Many recent articles about being gluten-free revolve around the diet being a medical necessity; other recent articles treat the diet as a fad. Today's Newsday picked up a Chicago Tribune article by Janet Helm entitled "The challenge of giving up gluten."—a well-sourced item that addresses both the medical issues and the possible trendiness related to the diet.
Most definitely, people with celiac disease need to avoid gluten. Otherwise, this autoimmune disorder can damage the small intestine and interfere with the absorption of nutrients. For celiac sufferers, a gluten-free diet is far from a fad - it is the only treatment.Lately I've been wondering about a possible contributor to the trendiness of gluten-free diets that Helm's article doesn't mention. With the food industry's bullishness about gluten-free products, it seems that more and more products show up with "gluten-free" labels but no explanation that the labels are pertinent for people on medical diets. Consumers who see the labels possibly associate the labels as something generally positive (like "vitamin packed") rather than of most relevance to people with celiac disease and/or wheat allergies. Perhaps increased awareness of celiac disease causes people to go on the diet, but perhaps increased awareness of the "gluten-free" label—without increased awareness of celiac disease—might come into play, too.
What appears less clear is whether gluten can be blamed for other problems such as autism. Carol Fenster has been gluten-free for 20 years even though she does not have celiac disease. She's part of a growing group who say they simply feel better avoiding gluten.
Experts say that the growing attention on gluten is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it may encourage more people to get tested for celiac - which still remains undiagnosed in about 97 percent of the people who have it in this country. A typical diagnosis often takes 10 years because the symptoms are mistaken for other conditions. But, ironically, the current fervor over gluten may be making a proper diagnosis even trickier.
Starting a gluten-free diet before being tested for celiac may cause the gut to heal temporarily and an accurate diagnosis will be missed, said Dr. Joseph A. Murray, a celiac disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
"If you're concerned about celiac, you should be tested before treating yourself," he said.
Self-diagnosis is rampant, probably due to the increased awareness of the disease. People are more likely to know someone with celiac now, and they relate to the diverse and often vague symptoms associated with the disease, Murray said.
If celiac is ruled out, Murray said there is little or no evidence to support a connection between gluten and other ailments, including autism. Even so, he said there is nothing wrong with cutting out gluten as long as your diet is nutritionally complete.
Just musing, is all. I'd be interested in seeing studies of the phenomena discussed in the article. And I'm looking forward to seeing studies about possible relations between gluten and symptoms associated with autism. I think there are some coming.