The gluten-free bandwagon might be tipping over. Originally a strict diet for those with celiac disease, a gluten-free lifestyle is now being adopted by people for reasons ranging from gluten sensitivity to weight loss.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related grain products such as barley and rye. According to Health Canada, one per cent of the population suffers from a genetic condition that causes the immune system to react negatively to gluten, damaging the small intestines and compromising their ability to absorb nutrients. The only cure for this condition, known as celiac disease, is to stop eating gluten completely.
“We only need a crumb to make us sick,” says Ellen Bayens, who runs a website called theceliacscene.ca, a directory of celiac-friendly restaurants across Canada. “There’s a lot of damage that can be done microscopically.”
Celiac disease is associated with conditions like type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome, thyroiditis, arthritis, ataxia, depression and neuropathy. Other long-term complications include osteoporosis, lymphoma and infertility. The Canadian Celiac Association says high instances of these issues are found in people with celiac disease compared to the general population.
“It’s called a chameleon disease — it takes on many forms,” says Bayens, who adds that the vast majority of sufferers remain undiagnosed.
Celiac symptoms vary among individuals, making it hard to diagnose. Symptoms may include gastrointestinal issues, weight loss, bone pain, extreme fatigue, mouth ulcers and skin rashes. In children, symptoms may also include teething defects or developmental delays.
After experiencing low energy and frequent stomach aches, UVic student Allie Short cut out gluten from her diet for two years before confirming her celiac status through a blood test this summer.
“I’m still kind of easing my way into it. It’s really difficult,” says Short of the strict diet. “It’s a lot more expensive, mainly, and it’s challenging just to get snacks on campus or to grab something quick to eat.”
Victoria resident Ashley O’Neill discovered her sensitivity to gluten after digestive issues prompted her to get evaluated by a naturopathic doctor. A person is considered sensitive or intolerant to gluten if they notice symptoms but do not test positive for the specific antibodies present in celiac patients, which was the case for O’Neill.
Like Short, O’Neill found it challenging to go out to eat.
“I found when I was going out to eat with friends, it was something I tried to avoid, because I didn’t want to be the girl who can’t eat this, can’t eat that. My friends wouldn’t put pressure on me, but I put pressure on myself,” says O’Neill of her initial diet transition.
There is limited research on gluten sensitivity, as there is no clear diagnostic test available, according to the Canadian Celiac Association.
Both Short and O’Neill notice a growing trend of going gluten-free to lose weight.
Says Short, “Whenever I mention that I don’t eat gluten, people tell me, ‘Oh, I did that for a few weeks and lost so much weight.’ ”
Shelley Case, a dietitian and author on gluten-free nutrition, says, “There’s nothing magical about wheat and weight gain. Cutting out those high-calorie foods containing gluten may be why people are losing weight.”
Conversely, Case says she has seen many people gain weight on the gluten-free diet because of the higher sugar, fat and starch content in some gluten-free products.
Victoria is the friendliest place in Canada for people on gluten-free diets, says Bayens, who notes restaurants like Santé Gluten Free Café, The Olive Grove Restaurant and Old British Fish and Chips, grocery stores like Lifestyle Markets, and the popular Origin Bakery all cater to gluten-free diets. Origin Bakery co-owner Marion Neuhauser says some of their customers are those who want to just “feel better” by avoiding gluten.
People need to get tested for celiac disease before going gluten-free to avoid a false negative, suggests Health Canada. Bayens says this also avoids “the gluten challenge” — the intensification of symptoms that can occur when gluten is reintroduced after a period of avoiding it.