Men Don't Follow Gluten-Free Diets, Even When Medically Prescribed

Men are less likely to stick to a diet that goes against the grain. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

In recent years, it's become increasingly easy to stick with a gluten-free diet. What started as a diet trend is now often perceived as a healthier lifestyle choice. Estimates by consumer market researcher NPD find that a third of adults in the U.S. say they've decided to cut back completely on gluten in a quest for better health.

However, adhering to this strict food plan—even when it's medically necessary—is often perceived negatively, especially by men. For these guys, ordering a burger without the bun can be emasculating.

New research commissioned by Newburn Bakehouse, a U.K.-based gluten-free bread company, finds many gluten-intolerant men claim they feel stigmatized because of their dietary restrictions. The survey found that 36 percent of U.K. men sensitive to gluten in food don't follow the diet, even though, for these men, a night of beers with the blokes is likely to end with a trip to the loo. Additionally, 20 percent of men surveyed said they believe a gluten-free diet is "not for real men."

"We're socially more accustomed to women picking and choosing what they eat," notes Mary Schluckebier, executive director of the Celiac Support Association, who was not involved in the research. She suggests that men are also more likely to be put in social situations where they have to sacrifice the health of their gut for the sake of business or personal relationships, such as a business lunch or get-together with friends at the bar.

In recent years, it's become more widely accepted within the medical community that a bagel intolerance can occur to a lesser degree than celiac disease, a condition that has become known as "non-celiac gluten sensitivity" or simply "gluten intolerance." Approximately 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some degree of gluten intolerance, according to the most research from the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research.

Additionally, 1 of the percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. The disease is a serious autoimmune condition in which the body is unable to digest gluten, a protein found in such grains as wheat, barley and rye. Both health problems are statistically more common in women than men. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, as much as 70 percent of people diagnosed with celiac disease are women.

However, the reasons for that massive gender imbalance may be linked to behavior, not biology. When it comes to most chronic health problems, men are typically less likely to seek out a doctor, especially if it's for something they see as small fries, like a frequently upset stomach.

Non-celiacs who claim to be sensitive to foods with gluten often report symptoms of gastrointestinal distress after eating large quantities of foods with the protein. A gluten-free diet is medically necessary for someone with celiac disease. Over time the disease can damage the small intestines and lead to malabsorption of nutrients from food. Celiac disease can eventually cause other serious and chronic health problems, from cancer to iron deficiency to osteoporosis.

"A man with celiac disease has hopefully been informed by a physician that the gluten-free diet is the essential and the only prescription for maintaining health and avoiding serious health problems," said Lola O'Rourke, a registered dietician and education manager at the Gluten Intolerance Group. "In general, someone with gluten sensitivity may be less inclined to follow the diet."