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Nutrition 101

Is Celiac Disease On the Rise?

Is Celiac Disease On the Rise?

It is no secret that the popularity of a gluten-free diet has seemed to grow exponentially but what is interesting is the reason. In a recent study published in the September 2016 JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers share their findings after examining the percentage of the US population that have been diagnosed with celiac compared to the percentage of the population adhering to a gluten-free diet. For a refresher, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten - a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye - causes damage to the small intestine and can cause severe gastrointestinal discomfort and malnutrition. The only treatment is to adhere to a strict gluten free diet.

This latest research indicates that despite the fact that the percentage of the population adhering to a gluten-free diet is steadily increasing, the prevalence of celiac disease is actually relatively stable. The study tracked 22,000 subjects and found that while the number of people on a gluten free diet tripled between 2009 and 2014, the number claiming to be diagnosed with celiac disease has held relatively steady with a slight decline. In 2009, 0.7% of the population had celiac compared to 0.6% in 2013-2014.

While perhaps the genesis of the gluten-free diet began out of necessity for those with celiac disease to manage their diets, there are many others who follow the diet due to a perception that it is healthier overall or to manage gluten sensitivities. Gluten sensitivities are difficult to define and medically diagnose but seem to exist in those who simply feel better overall by avoiding gluten.

Gluten-free diets are also becoming easier to follow, with the increased availability of gluten-free products on the supermarket shelves. However, whatever one’s reason, it is important to remember that going gluten-free does not automatically translate to a healthier diet. Just as being vegetarian can be either healthy or unhealthy, a gluten-free diet still needs to be balanced with an emphasis on whole foods rather than large quantities of processed gluten-free products that are often loaded with sugar, salt, and/or unhealthy fats as gluten-replacers.

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