NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Researchers have made an interesting discovery in tracking Americans who follow gluten-free diets: while an estimated 2.7 million people restrict their diet to gluten-free foods, only 1.76 million Americans actually suffer from the disease that requires the diet.

Gluten-free diets have become so widespread in the United States, it’s hard not to notice some of our favorite snacks at the grocery store have created their own gluten-free versions. The gluten-free movement was launched for people with Celiac disease, an ailment that prohibits the body from digesting gluten normally and can cause some uncomfortable side effects for sufferers.

Celiac patients have good reason to go gluten-free: a regular diet might cause diarrhea or painful bloating, flatulence and heartburn, and can lead to weight loss and malnutrition. The chronic disease can be found in the lining of the small intestine and since it’s incurable, the gluten-free diet is the best line of defense.

The authors of the study tracked about 22,000 annual surveys from 2009-2014 conducted by the Centers for Disease Control that asked participants if they had Celiac disease and whether or not they followed a gluten-free diet. They found the number of Americans with Celiac remained fairly steady, rising slightly from .7 percent during 2009-2010 to .77 percent in 2011-2012, and then dipping down to .58 percent during 2013-2014.

Yet during that same time period, the number of participants in the survey who said they followed a gluten-free diet more than tripled. From 2009-2010, .52 percent of the population was gluten free, then .99 percent in 2011-2012, before skyrocketing to 1.69 percent in 2013-2014.

Gluten-free diets fueled by belief ‘that these foods are healthier’

The study’s lead author, Dr. Hyun-seok Kim, a resident in internal medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, told Live Science that the diet was particularly prevalent among three groups: females, young adults ages 20-39, and non-Hispanic whites.

“Part of what may be driving [a] gluten-free diet trend is simply a belief, fueled by marketing and media, that these foods are healthier,” Dr. Daphne Miller, an associate clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a commentary accompanying the research.

Miller wrote that the study shouldn’t cause researchers to perceive the gluten-free diet as just another health fad.

“Instead, researchers and clinicians can use this as an opportunity to understand how factors associated with this diet affect a variety of symptoms, including gastrointestinal function, cognition, and overall well-being,” she wrote.

The study is published in the Sept. 6 edition of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

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