Gluten Sensitivity Is NOT a Social Contagion! Here are the facts.

Here we are in the midst of Celiac & Gluten Sensitivity Awareness month when, yesterday on Huffington Post live, Michael Pollan called Gluten Sensitivity a “social contagion.” Watch the clip…

Who is Michael Pollan and what makes him an expert on Gluten Sensitivity? He is a journalist and well-known book author, who has received numerous awards, including being recognized by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people. His writings usually rail against genetically modified organisms, fast food, and agribusiness, taking an in-depth look into today’s modern food system.

Many of his philosophies are in line with mine, so I was all the more disappointed that he so readily dismissed Gluten Sensitivity. While he may be looking at food and people on a sociological or anthropological level, he is not an expert on epidemiology or health science, and it doesn’t sound like he’s ever done a search in PubMed for Gluten Sensitivity. Before using his big influence to publicly surmise that Gluten Sensitivity is a “bit of a social contagion,” he should have looked into the facts. Not doing so is a huge oversight on his part, and a discredit to his journalistic integrity.

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Here ARE the facts:

  1. Gluten Sensitivity IS a legitimate medical condition, which an international panel of experts gave official status to in February 2012 [1].
  2. The latest estimates are that Gluten Sensitivity affects 8 to 12% to possibly even 29% of the population[2][3][4], and some doctors think it could be even more [5].
  3. This means that roughly 10 times MORE people are affected with Gluten Sensitivity than are affected with Celiac Disease, if not much more. Some people call Celiac Disease the “tip of the iceberg”, since it is just one way in which Gluten Sensitivity manifests itself. Others believe that Gluten Sensitivity may be a pre-cursor to Celiac Disease.
  4. There are 1,133 references to Gluten Sensitivity in the PubMed database of medical literature. Clearly, there is medical attention being given to the condition. However, since its official status is fairly new, lots more research needs to be done to understand its pathology. This does not negate the fact that there are negative effects associated with gluten, outside of Celiac Disease. We’ve only just begun quantifying (in medical literature) what they are. There is of course, plenty of anecdotal stories of people with chronic health conditions that have been cured on a gluten-free diet, which should not be discounted just because they haven’t been published in a double-blind placebo controlled study.
  5. While many patients of Gluten Sensitivity complain of chronic digestive distress, not everyone with Gluten Sensitivity feel digestive symptoms. In fact, gluten-related disorders can also manifest in many other ways, from neurological and psychiatric disorders[6], to skin conditions [7], arthritis [8] and autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s [9] [10], multiple sclerosis [11] [12] and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis [13]. The effects of gluten on the population are serious. Nearly 200 disorders have been associated with gluten (and counting).
  6. Celiac Disease is 4 times more prevalent today than it was 50 years ago in both the US and the UK [14] [15]. We could surmise that Gluten Sensitivity, then, is also more prevalent. This is most likely due to the fact that we are eating a different strain of wheat today, then we were 50 years ago [16]. In addition, both Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity are probably being diagnosed at increasing rates today. This is due to greater awareness, as well as greater understanding of the diseases. This increased prevalence and increased awareness does not mean that this diet is a fad, nor did it suddenly just come out of nowhere.

So many so-called food experts and media outlets downplay the gluten-free diet and claim that unless you have celiac disease, gluten is harmless. That is simply untrue. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Listen to your body. You know best. If you feel sick after eating gluten, or you notice an improvement in a chronic condition when you remove gluten from your diet, you may very likely be Gluten Sensitive. And there is absolutely no harm in taking it out of your diet. Kudos to you for believing in yourself and taking the right steps toward better health.


[1] Sapone, A.; Bai, J.C.; Ciacci, C.; Dolinsek, J.; Green, P.H.; Hadjivassiliou, M.; Kaukinen, K.; Rostami, K.; Sanders, D.S.; Schumann, M.; et al. Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: Consensus on new nomenclature and classification. BMC Medicine. 2012, 10, 13.

[2] Giacomo Caio, Umberto Volta, Francesco Tovoli and Roberto De Giorgio. Effect of gluten free diet on immune response to gliadin in patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. BMC Gastroenterology. 2014, 14:26.

