“Are we being too tolerant of gluten-tolerance?” is the question Slate’s Daniel Engbert explored earlier this week.
Now, I have a lot of thoughts about the points raised. However, I also have a lot of thoughts about another post I’m writing on disability vs illness, the interviews I’m doing today, and all the stuff I’m supposed to pack for a “working vacation” that starts tomorrow, so I’m going to tackle some of the major ideas briefly.
Honestly, based solely on the headline I thought the piece was going to antagonize me (proof it’s a smart headline, no?) but I found myself agreeing with some of it. Of course, where I found myself nodding in agreement were the most obvious distinctions, but they’re important ones nonetheless. Using Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s best-selling book The G-Free Diet and the booming gluten-free food industry as context, Engbert establishes that:
“The lavishing of attention on wheat alternatives is wonderful news to the sufferers of celiac disease, for whom any amount of dietary gluten can inflame and destroy the lining of the small intestine." Naturally I agree with this; in the five years since I was diagnosed, both awareness and availability of GF products has really increased. More restaurants have GF options, labels are more clear, and more GF alternatives line the grocery store shelves.
(As an aside, does anyone with celiac disease actually use the term “G-free” in public? No seriously, I’m asking.)
Yet I don’t think I’m the only one out there who has witnessed the downside of the popularity of eating GF. For example, because it is known that people without celiac are opting for the GF lifestyle anyway, there can be less urgency about making sure meals in restaurants are actually GF—the occasional eye roll or dismissive glance that means the person I’m talking to half-wonders if I’m avoiding gluten simply to lose weight or something.
I should add here that Engbert makes the distinction between celiac disease and gluten-intolerance pretty explicit; it’s the people who reside on the spectrum of intolerance who don’t have the full-blown autoimmune response to gluten but feel better when they remove it he’s worried about:
“I'm all for people eating what they want, but lately I've started to wonder how gluten intolerance might relate to a more general anxiety about food… Any kind of restrictive diet can help alleviate gastrointestinal distress. If you're paying more attention to what you eat, there's a good chance your symptoms will lessen.”
He goes on to say, “It's well-known that our digestive system adapts its secretions (rather quickly) to whatever we're eating.” By extension, then, removing all products with gluten and then consuming some after a prolonged period could make you feel sick, thus enforcing the idea that you are gluten-intolerant.
(I can vouch for the fact that my husband went GF for a month to see what it was like and when he gorged on starches his first meal “back” he felt awful. Was gluten a shock to his system, or just a sign he overate in a way he didn’t when he was eating GF foods? I’m not convinced either way, but I know he felt pretty miserable.)
I know a type 2 diabetic without celiac who removed gluten from his diet and experienced dramatic reductions in his insulin needs—was it because he was somewhere on the sensitivity spectrum and removing gluten improved his digestion and absorption of foods and that somehow influenced his metabolism of insulin? I’m not an endocrinologist, so I can’t say. But could it be something as simple as removing gluten meant removing the more processed white starches and carbohydrates that spiked his sugar?
I don’t have the luxury to “slip up,” nor am I qualified to dissect those who are gluten-intolerant—we face many of the same challenges and gains in eating GF.
I guess my point is, to me, it doesn’t matter—in my example of the diabetic, the end result was that he felt better and needed less insulin. That’s the important part. If the gluten-intolerant have their own health improvements, that's a good thing.
I live GF and have no regrets—I eat whole, fresh vegetables, complex grains with plenty of fiber like quinoa, and consume no processed foods. It is not without sacrifice or expense, but in many ways, I see it as a much healthier way to prepare and consume food. If others choose to do the same and experience the same benefits, that’s great.
And here’s where Engbert’s argument gets a bit more interesting. He parallels the rise of eating GF with other diet trends, like Atkins, at the same time admitting he doesn’t think people who choose to go GF are simply secretly trying to lose weight:
“When a restrictive diet becomes an end in itself, we call it an eating disorder; when it's motivated by health concerns, we call it a lifestyle. It might also explain the relationship between food sensitivities and fad diets: People who are intolerant of gluten or lactose get a free pass for self-denial.”
Not to use the word “sensitive” too much, but I am particularly sensitive to this association between elimination and health. After all, I chose to go dairy-free even though I’m not lactose-intolerant because it helped decrease mucus production. That got a few eyebrows. And when I eliminated sugar and yeast for nine weeks due to my intense antibiotic regimen that wreaked havoc in my GI system, I got more eyebrows.
I consider these moves wholly health-motivated, so my choices would be classified as “lifestyle” ones by Engbert’s definition. But from the outside, perhaps they appeared otherwise to other people?
At the end of the day, I can’t worry about or judge the dietary choices others make or what they think of mine, so I’ll leave this where Engbert does—all this awareness is truly a good thing for celiacs, as well as the people who have celiac but have not been diagnosed yet but have a better chance of it now.
Do I think we're "too tolerant?" No. Do I think extremes exist in every situation? Sure. Is that a reason to decry real progress for so many people? No.