NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J., Sept. 6 (UPI) -- The popularity of the gluten-free diet in recent years, regardless of being diagnosed with celiac disease or a wheat allergy, may be contributing to a steadying effect on celiac diagnoses, according to researchers.
The number of people who follow gluten-free diets is far larger than the number diagnosed with celiac disease, report researchers at Rutgers University, noting the public perception of the diet's health benefits may also be helping encourage its adoption.
About 1 in 41 people has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in people after consuming gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye.
While researchers have cautioned following a gluten-free diet could be a threat to their health in people without celiac, calling it a "fad," many people with conditions such as non-celiac gluten or wheat sensitivity and other allergies, have benefited from adopting the diet.
For the new study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers analyzed medical data on 22,278 people over age 6 who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys between 2009 and 2014 and were tested for celiac disease.
Overall, the researchers identified 106 people with celiac disease and 213 as following a gluten-free diet but not having celiac -- correlating to an estimated 1.76 million people with the condition and 2.7 million following the diet.
Over time, the prevalence of celiac disease has remained steady since 2009, the researchers report. While 0.70 percent were diagnosed with the condition in 2009 and 2010, 0.77 percent in 2001 and 2012 and 0.58 percent in 2013 and 2014, the number of people adhering to a gluten-free diet has increased from 0.52 percent in 2009 and 2010, to 0.99 percent in 2011 and 2012 and 1.69 percent in 2013 and 2014.
While the researchers note that the size of the study was small, because of the number of people in the data they drew from with either celiac or who follow the diet was small, they speculate that a public perception the diet is healthier could be contributing to its increased popularity.
In a commentary published in JAMA Internal Medicine with the study, Dr. Daphne Miller reports that 1 in 5 Americans has reduced or eliminated gluten in their diet, and a variety of explanations is tied to the decision.
Gluten-free diets have been credited with health benefits such as weight loss and other reduced symptoms of inflammation and gastrointestinal distress, though some of those reporting lower symptoms may have non-celiac allergies and disorders.
Miller suggests in the commentary that other dietary choices linked to reducing or eliminating gluten in a diet could be the reason so many have found health benefits in the largely breadless diet.
"Although the choice to be gluten free may be driven in part by marketing and a misperception that gluten free is healthier, it is important that this choice not be dismissed as an unfounded trend except for those with celiac disease and wheat allergy," wrote Miller, a researcher in the department of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco. "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."