Gluten-free diets have become a fad here, but they aren’t for the average student

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Junior Caroline Payne prepares a gluten-free lunch. According to The New York Times, there has been a recent increase in the popularity of gluten-free diets despite uncertainty about the diet’s health benefits. PHOTO / SUBMITTED PHOTO

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It is lunchtime for junior Caroline Payne and, while her friends may be digging into a slice of pizza or a bowl of pasta, she pulls out her lunchbox to enjoy her typical meal of yogurt, fruit, lentil crackers and a sandwich on rice flour bread. When Payne cut gluten from her diet at the end of her freshman year, she joined the growing number of Americans who avoid consuming the grains wheat, rye and barley due to gluten intolerance, celiac disease or the belief that the diet is healthier.

“I had a lot of trouble with my stomach for a couple of years and so (the doctors) told me to test out not eating gluten to see if it helped and it did, so they determined that I’m gluten-intolerant,” Payne said. “I can still have some gluten, but only in small, infrequent amounts.”

A study from the Mayo Clinic in 2012 revealed that about 1 percent of adults in the United States have celiac disease today, which is four times more than 50 years ago. The autoimmune disease that was once considered a rarity is now growing in frequency, likely due to an increasing number of autoimmune diseases overall as well as increased screening for celiac disease, making it more well known.

According to Julie Barnum, pediatric dietician at the Riley Hospital for Children, those with a gluten intolerance will exhibit the same symptoms as those with celiac disease, but the consumption of gluten will not result in damage of the small intestine or the malabsorption of nutrients in the diet, as it will in those with celiac disease. Barnum said that the most common symptoms for both celiac disease and gluten intolerance include abdominal pain or distention, gassiness, fatigue or constipation. Short stature can also be a symptom of celiac disease.

Junior Caroline Payne prepares a gluten-free lunch. According to The New York Times, there has been a recent increase in the popularity  of gluten-free diets despite uncertainty about the diet’s health benefits. PHOTO / SUBMITTED PHOTO
Junior Caroline Payne prepares a gluten-free lunch. According to The New York Times, there has been a recent increase in the popularity
of gluten-free diets despite uncertainty about the diet’s health benefits. PHOTO / SUBMITTED PHOTO

Although only approximately 4 percent of Americans suffer from gluten intolerance, a survey in January 2013 from the NPD Group showed that 30 percent of the adult population said they are “trying to cut back or avoid gluten” in their diet. However, despite popular opinion, for those who do not have symptoms of gluten intolerance, eliminating the grain protein from their diet is likely not healthier and may even be detrimental, according to Barnum.

“There are not any proven benefits in clinical studies to following a gluten-free diet if not medically indicated,” Barnum said via email. “The gluten-free diet is generally low in certain nutrients including fiber, iron, zinc and B vitamins since gluten-free breads and grains are not generally fortified with these nutrients.”

With celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian attributing weight loss to cutting gluten from their diet in the past year, it’s no surprise that foods hawked as gluten-free have been popping up in grocery stores all across the nation, with the gluten-free food industry worth $4.2 billion, according to estimates by the market research publisher Packaged Facts. Naturally, this is a positive change for those who avoid gluten for medical reasons, as their number of choices and an awareness of what the gluten is have both greatly expanded. But Barnum also strongly dispels the idea that a gluten-free diet leads to weight loss.

“As with many other popular diets, several celebrities have endorsed a gluten-free diet, especially for weight loss. The gluten-free diet does not always produce weight loss, and often has the opposite effect, resulting in weight gain,” Barnum said. “Weight loss generally happens if breads and grains are removed from the diet and not replaced with gluten-free alternatives, (as that) results in a decrease in total calorie intake. However, weight gain is likely when grains are replaced (with gluten-free grains) which are generally higher in calories than gluten-containing grains.”

Payne agreed that weight loss is not a common result from a gluten-free diet.

“Honestly, from my point-of-view, my family eats pretty low-calorie anyway, and when we switched to this gluten-free stuff, it’s actually higher in calories than what I would normally eat, so I don’t quite get why (people) are doing it to lose weight,” Payne said. “To make up for the wheat that you take out, you have to put in other stuff, which then makes the fat and calories go up.”

When Payne first began her gluten-free lifestyle, her family and friends decided to try it with her, but many lost interest quickly.

“My whole family partially went gluten-free but my sister didn’t jump on board quite as much. My friends, some of them tried it with me too, but that died when they tried my gluten-free brownies one time,” Payne said.

While it took Payne a while to find gluten-free replacements for some of her favorite foods, like bread and pasta, she eventually grew accustomed to it.

“It’s hard, I mean, I love bread. So you just have to find what you like that’s gluten-free. We tried a lot of stuff and threw a lot of stuff away for a while because when you first start, some of it’s really gross,” Payne said. “The hardest part is going out to restaurants. I’m already a picky eater anyway so that makes it like, two items on the menu that I can eat.”

Barnum suggested that teenagers interested in adopting a gluten-free diet should meet with a registered dietician.

“(They) would review their calorie goal and develop a meal plan that is adequate in all nutrients,” Barnum said. “People with symptoms of celiac will typically have a blood test done and then an endoscopy to see if there is damage (to the small intestine).”

With the growing popularity of gluten-free diets in pop culture combined with the growing number of Americans being diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance, it is likely the gluten-free food industry and fans of the diet won’t be going anywhere soon.

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