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Published on March 21, 2016

Even political candidates weigh in on gluten-free fadEven political candidates weigh in on gluten-free fad

In February, Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz announced that if he was commander in chief, he wouldn’t serve gluten-free meals to members of the military. He equated gluten-free meals with a trendy politically-correct fad that he wanted no part of.

There is some truth to his skepticism about the gluten-free movement, but it’s very real to the one out of every 100 Americans who actually suffer from celiac disease.

“Celiac disease is a real disease and people who have it have to be on a gluten-free diet for a lifetime,” said Amy Rose Sager, dietician for the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod. “It’s not a fad.”

Sager, who also owns Leap into Wellness, a health and nutrition business, said that people get confused because gluten-free has become such a big trend in dining that it’s even showing up on restaurant menus.

A Gallup poll last summer indicated that one in five Americans include gluten-free food in their diet. In December the market research team Mintel reported that half of Americans think gluten-free is a fad, while 25 percent eat gluten-free food.

The biggest problem with this movement is that it hurts those who actually are allergic to the gluten in wheat, rye and barley. As highlighted in a recent Boston Globe article, if high numbers of people say they are allergic to wheat when they really aren’t, chefs and servers may not take it as seriously. This increases the risk that someone with celiac disease might be served wheat that will harm them because they are being lumped in with the trendy foodies.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder with strong genetic ties. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their body’s immune system attacks their small intestine, damaging the villi (small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine) where vitamins get absorbed. Over time, a person will suffer from nutrient deficiency.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, untreated celiac disease can lead to the development of other autoimmune disorders and diseases such as:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • multiple sclerosis
  • dermatitis
  • anemia
  • early onset osteoporosis
  • infertility
  • epilepsy
  • migraines
  • intestinal cancer

That’s bad news because the Celiac Disease Foundation estimates that there are about 2.5 million Americans who are undiagnosed.

“A lot of times people don’t even have symptoms when they are eating gluten and they feel okay,” said Sager. “But it puts them at risk for other diseases and cancers as they get older.”

The symptoms of celiac disease are many and include:

  • Anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Failure to thrive
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Discolored teeth
  • Loss of hair

The Celiac Disease Foundation has a checklist of symptoms that people can fill out to bring to their physician if they suspect they have a problem.

“A biopsy used to be the gold standard to test for celiac but now they start with a simple blood test,” Sager said. “Anybody who has gastro-intestinal problems should have it.”

The rub is that you can only be tested if you are currently eating gluten. If you are already eating a gluten-free diet the test will come back negative even if you have the disease.

The gluten-free craze morphed into a $10.5 billion dollar industry in 2015 and it’s expected to reach $23.9 billion dollars by 2020.

For Sager, one of the big problems with most gluten-free food is that they are highly processed with a lot of unnatural additives.