When Senior Kiki Sykes traveled to Chicago this October, she was hesitant. She had just been diagnosed with Celiac’s disease, a condition that made her unable to eat gluten, a protein found in almost all bread products. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to maintain her gluten free diet out of her normal setting. Would she be able to find gluten free options in Chicago? Would she be limited to eating only salads? Her fears were confirmed the first time she went to a restaurant.
“I asked if there was gluten in the soup and he was like ‘no it’s a vegetable soup. Do you want bread with it?’ ‘I was like really? Do you even know what gluten is?” Sykes said.
According to celiac.com, Celiac’s Disease is about four times more prevalent now than it was in the 1950s. Only a decade ago, gluten intolerance levels were at 1 in 2500 worldwide. Today, it’s at 1 in 133 and at least 3 million people in the Unites States alone are living with this disease. However, even though diagnoses of this disease are more common, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding it.
Senior Danielle Norton, who was also recently diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, agrees that there are a lot of misconceptions about eating a gluten free diet.
“At first a lot of people didn’t understand when I told them I couldn’t have gluten anymore, they were like ‘Why? You’ve eaten it your whole life,’” Norton said. “Then they tried my food and realized it’s amazing.”
These misconceptions about going gluten-free are extremely common. In fact, the average length of time it takes for a symptomatic person to be diagnosed with Celiac disease in the US is four years, according to The Celiac Disease Center. Sykes had suffered extreme stomach aches and fatigue for almost four years before being diagnosed.
According to Dr. Leigh Wagner, an Integrative Medicine Specialist at KU Med, one of the reasons for the rise in gluten intolerance is due to the amount of gluten grown in wheat nowadays.
“The way that wheat is grown now is different than it has been historically,” Dr. Wagner said. “There is actually more gluten in a grain of wheat than there used to be. Because it is more efficient to grow it this way, food manufacturers benefit because they get more out of each grain of wheat.
Gluten intolerance occurs when undigested gluten proteins flatten the microvilli in one’s small intestine. By flattening these fibers, they are unable to absorb the nutrients from food, causing the patient to be malnourished. The range of intolerance is from “gluten intolerant” to having Celiac’s disease. Patients who are mildly intolerant are told to avoid gluten-filled foods, whereas patients with the actual disease are prohibited from eating it.
Because of the increase in diagnoses of this condition, there has been a mini-revolution in the food industry. According to Packaged Facts, a market research publisher, “the gluten-free market has grown an average of 33 percent in each of the past four years. In 2009, 1,182 new gluten-free food and beverage products were introduced in the United States and 225 marketers began selling products. Popular chain restaurants such as Arby’s, Chik-fil-A, Subway and Wendy’s have also latched onto this gluten free craze and have instituted gluten free menus. This gluten free franchise is expected to hit $5.5 billion by 2015, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
“Because [gluten intolerance] is becoming so much more prevalent, it seems that the people that are up to date with society and realize this is an issue, are profiting from it,” Sykes said.
However, these gluten-free options do come at a price. On average, gluten-free foods cost 242 percent more than regular, gluten-containing foods do, according to glutenfreecooking.com.
“Especially because a lot of the products are really expensive so people that don’t have access to the stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes, I don’t know how they do it,” Sykes said. “My mom bought a corn bread that was $6 whereas a “Jiffy” box is normally 50 cents.
Despite the high cost, there are also many consumers who buy gluten-free products, not because they are gluten intolerant but because they see these products as healthier. The gluten-free diet is seen as a way to eliminate processed food and replace it with more naturally digestable foods. Norton advocates that whether or not you are gluten intolerant, you should consider eating less of it. She has found the switch to these gluten-free products to be extremely beneficial.
“I have just become so much more aware of what I am putting into my body,” Norton said. “Two years ago I ate so horribly. I would crave creamy alfredo with breadsticks. It’s weird because my taste buds have completely changed. I now crave sweet potatoes and broccoli and salmon.”
Dr. Wagner stresses that switching to a gluten-free diet does not necessarily limit your food choices. There are gluten-free substitutes for nearly every grain product and a healthy diet can still be maintained. She suggests that eating whole foods (foods with only one ingredient) can be the best option.
“We generally talk a lot about foods that are just going to be naturally gluten-free, so rather than trying to find a substitute like gluten-free bread, we suggest beans, nuts, potatoes, fruits, vegetables.”
Norton has found that the best way to maintain her gluten-free diet is to bring her lunch every day to school. Every Sunday her mom prepares batches of quinoa, roasted plums and brown rice salad for her to pack in her lunch.
“Instead of just being gluten-free, I love eating healthy,” Norton said.
Sykes has also been very happy with her switch to a gluten-free diet.
“It was literally a night and day difference,” Sykes said. “I now have so much more energy. For these past four years I’ve had this thing where I felt lethargic and was always tired and I felt like I was four steps behind my friends. Now, as my mom says, I have this little spark in my eye.”
Along with symptoms such as fatigue, a gluten intolerance can also have more serious side effects such as depression and anxiety.
“Depression and anxiety are really closely tied to any types of digestive problems because our stomachs have just as many neurotransmitters which are just the brain chemicals that create emotion,” Dr. Wagner said. “So if our gut is messed up and our gut has just as many neurotransmitters as our brain does then we are going to feel crummy, depressed or experience anxiety.”
Although doctors are not sure exactly what causes gluten intolerance to develop in someone, they say that some things can act as triggers. Whether it be an infection of mono, a surgery or a recent childbirth, there is usually a factor that elicits this condition. It is often also hereditary, although it does not have to show up in every family member. It is also closely associated with anemia, Down syndrome and Autism. It was through Syke’s diagnosis with this condition that she was able to connect her experiences with mono and anemia to a real cause. Although Sykes gained many answers about her medical questions, she also gained something more from this experience. According to Sykes, it completely changed her mindset.
“I am now a lot more conscious of other people’s allergies and I have more sympathy for them,” Sykes said. “I am inspired to set up a gluten-free bakery or have a line of products because it is becoming so much more common. I want people to be able to find good waiters and restaurants because I initially had so much trouble with this.”