Taking the position of the age old question, what came first: the gluten-free craze or the increase in more people diagnosed with Celiac Disease? It’s interesting that just a few years ago, “gluten-free” was relatively unheard of, yet now almost every restaurant menu touts gluten-free menu options, and grocery stores are devoting entire sections to gluten-free foods. But is this a diet craze as many people argue, or is it that our modern day environment and eating habits have actually increased the instances of Celiac Disease? Which came first?
First, let’s take a look at what Celiac Disease does to the body. Celiac Disease affects the digestive system by causing the small intestine to “attack” itself. This occurs when the person consumes gluten, a protein found in wheat, oats, barley, and rye. The body releases a protein called gliadin to break down the gluten, but in a person with Celiac Disease, gliadin initiates a hyperactive immune response that sparks the body to attack the broken down gluten as a foreign body, as well as the entire small intestine, disrupting the digestive process which can lead to malabsorption and other nasty symptoms. It can even cause permanent damage to the small finger-like villi of the small intestine.
For someone with Celiac Disease, it’s a serious condition and not a fad-diet; but with new diagnoses like “gluten-intolerance” on the rise, in addition to actual Celiac Disease cases, we must ask ourselves, what’s really going on? One study conducted by MayoClinic found that Celiac Disease diagnoses are 4 times more frequent today than 50 years ago, and of the 1 percent of the world’s Celiac sufferers, approximately 3 million of those are Americans, with an estimated 2.5 million yet to be diagnosed.
Is it our environment? The amount of processed foods we eat? Or is it that we simply have better tools to diagnose the condition? There have been no solid answers to date, but there’s something going on. In fact, Joseph A. Murray, the doctor and professor of Medicine and Gastroenterology at Mayo Clinic whose research was published in that study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, calls this a “public health issue” in an article published by Time Magazine. In this article, Murray discusses that while the wheat seed hasn’t changed, the way we process and prepare gluten products has.
While Genetically Modified wheat isn’t being grown commercially, yet, hybridized wheat is, and could be to blame. Hybridization occurs when scientists choose certain strains of a plant with desirable characteristics and breed that strain to reinforce those traits. The result is successive generations of a particular plant that is quite different from its original ancestor. In an article published on About Health, author of the popular book Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis, points out that even “small changes in wheat protein structure can spell the difference between a devastating immune response to wheat protein versus no immune response at all.” Although Dr. Davis is also claiming that today’s wheat contains more gluten, there’s been no real scientific proof behind that assumption. However; Americans may be consuming more gluten in the form of processed foods containing wheat gluten, as Murray also alludes to in his book Wheat Belly.
While there’s yet to be one true, clear reason why Celiac Disease and gluten sensitivity diagnoses are on the rise, the finger seems to be pointing more and more to our modern-day processed foods diet and overall environment. For everyday Americans, relief could come in the form of the elimination of processed foods containing wheat gluten and a focus on eating a more plant-based diet. If you don’t have gluten issues, there’s no need to remove the wheat protein from your diet just yet but as soon as (hopefully never) GMO wheat hits commercial markets, we may all be in trouble.