutting out extra bread…and replacing it with fruit and vegetables, you are going to feel healthier and probably lose weight,” Greenwaldt said.
But doing it by switching to grocery store foods marketed as “gluten-free” can come at a price.
According to Time Magazine, researchers from Dalhousie Medical School at Dalhousie University in Canada compared the prices of 56 ordinary grocery items that contain gluten with their gluten-free counterparts. All of the gluten-free ones were more expensive, and, on average, gluten-free products were a whopping 242 percent pricier than the gluten-containing versions.
Plus, many gluten-free foods are higher in calories or higher in fat than the regular versions, according to CBS News.
Changing your diet can certainly make you feel better, but doctors aren’t sure if it’s the absence of gluten that’s doing it.
“I would want to know what their typical diet was before,” Greenwaldt said. “Were they cutting out dessert, cookies? Certainly if they had a high intake of those kinds of foods they’re going to feel better.”
Researchers continue looking at how today’s wheat is different from the wheat a generation ago, and why the gluten today may be causing problems for more people.
“I do believe the science is concluding that gluten is potentially irritating to everyone, and that’s why so many feel better,” said Meyer, who points out doing gluten-free the right way can be good for everyone.
She added: “It really puts the focus on whole food, there’s no one who wouldn’t feel better eating whole food.”