Research studies suggest that celiac disease affects 1 percent of the population worldwide, with only 1 in 6 of those going on to be diagnosed. Yet, according to research firm NPD Group, 11 percent of American households follow a gluten-free diet, and about 25 percent of American consumers believe that a gluten-free diet is good for everyone.

What are the implications of this trend for those with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders?

What is celiac?

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine and other major organ systems. The only known treatment is adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.

“Because so many people perceive the gluten-free diet as a fad and not a medical necessity for a segment of the population, they discount the serious implications of accidental gluten exposure...”

Some individuals with celiac disease are asymptomatic, but everyone with the disease is still at risk for long-term complications, including: Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage, neurological conditions like epilepsy and migraines, short stature and intestinal cancers, among others. The prevalence of celiac disease is doubling approximately every 15 years, and we still don’t know why.

Fact vs. fad vs. fiction

The gluten-free trend is both helpful and hurtful for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. On one hand, the gluten-free trend means the number of gluten-free options that can be found in grocery stores and restaurants across the country has increased exponentially. Gluten-free food has become much more accessible and diverse.

On the other hand, because so many people perceive the gluten-free diet as a fad and not a medical necessity for a segment of the population, they discount the serious implications of accidental gluten exposure for individuals with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. This becomes especially relevant when celiac disease patients eat outside of their home.

Very often, questions to restaurant staff about meal ingredients and how foods are prepared are perceived as excessive or annoying. For individuals with celiac disease, however, these questions are critical for health.