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Eating a gluten-free diet is not just for people who have celiac disease. Many people who suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity have symptoms similar to the disease and also need to stay away from foods containing gluten.

Is there such a thing as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or are gluten-free diets just a fad? Why are people eating more gluten-free products now than ever before?

The global market for gluten-free foods is rapidly expanding, and it is estimated that by 2018, it will surpass $6.2 billion. Gluten-free foods are usually prescribed for people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, a chronic digestive disorder that is caused by an allergic reaction to gluten.

Gluten is found in wheat, and it contains a protein called gliadin, which causes the abnormal immunologic response that leads to inflammation and destruction of the tissues of the small intestine in some individuals.

Other cereals such as barley and rye contain proteins that resemble gliadin, which can also cause celiac disease in people who are genetically predisposed. On the other hand, the proteins found in oats may cause mild inflammation only to some people, while rice and corn do not contain these proteins and do no harm to most individuals.  

Celiac disease is relatively common in Europe and less common in the US. However, researchers believe that many people are not diagnosed with the condition because they only have mild symptoms. Aside from individuals who are known to have celiac disease, it seems that many people are also riding into the bandwagon of consuming a gluten-free diet, which makes gluten-free food products occupy a major section of supermarkets and groceries. While some of these consumers may have been diagnosed with a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), many have not undergone medical testing and may have just taken it upon themselves to observe if consuming a gluten-free diet can improve their symptoms.

Celiac Disease versus Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Celiac disease is now being diagnosed more often than ever before because of the increase in awareness about its signs and symptoms. This chronic condition that affects the small intestine and causes malabsorption of nutrients and weight loss is often manifested in symptoms such as diarrhea, fatty stools, bloating, flatulence, and anemia. However, some people have very mild symptoms or none at all. The best way to diagnose this condition is by getting a sample of tissue from the small intestine (biopsy) to see characteristic changes, and by taking a blood sample to look for antibodies or proteins that the body produces to fight gliadin.

People who experience sensitivity to gluten and manifest symptoms similar to celiac disease, but do not show characteristic changes in their small intestines or antibodies in their blood are diagnosed with NCGS.

The diagnosis is done by exclusion of other possible causes, and by challenging their sensitivity to gluten. When asked to omit gluten from their diets, their symptoms improve, and bringing back gluten to their diet exacerbates their symptoms.

The increased availability of information about these conditions has led many people to take gluten-free diets on their own, without consulting their doctors. Consequently, many cases of celiac disease, as well and NCGS are not being documented.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • NY Times. When Gluten Sensitivity Isn’t Celiac Disease.
  • MedicineNet. Celiac Disease vs. 'Gluten-Sensitive'.
  • MedicineNet. Celiac Disease (Gluten Enteropathy).
  • Nutrients. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: The New Frontier of Gluten Related Disorders.
  • Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture by Flickr:
  • Photo courtesy of Cassidy by Flickr: