The notion of going gluten-free in the absence of celiac disease is controversial. I posted a letter to the New York Times editor on our Facebook page last week, and it stimulated a number of passionate responses (I love passionate fans!).
On the one hand, there seems to be a growing number of people who have tested negative for celiac disease, but have experienced amazing health benefits by going gluten free. I am constantly hearing from people, including two of my own family members, who have tested negative for celiac disease, but swear by the gluten-free diet. Although it hasn’t been well studied, gluten intolerance is a valid phenomenon that occurs when a person tests negative for celiac disease but experiences a variety of negative symptoms after eating gluten. To me, the solution seems quite straightforward. We live in a free country where there are a lot of food options and a lot of wonderful nutrition advice. So, naysayers be damned: If eating gluten-free makes you feel better, why the heck wouldn’t you do it?
On the other hand, there are people who regard the gluten-free diet as a fad weight-loss mechanism. Recently, the Glamour Magazine online blog posted a reflection on the gluten-free fad, and many of their readers left comments about starting the gluten-free diet in order to lose weight and feel good. Stars like Gwyneth Paltrow have popularized the gluten-free diet in the absence of a medical diagnosis, and a lot of people have jumped on the bandwagon. This has had some good and some bad effects.
First, the good: companies small and large have perceived the increased demand for gluten free products, and they have responded! We now have gluten-free Chex, Betty Crocker mixes, and Yoplait yogurt thanks, in part, to the fact that so many people are going gluten-free. While these products may not be organic or uber-healthy, it is nice to see some mainstream options that we can depend on finding just about anywhere. The gluten-free section in my local supermarket has dramatically increased in size. What used to be one small shelf is now an entire aisle! My local food co-op puts special labels on everything in the store that’s gluten free. In addition, the people in my life hear about the gluten-free diet more frequently, and they say things like, “Hey, Crystal, did you know that Starbucks now has gluten-free chips?” (Thanks for the tip, Laura! The sweet potato variety is delicious.) In my view, this is all very positive and directly attributable to all the buzz surrounding the gluten-free diet. Even the Elisabeth Hasselbeck book drama served to increase gluten-free awareness, but more on that elsewhere…
Now, the bad: the gluten-free fad has led some people, including doctors and chefs, to take celiac disease less seriously. I have spoken to restaurant chefs that believe that the gluten-free diet just isn’t a “big deal.” The fad followers order gluten-free salad, but want a little of the glutenous salad dressing on the side (come on, it just tastes better!). When this happens time and again, the kitchen and wait staff begin to think that a little gluten is ok. I once had a waiter bring me a salad with a big hunk of Italian bread sitting right on top. When I reminded him that I needed a gluten-free salad, he quickly scooped up the bread and put it in his pocket. Then, I had the opportunity to educate the waiter on what gluten-free really means. (No crumbs, please!) But seriously, this is a very real problem. An archived newsletter from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness describes an incident where a woman went to her physician complaining of celiac symptoms, and her physician refused to do the test and told her that the gluten-free diet was nothing more than a fad. Luckily, the patient had done her research and convinced the doctor to do the test, but the research shows that the majority of people with cealic disease have never been tested.
Taken together, these findings leave me feeling ambivalent. The gluten-free fad has affected those of us with celiac disease, but it hasn’t been all good or all bad. I can’t even argue that the bad (people taking us less seriously) outweighs the good (increased awareness, more gluten-free options, and increased detection).
However, I can say one thing for certain: if following a gluten-free diet makes you feel good, then welcome to our blog! I’m glad you’re here.
Photo credit: Whatsername?