clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Gluten allergies aren’t increasing. So why are gluten-free diets skyrocketing?

The number of Americans who say they are gluten-free has more than tripled from 2009 to 2014.

But the number of Americans who have celiac disease, or the inability to digest gluten, has stayed pretty much same.

This means more people are simply choosing not to eat gluten, even when there is no good scientific evidence to support cutting grains from their diets.

New research in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that the percentage of Americans practicing a gluten-free diet rose from 0.52 percent in 2009 to 1.69 percent in 2014. But the percentage of Americans with celiac disease actually declined slightly from 0.70 percent in 2009 to 0.58 percent in 2014 (although the study said this decline wasn’t statistically significant).

Chart showing gluten-free diets have tripled since 2009, but the number of Americans with celiac disease has actually declined

Americans have become obsessed with going gluten-free, even if the health benefits aren’t there

Gluten-free products or diets seem like they’re everywhere. Data from Google shows that, over the past seven years, gluten-free became the most-searched for diet in the country.

GIF showing the change in Americans googling gluten-free diets

Almost every single metropolitan area’s top Googled diet in 2015 was gluten-free, as opposed to 2009 when only parts of the West and Midwest were heavily purple. And Gallup found as many as one in five people have now eliminated or reduced gluten in their daily diet.

Previous studies have reported that the prevalence of celiac disease is increasing in the US, but this new JAMA study finds the opposite: that the rising popularity of gluten-free diets far exceeds the number of Americans diagnosed with celiac disease.

More Americans are gluten-free, but fewer are allergic to gluten

This means Americans are going gluten-free for a variety of other health reasons — even when the evidence isn’t quite there.

Gluten-free dieters often cite benefits like weight loss and reduced gastrointestinal distress as their motivation. But as my colleague Julia Belluz writes, “What makes this obsession so stunning is that for most people, there's not really any good scientific evidence to support abstaining from grains.”

Belluz explains: “Gluten is a protein composite that gives shape to grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It's true that some people can't tolerate it: those with wheat allergies, for example, or celiac disease. But that's only a tiny fraction of the population, and it's not enough to explain the overwhelming enthusiasm for this pattern of eating.”

A 2015 study from Italy found that after controlling for participants with celiac disease, only 7.5 percent of study participants experienced any change in symptoms by adopting a gluten-free diet.

But Daphne Miller, a professor at the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who wrote the study’s accompanying commentary, cautions researchers to not dismiss the increased popularity of gluten-free diets as nothing more than a wildly successful marketing trend. Instead, she urges researchers to use the popularity of gluten-free diets to better understand how they can impact a variety of symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal function to overall well-being.

Read more