MADISON, Wis. - Anyone talking about dieting lately has likely heard about the gluten-free diet. Gluten-free is fast becoming the low-carb of this decade, but is it a healthier option or just a food fad?
Once a rarity, now gluten-free products are popping up everywhere. Experts said the growth has been fueled by people who blame an intolerance to gluten for weight gain, indigestion, fatigue and even depression.
Some people have a medically diagnosed necessity to go gluten-free, but is it a good idea for everyone else?
University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics senior nutritionist Donna Weihofen said for sufferers of celiac disease, following a gluten-free diet is a necessesity.
"Gluten is a natural protein that's found in various grains at various levels," Weihofen said. "It's very high in wheat, oats, rye and barley."
Celebrities including Gwenyth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham and professional athletes Drew Brees and Novak Djokovic have helped the diet go mainstream, claiming gluten-free helps them lose weight.
"There's only 1 percent of the population in this country that have celiac disease," Weihofen said. "There's a lot of people that think they're sensitive to gluten or have gluten intolerance and that's why this market has just blossomed. It's a $2 billion market in the United States today."
According to the National Institutes of Health, only one in 133 people tests positive for celiac.
"Many people do not have to follow a gluten-free diet who are following the gluten-free diet," Weihofen said. "They think they feel better, but it's not anything dangerous. You don't have to have wheat in your diet. So, if you'd like to try it, you can try it."
Those who think they might have celiac's disease should see a doctor because it is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition.
Researchers said 2 million people in the United States may have celiac disease and not know it.
"You have an intestinal tract and you have villi and the food is absorbed because it has a big surface," Weihofen said. "When you have gluten in your diet, it destroys those villi. The intestinal tract becomes flat and now you only have this much absorbing surface so you don't absorb your food."
There is no medical cure other than taking gluten completely out of the diet, Weihofen said.
Thanks to stores like the Willy Street Co-Op and Madison's Silly Yak Bakery, finding gluten-free options has never been easier.
"They walk in the door and they go, 'Oh, my gosh!' They can't believe it," said Holly Beach, of the Silly Yak Bakery. "They cannot believe the selection that we have for them."
Beach started the Silly Yak Bakery in when she moved to Madison in 2005.
"I just felt that every person that comes into our store should get a fresh loaf of bread, be able to have that and just feel like they had a normal life," Beach said.
Three years ago, Beach built a certified gluten-free kitchen to keep up with the demand. The bakery offers more than 200 different kinds of breads and treats.
"It just made me happy to do it," Beach said. "It's a feel good thing. and when people email and they stop by and they're so happy or they walk in the door and they start crying because they have so much selection, it makes it a lot easier to get up so early in the morning."
People with stomach issues, but not necessarily celiac disease, often find relief from going gluten-free, Weihofen said.
She noted that even though it can be better for some people, it is not a weight loss option. She said some gluten-free versions of foods have more calories.
There is a large support network in the Madison area for people living with celiac disease.
For more information, go to The Madison Area Gluten Intolerance Chapter (MAGIC) or Dean Clinic in Janesville -- Celiac Support Group.
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