If you have wandered the aisles of the supermarket recently or perused cafe and restaurant menus you will have noticed the availability of many more gluten free choices.

But why has the interest in gluten free foods skyrocketed in recent years? Even the food industry which has so quickly jumped on the bandwagon is baffled by this rapid expansion. While the numbers of diagnosed celiac disease sufferers has increased, there seems to be even more who are self diagnosed wheat/gluten intolerant.

I know because I am one of them………..

My love affair with bread and cakes began as a child because my mother was a great country cook. The smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the house, the way the butter melted on the still warm slices and the piling up of freshly made apricot or fig jam even today evokes the most wonderful memories. But for me it has to remain just that – a memory.

A trip to Africa was the start of my digestive problems. After a bad bout of flu, and then food poisoning I found I could no longer just eat anything I liked. Now meals became a battleground with problems of indigestion, swelling of my face and particularly my eyelids, bloating and as for constipation …… It took me 5 years of trial and error to find out I was allergic to certain foods and gluten seemed to be the one that causes me the most trouble.

Now I live a gluten free lifestyle. If I am disciplined and eat mostly gluten free I remain free of any symptoms. I call myself wheat and gluten intolerant rather than celiac as I can have a small, very small, amount in the morning but not later in the day.

But I am not the only one and what was once perceived as a trend is now becoming more mainstream.

Why has gluten free become a buzz word?

Is it only the celebrity factor? The “it” diet discussed on daytime talk shows, promoted by hyper-slim actresses and adopted by masses. Or is there something more?

Gluten does affect some people, notably people with celiac disease. But celiacs, who suffer an immune reaction if they eat food with gluten, such as bread or pasta, are estimated to represent less than 1 per cent of the population. Yet it is estimated that about a quarter of US adults are either trying to reduce or completely avoid gluten in their diets.

So if celiacs make up only one in 100 of the population, still one in five of us is buying gluten-free products. Surveys of consumers show that, of these, only five per cent are buying to combat celiac disease, with the vast majority citing their reasons as “digestive health”, “nutritional value” and “to help me lose weight”.

The following statistics from the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Centre suggest a possible reason for many more people trying a gluten free diet and finding that they feel better even if they have no diagnosis of gluten sensitivity.

  •  Between 5% and 10% of all people may suffer from a gluten sensitivity of some form.
  • 1 out of every 133 Americans (about 3 million people) have CD or Celiac Disease. 97% of Americans estimated to have Celiac Disease are not diagnosed as Celiac Disease has over 300 known symptoms
  • 30% of the US Population is estimated to have the genes necessary for CD
    People with CD dine out 80% less than they used to before diagnosis and believe less than 10% of eating establishments have a ‘very good’ or ‘good’ understanding of GF diets.
  • The average cost of a misdiagnosis is $5,000 – $12,000 per person per year.
  • Celiac disease is a hereditary condition and if you have celiac disease, you can expect that 4 to 12% of your first-degree relatives will also have the condition.
  • 60% of children and 41% of adults diagnosed during the study were asymptomatic.
    (Statistic Verification Source: National Institutes of Health, Univ. of Chicago Celiac Disease Center  Date Verified: 5.7.2013)

Coeliac Australia provides similar statistics to the Centre for Celiac Research, finding that 1 in 100 Australians suffer from celiac disease, although 75 per cent of these people currently remain undiagnosed.

Even more relevant is that from March 2011, researchers now know that a non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists entirely separately from celiac disease. Here I put up my hand as on of these people! While it is a form of intolerance to gluten, intestinal biopsies indicate different gene expression and villi damage to what occurs with celiac disease. What this means is that for many more people than are diagnosed, gluten is an extremely common but frequently missed cause of intestinal and non-intestinal symptoms.

As excluding gluten from the diet is the only known ‘cure’, then the challenge is to find a new way of eating. But so many people just turn to gluten free alternatives without realising this can be a recipe for disaster.

Dirty secret of gluten free marketing

While once gluten-free products were available only in the dusty corners of health-food shops, today 80 per cent of all such products are sold in supermarkets. According to the Food Standards Agency, the British gluten-free market is worth £238 million annually and grew by more than 15 per cent last year. In the US, it’s worth around $2.6 billion, a growth of 36 per cent since 2006, with predictions it may double in size in the next two years. Across Europe, demand is soaring – with even carb-loving citizens of countries like Italy now demanding gluten-free pasta and pizza. India with its growing middle class is also touted as a potential huge market.

The total market for gluten free products is estimated to reach $6.5 billion by 2017 according to research company Packaged Facts. The total number of new products claiming to be gluten free in the US increased from around 600 in 2007 to more than 1,600 in 2011 according to Mintel research.

However a gluten free diet based on processed foods you buy in the supermarket often leads to weight gain because many gluten free products have more added fats and sugars than other products. Gluten-free products are frequently more adulterated and significantly higher in fat than their “normal” equivalents. Gluten helps breads and bakery products retain their shape and softness as they cook, so to make up for its absence, manufacturers often use additives like xanthan gum and hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose or corn starch. Extra sugar and fat are often also added to make products tastier.

The real way to go gluten free

For anyone who finds that days of feeling ‘low level lousy’ disappear when they no longer eat gluten, then focusing on a diet based on fresh meats, fish, vegetables and unprocessed foods is the way to go. Shop at the edges of the supermarket in the fresh food sections and not in the middle. Avoid the expensive gluten free alternatives that sometimes treble the price.

The secret lies in planning. If you have nothing cooked or prepared and no easy alternatives such as eggs to throw together a last minute meal, then you are more likely to be tempted to buy a takeaway pizza or eat that bread or cake.

Work out some favourite meals, have the ingredients on hand and keep some staple vegetables in the refrigerator. That way you can create a meal very quickly.

My quick favourite meal is salmon with vegetables or salad. I always have some frozen salmon steaks which are quick to thaw. While they are cooking I whip up a salad – often it takes only 10-15 minutes to have a meal on the table.

Is gluten free a way to lose weight?

The basis of a healthy gluten-free diet, as with any diet, should be fresh unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables and proteins, which are naturally gluten-free. Lean meats and fish, fruits and vegetables, and low-fat dairy products are all safe for people with celiac disease. Grains that don’t contain gluten, such as quinoa and amaranth, are another healthy option. These foods are nutrient rich, high in fibre and help the body by reducing the risk for heart disease.

Many foods that contain gluten, like pizza, cakes and biscuits, are high in calories, so just by avoiding them, many lose weight. Just by adjusting your diet to fresher food and not eating packaged and processed foods, you may well lose weight, simply because you’re making far better food choices than you were previously.

The health benefits of going gluten free can be tremendous. You can look and feel better and have so much more energy. Both your physical, mental and emotional health can improve. But as not everyone is affected by gluten, the best way to find out is just to eliminate all gluten for 1 month, see how you feel and then introduce some of the foods back into your diet. You will soon know whether going gluten free is going to be a lifesaver for you.

Good luck on your health journey. But to make this journey so much easier with recipes and to give you the best way of taking gluten out of your diet14 Day Gluten Free Guide image, buy the e book called The 14 day gluten free guide.  To just read a sample paragraph, click here.