“Gluten is a vague term — something used to categorize things that are bad. You know? Calories — that’s a gluten. Fat — that’s a gluten.” — Seth Rogan in This is the End
In what is probably the most absurd (but perhaps also the funniest) line from an absolutely terrible movie, comedian Seth Rogan captures an all-too-familiar dietary mystery. Gluten — what exactly is it?
Jimmy Kimmel took to the streets with this same question in his late-night sketch “The Pedestrian Question.”
2.6 million views on YouTube show that the world is curious as well — and that the four ultra-fit “gluten-free” individuals he interviews have absolutely no idea what they are avoiding.
Gluten is, in fact, a protein composite found in wheat, barley and rye. From the Latin gluten — meaning glue — gluten is what gives foods elasticity.
As such, it is most commonly found in doughy foods — breads and pastas, but it is also commonly found in gravies, sauces, soups and salad dressings.
At the core of the current gluten-free diet revolution are those who avoid the protein for medical reasons.
One percent of the U.S. population — about 3 million people — suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune disease of the small intestine.
In what is primarily an inflammatory reaction, when these individuals ingest gluten, they experience an array of symptoms including but not limited to: abdominal pain, joint pain, skin rashes, and fatigue.
Current studies show that an additional six percent — or 18 million more Americans — exhibit signs on a spectrum of “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” These individuals have labs tests that are not consistent with actual celiac disease, but experience similar bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain after consuming gluten.
The evidence for or against gluten free diets for these non-celiac disease individuals is currently being fleshed out, and powerful studies exist on both sides of the issue — some from literally the same authors arriving at two different conclusions.
That hasn’t stopped the meteoric rise of gluten-free foods, however, which now enjoy a cultlike following.
In the current environment of general wellness, farm-to-table, no-carb, slow food, Atkins, low-carb, Paleo, non-GMO, organic, etc., a gluten-free diet fits many molds and hits many high notes.
It forces followers to avoid processed foods, avoid most alcohol, and to consume more fruits, vegetables, and lean organic meats. Even the carbohydrates it does allow add a variety of whole grains often missing from the standard American diet — amaranth, quinoa, and millet for example.
Perhaps most responsible for the current popularity, it helps people subjectively “just feel better” and pockets of gluten-free supporters continue to sprout up nationwide through word-of-mouth.
No surprise, but given this increasing demand, both corporations and the government are listening. The FDA is introducing new labeling requirements for gluten-free foods, and the market of gluten-free products is estimated to reach anywhere from $5 to $15 billion dollars in 2016 according to a recent New York Times article.
At the end of the day, my advice to all patients includes proper diet and regular exercise. Some of the best advice is usually the most simple — and food author Michael Pollen puts it eloquently: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Sage advice, and also somehow vaguely gluten-free. Here to stay? Probably. Right for you? Perhaps. Right for everybody? Time will tell.