Turkey and tomato on wheat. Whole-grain pasta. Healthy, right? Maybe. But more and more people believe these foods are parts of a potentially disastrous trap. They claim that sluggishness and weight gain can be blamed on an insidious substance hiding in wheat and many other common grains: gluten.
Avoiding gluten has become big business. Sales of gluten-free products grew about 30 percent a year from 2006 to 2010, and will hit $3.9 billion by next year, according to the market research company Packaged Facts. Supermarket shelves are filled with gluten-free breads, soups, and cake mixes—even gluten-free ketchup and soy sauce. According to market research firm Mintel, 10 percent of new foods launched in 2010 featured a "gluten-free" claim, up from only 2 percent 5 years earlier.
NFL quarterback Drew Brees won a Super Bowl while on a gluten-free diet. Cyclist Tom Danielson, a record-breaking member of the Garmin-Transitions team, says his training and racing have improved since he and his teammates went gluten-free over a year ago.
Have most common whole grains been acting as insidious nutritional double agents all these years? Or are they essential components of a healthy diet? Let's separate the wheat from the chaff.
What is Gluten, Anyway? How Does it Affect the Body?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, as well as in many common food additives. It's what gives dough its elasticity and baked goods their satisfying chewiness. But for people with celiac disease—a type of autoimmune disorder—eating foods that contain gluten can lead to a cascade of nasty reactions, including damage to the small intestine, poor nutrient absorption, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, anemia, and fatigue.
Celiac disease is surprisingly common, affecting about one in every 133 people, according to an often-cited 2003 study from the University of Maryland center for celiac research. There is no cure for celiac disease and no drugs that can treat it; you can only manage the condition, by sticking to a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life.
Even if you don't have celiac disease, gluten may still be bad for you, says Lara Field, M.S., R.D., a dietitian at the University of Chicago's celiac disease center. A rising percentage of people in the United States consider themselves "gluten-sensitive." "These people may have a food intolerance or experience many celiac-type symptoms after consuming foods that contain gluten," says Field. Some may have a form of wheat allergy. If you think you may have symptoms of a gluten intolerance, ask your doctor about scheduling a blood test to find out for sure.
Should I Avoid Eating Gluten Even if I Don't Have Problems With It?
Gluten is also shunned by another group: People who simply think gluten encourages weight gain and who claim to feel more energetic when they don't consume it. They say humans didn't evolve the ability to digest certain domesticated grains containing gluten, and that avoiding gluten leads to more energy, better absorption of nutrients, and loss of excess weight.
Allen Lim, Ph.D., a former exercise physiologist for Garmin-Transitions, believes that going gluten-free has helped his team perform at a higher level. So does Danielson, who, like any competitive cyclist, burns—and eats—an immense number of calories and pays close attention to what seems to work. "After I started the diet, I had better results. I didn't feel as fatigued, and my recovery period was quicker," says Danielson, who puts in 6-plus hours during a typical training session.