The End of Pizza? The Spreading Celiac Epidemic


The world is experiencing another pandemic, this time of a relatively little-known disease. While most people have never heard of celiac disease, they may wind up contracting it, and if enough people get it, it may spell the end of the pizza industry, as well as commercial disaster for the sale of normal breads, cakes, pastries, and other baked goods, plus it will deliver an enormous financial blow to grain farmers[i]. Allow me to first explain, and then speculate.

Celiac disease is one of many different autoimmune diseases. When someone with celiac disease is exposed to a particular protein found in the glutens of wheat, barley, or rye, it triggers the body to attack itself by tearing out the lining of the small intestine. Over time, this will cause someone with celiac disease to suffer from various kinds of malnutrition, because the food eaten is not absorbed by the body. If left untreated for an extended period, this can lead to calcium, iron, vitamin or other deficiencies, and eventually even death from malnutrition. As well, this disease can open up the body to infection and other kinds of problems, such as lymphoma, by lowering the body’s natural defenses in the GI tract.

Fortunately, there is a treatment: you don’t eat anything made with wheat, barley, rye – or oats, not because oats have the offending protein, but because the machinery that processes oats is almost invariably also used to process the other grains. Celiacs (those who suffer from celiac disease), therefore, follow a very strict regimen of avoiding foods made with these grains – including pizza, and all the other goodies mentioned.

I’m a celiac, and when I was diagnosed more than 20 years ago, I was told that the incidence of celiac disease in North America was less than one person in 2,000 (which was part of the reason why it took my doctors over 3 ½ years to figure out what was wrong with me). Today I’m told that the incidence is 1 in 125, and I’ve read some research that hints it might be as high as one person in four. Some people say that this is due to greater awareness leading to faster, and more frequent, diagnoses, and that is undoubtedly true. But I also believe there is something else going on, a literal global pandemic of contagious celiac disease. I have no scientific proof for this; it’s a hunch, but let me explain my reasoning.

What’s the trigger for autoimmune diseases?

Not that much is known about celiac disease, in part because it was such a lonely (i.e., infrequently diagnosed) disease, but what is known is that it is genetically-linked. If you don’t have a particular gene (as yet unknown), then you (probably) can’t get it no matter what. If you do have the gene, then it’s thought that some environmental factor triggers this genetic susceptibility, and then for the rest of your life you must avoid wheat, barley, rye, and oats, or suffer the consequences.

What no one knows is what the environmental factor is. I believe it’s either a particular strain of bacteria, or a virus. I had no apparent signs of celiac disease for decades before I was diagnosed – but you could chalk that up to lack of awareness. One of my nephews had no symptoms at all, until suddenly, when he was 13, he suddenly became quite dramatically intolerant of gluten. Eating something made with gluten made him seriously sick for days ­– a far more severe reaction than mine. And this intolerance for gluten just appeared out of nowhere, without warning.

Not long ago, my daughter started to show similar signs of gluten intolerance, more like mine than my nephew’s. She has yet to be formally diagnosed, but all the symptoms match.

So far, all I’ve demonstrated is what we already know: that there’s a clear genetic link to celiac disease. Yet, in my travels as a futurist, speaker, and consultant (not to mention as a tourist), I’ve found the awareness of celiac disease has risen dramatically in the last 10 years, and the availability of gluten-free foods has exploded, not just in the U.S. and Canada, but in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, China, the Caribbean, and Australia, where I’ve worked and traveled. It’s almost as if celiac disease is contagious, and is sweeping the world – which is exactly what I think is happening.

I believe, as I’ve said, that there is some kind of microbe that induces an infection that is triggering the widespread, but latent, genetic susceptibility for celiac disease. And for some reason, this infection is now sweeping the world. It may be something that a cold bug added to its genetic code somewhere along the line, so that people with the genetic susceptibility who come down with that particular cold also wind up with celiac disease. Then, while they recover from the cold, they never recover from having their genetic weakness triggered, and so remain celiacs for life.

Multiple Sclerosis & Crohn’s?

If I’m right in my presumption, then this may also have implications for other autoimmune diseases. One of my cousins (I have a big extended family) recently died from Multiple Sclerosis. I had tried to stay current with research on the disease to see if I could spot potential treatments that could help. One of the more controversial studies done on MS indicated that it might be caused by a bacterial infection, much like stomach ulcers, and could be treated with antibiotics. This never gained widespread acceptance among researchers, but suppose the study was half-right? Suppose that MS was triggered by a bacterial infection? Indeed, suppose this is the explanation for many or all autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself, triggered by some external factor? It would cause us to radically rethink how to approach these diseases, including serious consideration of gene therapy to un-trigger the genetic susceptibility (if that’s possible) and cure celiac disease – as well as Crohn’s, MS, and all the other autoimmunes.

As I’ve said, this is speculation on my part, but it’s the only explanation I’ve heard that makes sense to me and accounts for all I’ve observed. I don’t think that the widespread and seemingly accelerating celiac pandemic is adequately explained by greater awareness alone. Something else is at work, and seems to be spreading fast. And since we have no idea what it is, no defense is possible.

Meanwhile, the pizza, pastry, and cake industries should be afraid, very afraid.

[i] And yes, I know you can make these things without gluten. Consider this as dramatic license, if you wish.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Don Feb 23, 2010

    Richard et al
    This a very interesting post. I am now 36; years ago I enjoyed your book “Next 20 Years…” and thought I’d start following your blog and to see if you published any further books. I was stopped in my tracks to find this article as, after 15yrs, I too discovered I have Celiac/severe intolerance to Gluten. Earlier today a friend of asked if I had any idea why ‘digestive issues due to Gluten’ are rapidly growing…of course a link to this entry is now sitting in his inbox.
    All the best – Don

  • Diane Haynes Feb 24, 2010

    Hi Richard,

    My mom forwarded this article to me (sent to her by a friend who follows your blog). She and I are both celiac. I figured out what was going on with me a couple of years after she did, when I read about the genetic component.

    I’m wondering whether you’ve taken any of these ideas to a research company or university to investigate further. I work as a writer at the University of British Columbia (BC, Canada), which has a strong research arm and a huge medical faculty, and it seems to me the theory is worth looking at more closely. The challenge is always getting the money to fund the research. But if the problem is as widespread as it now seems to be, and if some of those affected are in the financial industry (like yourself), maybe there’s a way to channel some money toward the research that needs to happen.

    Happy to discuss further. Thanks for your insights.

    Diane Haynes

    • Richard Worzel Feb 28, 2010

      Hi Diane,

      I have mostly had dismissive responses from researchers, mostly because my “evidence” is anecdotal. What I have is, at most, a hypothesis until I can find some statistically valid evidence to confirm it. Not sure how to convince a researcher to devote significant resources to it until one of two things happens: (a) I can find something more substantial to support my hypothesis, or (b) there are enough celiacs that researchers start getting money to investigate. I would think that (b) is more likely than (a).

      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate it!

      Best regards,