[3]Hadjivassiliou M1, Grünewald RA, Kandler RH, Chattopadhyay AK, Jarratt JA, Sanders DS, Sharrack B, Wharton SB, Davies-Jones GA. Neuropathy associated with gluten sensitivity. Journal of Neurology and Neurosurgical Psychiatry. 2006 Nov;77(11):1262-6.

[4] Louisville Celiac Sprue Support Group, June 2003. Early Diagnosis Of Gluten Sensitivity: Before the Villi are Gone.

[5] Dr. Vikki Petersen, personal communication

[6] Jessica R. Jackson, William W. Eaton, Nicola G. Cascella, Alessio Fasano, and Deanna L. Kelly. Neurologic and Psychiatric Manifestations of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity. NIH Public Access Author Manuscript. Published in final edited form as: Psychiatr Q. 2012 March ; 83(1): 91–102.

[7]Humbert P1, Pelletier F, Dreno B, Puzenat E, Aubin F. Gluten intolerance and skin diseases European Journal of Dermatology. 2006 Jan-Feb;16(1):4-11.

[8] Pinals RS. Arthritis associated with gluten-sensitive enteropathy. Journal of Rheumatology. 1986 Feb ;13(1):201-4.

[9] Jen’s Story:

[10] Danielle Walker’s Story

[11] Shor DB1, Barzilai O, Ram M, Izhaky D, Porat-Katz BS, Chapman J, Blank M, Anaya JM, Shoenfeld Y.  Gluten sensitivity in multiple sclerosis: experimental myth or clinical truth?  Annals of the New York Academy of Science. 2009 Sep;1173:343-9.

[12] Dr. Terry Wahl’s story

[13] Valentino R1, Savastano S, Maglio M, Paparo F, Ferrara F, Dorato M, Lombardi G, Troncone R. Markers of potential coeliac disease in patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. European Journal Endocrinology. 2002 Apr;146(4):479-83.

[14] Mayo Clinic. “Celiac Disease Four Times More Common Than In 1950s.” ScienceDaily. 2 July 2009.

[15] University of Nottingham. “Fourfold increase in rate of diagnosed cases of celiac disease in the UK.” ScienceDaily. 11 May 2014.

[16] Davis, W. Wheat Belly. Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. Rodale. 2011. 292pp.


  1. Pingback: Deglutenize your brain | Wheat Belly Blog

  2. There have been several articles and blogs published lately that claim that non-celiac gluten issues are a fad and have no medical validity. This is the unfortunately common response people have to those who are different. It is easy to make fun of the gluten-sensitive population. They are different, and in come cases, quite ignorant. But so are the most doctors and people writing blogs about gluten sensitivity.

    While some people avoiding gluten have no legitimate reason for doing so, and in fact don’t know what gluten is, there are many people who have measurable immune system reactions to gluten and/or other chemicals in wheat Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: literature review.. These people can have a wide variety of symptoms, or no noticeable symptoms. This is not significantly different than celiac disease, in which the many of persons that have the immune reaction do not have noticeable symptoms. Let me state that again – many people with celiac disease don’t report having symptoms. Celiac disease: risk assessment, diagnosis, and monitoring.

    And avoiding gluten still has benefits that are important: Benefits of a Gluten-free diet for Asymptomatic Patients with Serologic Markers of Celiac Disease.

    Don’t let those who are ignorant go unchallenged. Just because some people are avoiding gluten because they want to or because they imagine that there are health benefits does not mean that some people do have real health problems caused by eating gluten grains.

  3. Michael Pollan is wrong on many levels here. He speculates without the facts. Humans have been breastfed for millions of years. There is lactose in breastmilk – so humans have had lactase enzymes to digest lactose in the breastmilk for millions of years. Humans have gut enzymes to deal with proteins and sugars of meat, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables. But, humans cannot digest gluten.

    Also, there is irrefutable evidence that gluten sensitivity is a real and common entity. See The Spectrum of Gluten related disorders:
    which acknowledges the rapid appreciation of the harm of gluten over the last 10 years.

    Michael Pollan really does need to do his homework before speaking out against such a common disorder.

    Dr Rodney Ford (Pediatrican, gastroenterologist and allergy specialist)


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