Where a trend occurs, a backlash inevitably follows. Right now, there's a significant backlash occurring against gluten-free diets. Every day I see new articles from cynical, world-weary social commentators who roll their eyes and yawn at the newest “fad diet.” If you actually have celiac disease, they say, of course you should avoid gluten. If not, you're probably a victim of savvy food marketing and privileged dietary memes. Even writers I otherwise respect, like Ragen Chastain, are taking pot-shots at the gluten-free, which includes yours truly.
So I thought I would take just a moment to explain why I blog gluten-free.
I grew up eating wheat at every meal, mostly in the form of white flour. Typical meals were toast with margarine for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner. I had various minor health problems as a kid, such as IBS, asthma, and joint pain, but nothing that could be connected to one source.
A few years ago, after several years of vegetarianism, I developed several more serious conditions. In particular, my digestion was a mess. For over a year, my stomach bloated enormously every time I ate. That's the least disgusting thing I can share with you about my digestive problems. I often experienced headaches after eating, too, and nausea. After a while I noticed that my throat became scratchy after meals, and I'd occasionally experience tachycardia. At the time I was studying nutrition in college and, fortuitously, taking a class in food allergies and sensitivities. Every one of my symptoms aligned with this possibility, so I started to question my eating habits.
At the time, my habits were changing quite a bit, mostly in terms of my wheat consumption. I never much cared for bread, and didn't eat pasta or cookies all that often, until I started working at a health food store. I worked long hours and often forgot to bring a lunch or dinner, and the quickest thing I could eat was a whole-wheat bagel with soy cream cheese, or microwaveable noodles. At the end of a long shift I'd pick up a few vegan chocolate chip cookies from the store's bakery, to share with Jeremy after I'd trudged home through the snow.
Also, Jeremy had discovered no-knead sourdough bread. He'd make a new loaf just about every day. I can't tell you how much of that stuff I consumed during that year, loaded with Earth Balance margarine. Yikes.
Since this was the most significant change in my eating habits, it was natural that I looked askance at wheat. The fact that gluten-free products were suddenly flooding the shelves where I worked, and the words were on the tip of every health-conscious lip, also raised my awareness. Since I was vegan at the time, I already avoided some of the most common food allergens, like eggs and dairy products, and I didn't eat a whole lot of soy. Wheat seemed the most likely culprit. I couldn't imagine life without Jeremy's sourdough bread, but I decided to try cutting out gluten for a few weeks, just to see how I felt.
To my dismay, I felt better almost immediately. I didn't last long on a strict gluten-free diet, but when I started eating bread again I noticed an immediate difference there, too. My heart raced, my hands shook, my face flushed, my throat itched. My belly blew up like a balloon and my digestion ground to a halt.
I can't tell you how depressed I was about this. I already avoided so many foods in my daily diet, it was just exhausting to consider such a big one. But at this point, with more normalized eating habits, being gluten-free is like clockwork; I'm rarely tempted. I know very well what happens when I give in to that doughnut at the office or that restaurant bread. Eating this way fits in perfectly with my HAES philosophy: I eat foods I like, foods that make me feel good.
Some critics believe that people feel better on gluten-free diets just because they're eating less. They might refer to gluten-free as “the new low-carb” and say that this is why weight loss occurs, too. I can attest that this is rarely the case. With gluten-free products filling the shelves of even conventional grocery stores, nobody has to “live without” anymore. Most people simply replace glutenous products with gluten-free bread, pasta, cookies, and flour, most of which contain just as many calories as wheat, if not more. In fact, most of these foods are highly processed, and register even higher on the glycemic index than wheat does.
Some writers have promoted gluten-free diets for weight loss. This is a shame. This sort of marketing paints GF as just another fad, like low-fat diets, that have ultimately worn out their welcome, unveiled as pointless, contradictory, ultimately unhealthy practices. Many people do experience weight loss on GF diets, but it's not because they're losing body fat (certainly not visceral fat). In most cases it's because two common symptoms of gluten sensitivity are bloating and water retention. (I can gain eight pounds in a single night from eating a slice of bread. Those eight pounds are not fat.) If a person avoids gluten and also avoids replacing wheat with processed gluten-free foods, they might reduce their overall sugar and starch consumption, which might promote short-term weight loss. This isn't about the gluten, though, and it's important to emphasize this fact.
In my opinion, it's irresponsible to promote GF diets specifically for weight loss. When a person fails to lose weight or sustain weight loss while eating gluten-free, s/he might assume that the diet is useless, remaining unaware of a true sensitivity, or many other potential benefits of avoiding the protein.
It's easy to look at the influx of gluten-free products and assume that a very profitable bandwagon is being launched. But it's just as likely that people are accidentally discovering they were sick all along. Gluten sensitivity and outright celiac disease are on the rise, with most cases being thus far undetected. Awareness is raised by these silly products, people promote the diet for the wrong reasons (like weight loss), and yet people discover that they really do have a problem with wheat.
And why shouldn't they? Components of gluten act directly on intestinal cells even in non-celiac patients and increase intestinal permeability, which induces an autoimmune response. Celiac disease has increased 400% in the past 50 years, to current estimates of 1 in 133 people (and that's based on preserved serum testing, not increased awareness or better testing). Another 20 million people in the U.S. are estimated to be sensitive to gluten without having full-blown celiac disease. Consumption of wheat has increased, and the genetics of wheat have changed dramatically in recent years. But gluten is just the tip of the iceberg. Some researchers have posited that celiac disease and general gluten sensitivity might not be an unhealthy response to a healthy food, but rather a healthy response to an unhealthy food, one that is inherently destructive.
So how is a person to sort through these contradictory messages? After all, it's not easy avoiding wheat in a culture as bread-saturated as this one, so why would you do it unnecessarily? Some writers have stated that people should be tested, and if they aren't diagnosed with celiac disease, they should chow down on Wheaties the very next morning. This ignores the medical evidence, the basic fact that testing is notoriously unreliable. Even the “gold standard” of villus endoscopy is contingent on several complicated factors, including a consistently high intake of gluten for several weeks before the test. Testing can be comforting for some people, but it's not the most important factor.
That's why it upsets me to see these articles full of sighs and shrugs and dusting of hands of the pitiable, poor, uneducated masses chasing after the latest dietary hocus-pocus. Some people get really, really sick from wheat, immediately, obviously. But a great many people experience negligible symptoms and yet harbor a sensitivity that can severely affect their health long-term. If they try a gluten-free diet, even for the wrong reasons (like weight loss), they might inadvertently find a solution to a problem (or a whole shitload of problems, because gluten can mess you up head to toe) they didn't yet recognize.
That's the bottom line. Everything else is just noise.