In the name of health, part two

Sometimes I think this series on "In the name of health" could go on ad infinitum (you can read the first episode here). For my own mental well-being, I won't write an endless series of posts about it, but an article I found on Facebook (h/t Libby and Amy) made me realize that I certainly needed to do more than just the two original planned posts.

The name of the article? Throwing out the wheat: are we becoming too tolerant of gluten intolerance?

Writer Daniel Engber takes a long, hard look at the sudden proliferation of gluten-free foods, sales of which have risen an estimated 28 percent each year to make an industry worth nearly $2 billion. Take a look at some of the boxes of Chex cereal these days- many are now prominently labeled "gluten free."Although avoiding gluten, a protein found in wheat and certain other grains, is necessary for those with celiac disease, this autoimmune condition affects no more than 1% of the population (or at least, less than 1% of the population has received an actual diagnosis of celiac disease). And though this proliferation may be beneficial for them, it doesn't seem that such a small segment of the population would drive such a large segment of the food industry.

Engber's hypothesis is that most people who cut out gluten don't actually have full-blown celiac disease. Rather, it's a way to avoid foods in the name of "health" and maybe lose some weight in the process. In other ways, the association is blunt and in your face, as Elizabeth Hasselbeck's latest book The G-Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide contains a chapter titled "G-Free and Slim as Can Be!"

Writes Engber:

The fact that "going G-free" means eating fewer cupcakes and less pasta suggests another source of relief. It is, after all, an elaborate diet—and so delivers all the psychological benefits of controlled eating and self-denial. "Once G-free, you are no longer simply robot-eating bag after bag of pretzels," writes Hasselbeck...Gluten intolerance may be a medical condition, but according to Hasselbeck, it's also an approach to eating—like South Beach or Skinny Bitch—that's supposed to make you lose weight and feel good about your body.

One of the most fascinating parts of the article is the graphs that compare the rise in newspaper mentions of "gluten intolerance" with the rise in popularity of the Atkins diet.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But it strikes me as kind of unlikely, especially when you compare the rise in "lactose intolerance" that happened alongside the popularity of the Mediterranean diet.

Engber makes his key point here:

I'm not suggesting that anyone who avoids gluten is secretly trying to lose weight. The purpose of a gluten-free diet is, naturally, to feel better. But there's a complicated relationship between feeling good and eating less. 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. That's why Hasselbeck says going G-free will make you slim (a sign of wellness) rather than skinny (a symptom of anorexia). 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.

And it's the last one that concerns me. When people say they are doing something for "health reasons," we become automatically less likely to question it. Dietary changes for health reasons can be totally legitimate, and suffering caused by undiagnosed food allergies and intolerances is very real. But I think the new surge in "cutting out..." gluten, corn syrup, dairy, meat, food in general has less to do with an increase in food allergy diagnosis and a lot more to do as a way to avoid food and not get called out on it.


formyed said...

I think it's true that some people cite health reasons, allergies, etc. as ways to cut food out of their diet without being questioned. Some people.

That said, I think the assumption that that's why people do it also keeps a lot of people with eating disorders out of treatment. I'm 100% vegetarian, and I've actually gone about 90% vegan, with the support my my dietitian.

Going vegan has actually been really beneficial to my recovery. And one of the reasons that I was able to get treatment at all this time around was the fact that my dietitian made it clear that she supported vegetarianism/veganism. However, were I to ever need to go inpatient, I would literally have nowhere to go, unless I were to compromise my ethics, which I will not do. The assumption by so may that vegetarianism/veganism is about an eating disorder, or about cutting foods out of one's diet keeps a lot of people out of treatment, because a lot of dietitians, etc. won't work with us.

Kim said...

Ever since I noticed the gluten-free fad, I began to think that putting "_______-free" on anything must increase sales 50%. I don't think most people even know what gluten is, but they see that a food doesn't have it and think it must be a good thing. I agree with you that this "health" thing has gone too far. I got caught up in it for a while and now I have to remind myself that IT'S JUST FOOD. Anything on the shelf is FDA-approved and it's all safe, etc, etc. Getting obsessed with anything, even in the name of "health," is very destructive for me.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure I'm in the minority and will probably take some heat for it, but I have long been skeptical at the increasing number of people with food "allergies" and "intolerances". I'm sure there are people who have genuine problems with certain foods but I am also willing to bet that many are doing it for weight loss or attention or as a result of some sort of dietary hypochondria. And I do not include people who have real eating disorders in those groups. I'm talking about people who have convinced themselves and others that they will become deathly ill if they allow wheat gluten to enter their bodies, when in fact if you gave them a roll and told them it was gluten free and it wasn't, they'd suffer no ill effects. I have such people in my family.

And of course it provides a golden opportunity for makers of specialty foods to charge outrageous prices for their "gluten free" foods. And we consumers are so gullible. Put a health label or claim on something and feel free to jack up the price, our wallets are open.

Anonymous said...

I have had an eating disorder for 7 years and was diagnosed with celiac disease a year ago. I went undiagnosed for years because my family thought it was all apart of the ED. I can understand where you are coming from in this post as many people have told me how lucky I am to not be allowed to eat such "bad" foods. And that it would be amazing to be able to resist such foods. Lets just say its made recovery a lot harder. I am very grateful for the amount of gluten free foods that have recently come out.

Carrie Arnold said...


Although I don't doubt you have a vegan diet for ethical reasons, I am (for better or worse) skeptical given the connections between vegetarianism and EDs. The "ethics" of vegetarianism can get tangled in the knot of ED thinking, quite unintentionally. I'm not saying this is you, just that it is very common. I've seen it every place I've been for treatment. I'm glad that you found an RD to work with and found a way to maintain both your ethics and a healthy, balanced diet.


