HealthWatch: Is Gluten Sensitivity A Real Condition?

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Gluten free cookie dough. (CBS)

Gluten free cookie dough. (CBS)

Elizabeth Cook, KPIX 5 Anchor Elizabeth Cook
Elizabeth Cook is co-anchor for KPIX 5 News at 5, 6, 10 (KBCW) a...
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SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – With gluten-free diets all the rage, a newly-recognized condition is helping fuel the movement to getting rid of grains from one’s diet, although not every health expert is on board.

Gluten-free is a multi-billion dollar industry. This year alone, U.S. sales are projected to top $4 billion. The diet has entered the mainstream: from Safeway to your corner market – even Amici’s pizza – you can find gluten-free alternatives. In San Francisco, there’s even a market dedicated to gluten-free products.

What do Miley Cyrus and the Pillsbury Dough Boy have in common? Both have gone gluten-free.

On Twitter, Cyrus talked about how gluten-free has allowed her to feel great while losing weight. As for Poppin’ Fresh? You can also find him going gluten-free.

“In every aisle of the supermarket now, you can find gluten-free products,” explained registered dietician Sonya Angelone, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Gluten is a stretchy protein found in grassy grains like wheat, barley and rye. Gluten helps bread rise, and is what makes bread so chewy.

Less than 1% of the population has to steer clear of eating any gluten because of a serious autoimmune disorder called celiac disease.

However 30% of all U.S. consumers – who are not diagnosed with celiac disease – believe they, too, need to give up the gluten for health reasons.

So is it a fad diet?  Mass hysteria?  Or is there a grain of truth behind the health claims?

“You know, it’s sort of the ‘diet du jour.’ But there’s some reality to it,” said Dr. Jeffrey Aron, a gastroenterologist with California Pacific Medical Center.

Dr. Aron is not Kim Rice’s doctor but he has extensive experience with the human gut.  Dr. Aron is the Director for the Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disorders at CPMC.

Dr. Aron explained how in 2011, a medical task force recognized a condition that’s neither an autoimmune disease nor a wheat allergy.

The Oslo task force coined the condition: “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.”

“Gluten sensitivity has been estimated to be maybe 30% percent of the population, so it’s a big deal,” said Dr. Aron.

He said the symptoms of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease may overlap; and may include disordered bowel function, bloating, and fatigue. But with celiac disease, if patients eat gluten, the gluten will create an inflammatory response in the body, If left untreated, celiac disease can cause serious and permanent damage to the intestines.

You can test for celiac disease with a special blood test and a biopsy of the small intestine, but there is no way to reliably identify ‘non-celiac gluten sensitivity.’ There is no good blood marker or immune marker that can be used to diagnose the condition in patients. Currently the diagnosis is pretty subjective: patients describe how they feel after they eat gluten. When they stop eating gluten, their symptoms subside.

KPIX 5 spent a morning with Kim Rice, a mother of three who lives in Alameda County. Seven years ago, she felt miserable.

“I was looking for answers. I was suffering with a lot of health issues,” said Rice.

Rice was obese, had asthma, allergies, depression, as well as numerous digestive issue.

She did not have celiac disease, but decided to go gluten-free on an elimination diet. Within days, she said she felt a huge difference:

“My energy increased, my depression began to dissipate, my anxiety disappeared, and I started sleeping through the night. It was amazing,” said Rice.

Rice lost 60 pounds and has never looked back. She’s now gluten-free and is the picture of health. She started to blog about her experiences and now speaks on the topic to Bay Area groups. On her website, she offers recipes and reviews of restaurants, products even cooking classes. Rice is a true believer.

“It was really transformational for me,” said Rice.

But does Rice have ‘non-celiac gluten sensitivity?’ Other experts are still skeptical newly-coined condition.

“I think it’s probably a bit overblown, it’s still very controversial,” said gastroenterologist Dr. Gary Gray. Dr. Gray heads up the Celiac Sprue Clinic at Stanford Medical Center.

Dr. Gray questions the evidence: He points out that some patients who go gluten-free may be experiencing what’s called a placebo effect.  He says there could also be another protein beside gluten in these grassy grain products that may be causing the problems so it’s premature to finger gluten as the culprit.

“I wouldn’t say its balderdash; it’s just going to take more thought and a lot more scientific data. There’s not very good scientific data yet.” said Dr. Gray.

And there is concern some gluten-free foods are not the healthiest choices.

“Sometimes they really just contribute to a junk food diet,” explained Angelone.

Angelone showed KPIX 5 a number of gluten-free products that she said were packed with refined grains, sugar and fat: not to mention, soaring with calories. People who go on gluten-free diet and hope to become as svelte as Miley Cyrus, may end up disappointed.

“Sometimes they actually gain weight from eating all the gluten-free products,” said Angelone.

Your best bet: if you want to go gluten-free, stick to foods that are naturally gluten-free including meat, fish, certain vegetables and some fruit, as well as nuts. Learn to read nutrition labels and have a gluten-free treat, occasionally.

Rice said she’s glad that there are so many convenience foods that are gluten-free so she can treat herself and not feel left out. But Rice sticks to making a lot of dishes from scratch and eats lots of plants-based dishes.

As for whether this condition is real or not,  Rice is adamant. She has all the evidence she needs: her body feels better when she’s off gluten.

“So that’s what I could say. Follow your body, follow your intuition,” said Rice, “And if your body says “I don’t like this”, don’t eat it.”

Dr. Aron had this caveat: if you have an undiagnosed case of celiac disease and you go gluten-free, you can’t get tested for celiac disease.  If you want to get tested for celiac disease, contact a specialist before you exclude gluten from your diet.

Finally, you should be aware that gluten-free foods can be much more expensive than gluten versions. For example, gluten-free Rice Krispies can cost 70 percent more per ounce than regular Rice Krispies.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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