Food allergies are the driving force behind trendy products and diets

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Laurie Vukich presses her own almonds for milk, uses the remains to make flour and even makes her own yogurt from coconut milk. She is on a gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free diet.

Vukich has been on this diet since her daughter was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Even though she didn’t need to go on a special diet, she said she did it to make it easier on her daughter. Vukich said the results prompted a permanent change in the way she looked at food. She tells her story on her blog, naturesknockout.com, and has over 4.5 million viewers on YouTube.

“I felt better than I had in years, and had allergy meds my whole life, and all of the sudden, my immune system was stronger,” Vukich said. “I had more energy, and I felt amazing. Most of our bodies respond to those chemicals. Its not until we get away from them that we feel better.”

BYU student Emily Ure uses health-concious foods in her diet. (Photo by Elliott Miller)

Natalie Neider, a nursing major at Salt Lake Community College, was diagnosed with celiac disease two and a half years ago. She said it wasn’t until she lived in a foreign country for five months that she decided to be gluten-free. Her host-mom made noodles for her quite a bit, and those noodles didn’t sit well with her gluten intolerance.

“I came home so sick, I had migraines and was throwing up,” Neider said. “That’s when I decided to get tested again and go off gluten.”

Neider said having her disease has not always been easy. But recently, she has seen an explosion of gluten-free items in grocery stores and restaurants.

“Back then, I wouldn’t even admit I was a celiac because it was so hard to eat,” Neider said. “Everywhere has gluten-free menus now. I remember when my friend took me out to eat at Noodles & Company and they had a gluten-free menu. I was so excited; I was pumped.”

Allergy-aware products are showing up in restaurants and grocery stores as a result of mass demand for gluten-free, dairy-free, and soy-free products. Interestingly enough, this demand is not only from people who have a special health condition.

Sydney Gillman has worked at Brain Balance, a rehabilitation facility for children who struggle behaviorally and academically, for over a year. She said the kids that enroll in their program immediately go off gluten, soy, and dairy for a minimum of six months, but many choose that diet for life. These kids sometimes have ADHD, automimmune diseases, or autism. In Gillman’s experience, children who don’t eat gluten, dairy and soy have fewer behavioral and academic issues.

“When the kids don’t cheat on their diet, they make huge leaps and bounds,” Gillman said. “One of our kids was diagnosed with ADHD. He was struggling with everything, but he followed the diet, and he made significant progress. He then went to Disneyland for five days and had burgers, fries and junk. When he got back we could immediately tell he cheated on his diet. He was hyperactive and couldn’t focus. I asked his mom about it and she said, ‘I will never do that again.'”

While some believe that a gluten-free, soy-free and dairy-free diet improves health regardless of health conditions, others believe allergy-intended products should only be consumed if you actually have that allergy or disease.

Michael Dunn, associate professor of food science at BYU, said he believes the trend in specialty products is a result of seeing these products in stores and equating eating gluten, soy and dairy with being unhealthy.

“A friend brought a gluten-free pie to Thanksgiving, even though she didn’t have a gluten intolerance,” Dunn said. “I asked her why she brought it, and she said she thought it was healthier. If you don’t have an intolerance to gluten, it’s not healthier to eat gluten-free products. You are replacing whole-grain flour with refined starches.”

Two years ago finding gluten-free products in grocery stores and restaurants was extremely difficult. Now, entire aisles are dedicated to specialty products, and restaurants take special efforts to put gluten-free items on their menus. Casey Mortensen, a BYU graduate in a post-fac dietetics internship, said gluten is a necessity to a healthy diet.

“Whole wheat bread and other products that have gluten are really healthy for you,” Mortensen said. ” A gluten-free diet is not a fun diet to be on. There are a lot of things you can’t eat.”

While a gluten-free diet may not be fun to eat, many choose this diet as a way to lose inches. Mortensen said she believes the trend towards gluten-free products is a result of fad dieting.

“It’s not like eating a gluten-free diet will make you healthier,” Mortensen said. “God gave us wheat to eat, and it has gluten in it. People want a fast way to lose weight so they are going to jump on the bandwagon.”

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