Gluten-free diets: More than a passing fad for some


Mackenzie Manley

Williams picks around for the perfect piece of squid in a lunch she brought from home. Williams was first diagnosed with celiac disease in the 8th grade.

Mackenzie Manley, News Editor

She sits down for lunch, and pulls a gluten-free concoction of squid from her bag, complete with a side of clementine.

Deanna Williams, a junior international studies major, explained that she was  diagnosed with celiac disease in the 8th grade.

UCLA Health defines the disease as a “chronic, autoimmune digestive disorder that results in inflammation of the small intestine of genetically-susceptible individuals when they ingest gluten.” The disease is diagnosed by a blood test.

Walking down the aisles of any chain grocery store one will find that the shelves are littered with a growing number of gluten-free products.

A 2015 survey conducted by Packaged Facts found that over a five year period leading up to 2014, the market for gluten-free products increased by 34 percent.

“For a month straight, all I ate at school was salads and rice cake peanut butter and jelly, which wasn’t appetizing after a week,” Williams said.

Williams brings her lunch from home almost every day and tries to stick to the same restaurants she knows are safe when going out to eat, in fear of receiving contaminated food.

Williams said she  has only eaten at an on-campus restaurant once.

“When I was talking to people I felt as if they didn’t know exactly what I was talking about and there weren’t as many options as I would have been comfortable with,” Williams said. “It’s not really their fault, it’s me and my personal preference.”

Debra Pearce, a professor who specialized in biochemical nutrition, pointed out that many people aren’t even aware of the differences between celiac disease, wheat-allergies and gluten sensitivities.

Celiac disease, according to UCLA Health, affects 1 in 133 people, making it the most common autoimmune disease in the U.S.

Despite growing awareness, 80 percent of individuals with celiac disease remain undiagnosed.  

On the other hand, wheat-allergies work much like other allergy-related disorders and the individual affected may not even be allergic to the gluten component of wheat itself. It is not an autoimmune disease, and it is differentiated from celiac disease through a series of tests.

Little is known about the cause of gluten sensitivities, but, unlike celiac disease, it does not cause damage to the small intestine and does not have a genetic or autoimmune disorder component.

“People used to think it was just a nervous condition,” Pearce said of the growing awareness of celiac disease. “Now they’ve come to understand more about autoimmune diseases than they used to.”

Megan Krumpelman, a senior biology student, switched over to a gluten-free diet after being diagnosed with the an autoimmune disorder called hashimoto thyroiditis, which is a type of hypothyroidism  that occurs when the body attacks the thyroid, mistaking it as foreign.

“Gluten mimics the molecules in the thyroid that the body thinks are foreign,” Krumpelman said. “Eating gluten accelerates the breakdown of the thyroid so when I eat gluten-free it prevents that from happening.”

Krumpelman was diagnosed a year ago and began a gluten-free diet at the beginning of July  2015. Like Williams, Krumpelman brings her food from home the majority of time, feeling that despite the avoiding-gluten initiatives from campus, availability is still low.

Krumpelman feels as if she is often judged because of the growing trend of gluten-free diets.

“There’s a select group of people that, when they find out you’re gluten-free, they think that you’re trying to do some crazy diet,” Krumpelman said. “It’s not a diet for me, it’s a way to help stop the progression of my disease.”

Williams noted this trend as well. At restaurants when Williams cites that she is gluten-free, she often has to explain that it’s not a choice, but necessary because of her disease.

Assumptions are often made that those with gluten-free diets are healthier and consume less processed foods, according to Williams, but that’s not always the case.

“People have automatically assumed that I must be super healthy because I’m not eating so many carbs. That’s not true at all. I gained a ton of weight when I was first diagnosed,” Williams said. “That’s because when you see a gluten free cookie you’re like ‘Oh! It’s a gluten-free cookie! I don’t know when I’m going to see that again. I’m going to grab that and eat it.’

“You eat whatever is in sight because you feel like you’re going to lose it.”

According to Pearce, much like the rise and fall of the low-carbohydrate fad, gluten-free diets by choice will eventually plateau as well.

“It’s a market economy,” Pearce said. “Whatever the consumer demands and is willing to pay for, that’s what is going to be produced.”

The fad has brought a growth of available products for those like Williams and Krupelman who continue the diet for the benefit of their health. Contamination is still difficult to avoid, however, and the trend can be off-putting at times for Williams.

“On the one hand, [the trend has] brought about a lot of new food because now people are saying, ‘I want to eat gluten-free food because it’s healthier,’” Williams said. “There’s more awareness and food products available now, but on the other hand I feel like that’s not what it’s for and it undermines people who need it.”