We’ve all heard of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, but have you heard about the newest gluten free fad: Gluten Intolerance Intolerance?!
“Gluten Free is just a Fad.”
“If you aren’t diagnosed with celiac by a doctor, you’re making it up.”
“If you’re gluten-free, you might have an eating disorder.”
(Before you yell at me … read on ….)
If you’re like me, you’ve heard these sorts of accusations and you’ve cringed, or become downright cranky. On my gfJules Facebook page recently, a commenter mentioned that she wished the gluten free fad would just go away. Others attacked her for making the fad reference in the first place, when, in actuality, she was simply lamenting that its being perceived by some to be a fad lessens the seriousness she (and most of us) thinks it deserves. Most of us in the gluten free community seem to be on edge when it comes to how we’re perceived, as if we’re being judged by society at-large.
Why are so many people intolerant of gluten intolerance? Why does what I eat, or don’t eat, affect you?
Why is following a gluten free diet without a medical diagnosis of celiac disease equated with following a “fad”? Why do people judge others for choices they make about their own bodies and what they put into them? If someone feels better not eating something, why do others have an opinion—much less voice it? I frankly couldn’t care less what Lady Gaga or Gwyneth Paltrow eat, so why do their dietary proclivities have anything to do with mine, and why does anyone else care?
The media often make matters worse, throwing around the “F” word as if gluten free was the next Popcorn Diet. NPR noted recently in their post about the bane and boon of the gluten free fad that while all the recent attention has created scads of new gluten free options, it comes with the repercussion that those living gluten free for medical reasons are often not taken seriously. Undermining the validity and credibility of a gluten-free diet makes it riskier to eat out now than ever before. A new, under-trained or simply uninformed server or chef, thinking the whole gluten free affair to be a fad du jour, may dubiously respond to requests for gluten-free foods.
“Unfortunately, [people trying the diet just because it’s thought to be ‘healthy’] may unwittingly be making life more challenging for those with celiac disease, by contributing to an environment where food servers have come to associate gluten avoidance with a silly fad that isn’t worth taking seriously.”
Another repercussion of gluten free’s faddish reputation is the embarrassment that keeps many people from asking for what they need, for fear of being ridiculed or belittled. What other medical condition do you know that produces similar indignant responses from our acquaintances? Are diabetics made to feel ashamed when they ask for low sugar options? Do people with arthritis have to explain an anti-inflammatory diet to doubting skeptics?
The advice section of the Miami Herald recently fielded a question from a reader who was actually annoyed by her boyfriend’s gluten free fad diet. The advice wisely turned the reader’s question on its head, asking , quite tactfully, whether it might be the reader who had the problem.
Carolyn Hax writes,
“When people merely find what works for them … [w]e owe them respect. Even if you think their adaptation is a mere hangnail compared with yours.
So if he’s genuinely decent, your inability to get past this would be worth a good think. What’s going on in your own mind — and sense of justice? — to make you care so much whether he eats a roll? Is your resentment perhaps valid, but misplaced on him?”
This brings us to the crux of the problem: when people think a way of eating is a fad, they (your aunt, dining hall chef, catering manager, waiter, your girlfriend …) feel they need, nay have the right, to judge whether or not you are following it for the right reasons.
I suppose I have it easy in today’s world. I actually have a confirmed diagnosis of celiac disease. (Want to see my biopsy results?!) The folks who have it hard are those who don’t have a medical diagnosis. Those for whom the medical profession failed when they refused to order tests or ignored their patients’ symptoms. It’s also hard for those who proactively started a gluten free diet and felt so much better that they wouldn’t dream of eating gluten again just to get tested. It’s a travesty that these folks are somehow lumped into the category with “fad dieters.” It’s a harsh and undeserved judgement. Because of it, we’re all at risk. People preparing our meals, or manufacturing our food, should never get to decide how seriously they’ll take our conviction to a gluten-free diet. Their subjectivity has no more place in our food supply than it does in that of someone with a severe peanut, shellfish, egg of other food allergy.
Can looking differently at the gluten free movement help?
I’d like to propose that we all shift our perspectives about living gluten-free. Let’s try viewing its millions of adopters and their many reasons on a continuum.
