Why So Many People Are Going Gluten-Free—and Should You Try It, Too?

Gluten intolerance symptoms have many people rethinking their diets.

A cutting board with the word "gluten" crossed out, surrounded by coconut and other foods for people going gluten-free.

Updated on March 1, 2024.

If you've ever enjoyed a fresh baguette or a deep-dish pizza, you've eaten gluten. It's a plant protein found in several grains, namely wheat, rye, and barley. Among other baking feats, it makes bread light and chewy. So you'd think it would be everybody's favorite nutrient. In fact, avoiding gluten has become a bit of a diet trend. 

Why? Many people swear they feel better by going gluten-free. For others, avoiding gluten is a medical necessity, because it can cause intestinal distress and even damage.

Could your stomach cramps be caused by your morning bagel? Should you try going gluten-free? Here's what to know.

Understanding celiac disease and gluten intolerance

Some people simply can't tolerate eating gluten. For these folks, eating gluten triggers an immune-system attack on the small intestine, also known as celiac disease. This condition isn't that common—only about 1 percent of Americans (3 million people) have it. But almost 97 percent of people with celiac are undiagnosed. 

Symptoms of celiac disease range from gas, pain, and bloating to fatigue, seizures, and depression. Over time, celiac disease can hamper digestion to the point of malnutrition. Self-test kits are sold online and can provide clues, and blood tests are the next step, but a definitive diagnosis requires a biopsy performed by a healthcare provider (HCP). 

Some people don't have outright celiac disease but they still seem sensitive to gluten. "Gluten sensitivity," sometimes called gluten intolerance, is a bit of a medical gray area. It's been linked to a range of health issues, from migraines, to skin breakouts, irritability, and even autism, but HCPs haven't clearly established these links. There are also no definitive tests for it.

If you suspect you're sensitive to gluten, before you abandon bread and pasta, try this: Go gluten-free for a few weeks to see if symptoms improve. Then, slowly add a bit of gluten back into your diet. If problems return, you may be onto something. 

How to try going gluten-free

Most foods with gluten are easy to spot. They include anything with wheat (such as bread, muffins, cookies, and most other baked goods) as well as foods made with several other grains: such as barley soups and rye bread. But there are hidden sources, too. Gluten is often used in soy sauce, beer, hot dogs, some ice creams, caramel flavoring, sausages, and foods seasoned with MSG. It can even appear in the adhesive on stamps and envelopes. So, take a few other steps: 

  • Read the fine print on labels. Switch from pasta to rice, wheat cereal to corn flakes, couscous to quinoa, and whole wheat waffles to buckwheat pancakes ("buckwheat" isn’t actually wheat). 
  • Ask your waiter some questions. Inquire if sauces, meat, and fish dishes are made with flour or bread crumbs. Ask if there's a thickener in soup, if the salad dressing is bottled or if caramel flavorings are used. All may contain gluten. 
  • Make your favorite brownies with alternative ingredients. Try half rice flour and half tapioca flour. Dare your friends to know the difference. 

Then, see how you feel. If your body has happily shifted into a new health gear, enjoy.

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