On one end of this continuum are people with medically diagnosed celiac disease. On the opposite end are people who eat gluten free to lose weight, and/or because a high-profile celebrity does, too. Yes, they’re following a fad in the truest, most arbitrary sense of the word—but remember, no judging. Bookended by the celiacs and the Fad Folks are the millions of people who genuinely feel better eating less or no gluten. They may have started out following a fad—to lose weight, for example—but maybe they ended up experiencing discernable health benefits. Or these bookended people may have suffered symptoms for years without a diagnosis, and after seeing a news segment or reading one of the increasingly frequent posts or articles about gluten free, they gave it a try.
I’ve personally talked with hundreds and hundreds of these Middle Grounders. With or without a member of the medical community’s tacit endorsement, these folks all have some degree of gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. And they’re absolutely no different from someone who regularly drinks red wine, but abstains from white wine because of its ill effects. Are these folks ridiculed for omitting this particular substance from their bodies? Know anyone who goes easy on sodium because their fingers swell or they develop headaches afterward? I’m glad for them they’re not subjected to the ire that people who want to forego gluten too often are.
People living gluten free without a medical diagnosis know their bodies; they’ve paid attention and have determined for themselves which foods, and in what amounts, they eat or don’t eat to feel their best. Within this middle-ground group there’s yet another continuum. One person can order a gluten-containing beer with his gluten-free wrap and feel no ill effects. For another person, adding the beer would put him over his gluten-tolerance threshold. Neither person is guilty of anything! Each has a unique body, with a unique capacity (or lack thereof) to digest gluten. Those who cast blanket judgments on an individual’s or group’s ability to process gluten (or white wine, or sodium) are the ones who are guilty. They are stricken with an inability to process realities that differ from their close-minded and often ill-informed personal realities.
Is the gluten free “fad” all bad?
Recent announcements that Miller Coors released a naturally gluten-free beer (Coors Peak) and that Pizza Hut began serving Udi’s Gluten-Free Pizza Crusts at certain locations remind us that because gluten is such a buzz-word right now, more options will become available to those of us who must eat gluten free. But are those options safe for us? Will the Pizza Hut GF pizzas really be gluten-free, or just sort of gluten free, like Domino’s so-called “gluten free” pizzas?
The fact that the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America is overseeing Pizza Hut’s training and certifying their cheese and pepperoni GF pizzas will bring some measure of comfort to many. But because Pizza Hut is also introducing a “Create Your Own Pizza” option “for those simply looking to reduce gluten in their diets,” we know they have their eye on the other end of the continuum, not just on us die-hards.
But that’s okay. Personally, I miss ordering out for pizza, but I refuse to jeopardize my health to take a chance in a risky environment I don’t control. As I roll out my own gluten free pizza crust at home, I’ve learned to tone down my lament of these big brands’ forays into offering gluten free options. Pizza Hut can be viewed as jumping on the profitable gluten free bandwagon, or they can be seen as responding to their customers’ demands for a pizza that simply began gluten free—whether or not those customers depend on it being 100% gluten free by the time it arrives at their table. At least I can make an amazing GF pizza myself and know that I’m not risking my health for pizza.
The reality is that it IS lucrative for some manufacturers and restaurants to try to grab a piece of the gluten-free pie in this capitalist market we all depend on. And depending upon where you fall on the gluten free continuum, many of these new options mean you might have more viable choices for eating out and for pre-packaged foods.
But for the ones of us who always will adhere to a strictly gluten-free diet for medical reasons, we need to know we’re safe, both from gluten and from reproach. No one should judge us for not eating at Pizza Hut, or those who do. We all make our own choices based on our own needs, which doesn’t affect anyone but ourselves.
Let’s start with the benefit-of-the-doubt assumption that most people who make erroneous judgments on the gluten-free diet do so out of media-led ignorance, not malice. What do YOU think is the best way to handle uninformed opinions and comments about the gluten free diet?
Give me your best “Dear Abby” response … or a bumper sticker ditty … or a slogan for a “Why Can’t We All Get Along (Around the Table)” ad campaign.