You make a good point, that food marketers have a lot of motivation to convince people with no gluten allergies to give up gluten.


I think the growing amounts of gluten free products are very helpful for those with celiac disease. I've met plenty of girls in treatment with severe food allergies, and I have much sympathy with how hard it must be to find stuff to eat. But the double whammy of then having people say how good it is you can't eat "bad" food would have me seeing red!

Thanks for all your feedback!

I Hate to Weight said...

why do so many of us (myself included) want to be so "slim"? think of all the time, the energy, the diets, the fads, the experts, the restricting, Spanx,control top pantyhose, skinny jeans,...........the madness.

i buy into it, on so many levels. but i still don't get it.

honestly, i don't really know what gluten-free means, but i do find myself envying elizabeth hasselbecks body.

like i said, madness

A:) said...

That is really interesting carrie and probably partially true for some people!

I think there is a test for it right? Many people I know who say they have it aren't medically tested by a doctor or w/e but say that they felt "so much better" after they stopped eating gluten products.

Interesting. . .


Anonymous said...

My best friend has diagnosed herself with a dairy allergy, celiacs disease, corn intolerance... oh yeah, any type of meat gives her migranes. So she has decided to start juicing.

I asked her if the changes in her diet are helping. She responded telling me happily that she has lost weight. Nothing else. She is a COE, not anorexic, but it still triggered me.

As someone actually in recovery from anorexia, this whole thing (and the constant discussions about food and ingredients) is highly triggering. Sure, its very valid and serious for some people and there might be some intolerances for my friend, but I don't know why weight has become the determining factor for such denial...

And maybe something to talk about. Maybe I am getting a taste of my own medicine as I know I get very obsessive when actively anorexic.

I keep suggesting she see a dietitian. She doesn't think they would know how to help her.

Adrianna Joanna said...

Last year, I had to get a total IgE because I was suffering from a serious rash that never healed. (I'll spare you the disgusting details.) In any case, I always knew I had allergies, because I was born with eczema, GI ailments, and am constantly having nasal allergic reactions.

I have 35+ allergies. Several of them are food, and one of them is gluten.

I can eat gluten once in a while in small amounts, like anything else, but I start to feel like s*** if I go any farther.

I have experimented with dieting and have struggled with body image issues in the past, but have never had a full-blown eating disorder.

However, I am not the only one that eats the special gluten-free food. My mother does, too, and she is obsessed with dieting and, well, is not that scientifically savvy. I wonder if she thinks she will lose weight because of this?

Then again, she has never claimed to have an allergy she didn't. She just cuts it out and is open about her desire to lose weight.

Anonymous said...

I have multiple food intolerances and allergies - diagnosed by blood test, not myself! The idea that cutting out gluten is good for general health or weight loss is lost on me. I went through hell trying to adapt to a radically changed diet while trying to recover from anorexia, and it's only after 18 months that I've really got on top of it. I don't use it as an excuse for restriction or only ever eating ultra healthy foods - I buy my favourite gluten free chocolate muffins at least once a week and also have pretty good versions of things like pizza bases and pasta - but I see a lot of people who do. Cutting out food groups while in recovery smacks of just switching from anorexia to orthorexia, which can be just as dangerous taken to extremes. Personally I can't see going gluten free being a miracle weight loss aid anyway, because I've not had any problem with weight restoration despite my frustrating diet!
Thanks for posting this, I'm glad some people have a healthy attitude towards these fads.

Carrie Arnold said...

Absolutely! I have numerous friends with various food allergies/intolerances or diabetes (some of whom also have EDs) and it doesn't bother me at all. I don't find it triggering because I know they're not doing it as a smokescreen for ED behaviors. I have to eat differently than other non-ED people because of a medical condition known as anorexia, so I do have sympathy.

I don't think the abundance of gluten-free foods is a bad thing, but it's something that we can and should stand back and ask ourselves "why?" I think it's a way for food companies to take advantage of a legitimate medical condition and turn it into a dietary fad.

Cat said...

I definitely agree with your last statement. I chose to become vegetarian in the midst of my eating disorder after careful and extensive research. Was some of it subconsciously driven by a desire to eliminate certain food groups? Maybe. Then once I started to get help with my ED, I became vegan, and my nutritionist was neutral on the decision.

But no matter how ethical and moral-driven my decisions were to become vegetarian/vegan, I can't ignore the fact that I have/am recovering from a psychiatric disorder, and taking care to make sure there aren't certain products in my food or passing up a dessert or entree because of its dairy or meat content undeniably perpetuates the negative behaviors to which I once so determinedly adhered.

Carrie Arnold said...

I love vegetarian cooking and vegetarian foods. Most of the time, I don't really miss meat when I don't have it. I worry about cutting whole food groups out of my diet, and the effects that would have on my recovery.

A lot of the people I know that are/were vegetarians and also had an ED cut out meat before their ED started. The choice began as perfectly ethical, but soon the "ethics" got warped by the ED. Simply not eating meat isn't eating disordered. Not eating meat because you're scared to IS eating disordered.

Anonymous said...

Carie, right on! I don't doubt the celiac disease in some people (and how hard that must be to deal w/), but I don't think you can ignore the enormous opportunity this opens for food marketers. I've yet to see a gluten-free product that wasn't expensive than its gluten-filled counterpart.

My dietitian made the remark that she can usually tell at what age a patient started restricting food just based their eating habits. Almost always these are based on the food fad of the time: fat-free, low-carb, gluten-free, etc.

If you want evidence of how entrenched ideas about "healthy" eating are in our culture, check out the messages on the article:

Micco said...

While I think these are important issues to discuss, I think it's very "chicken or the egg." We can't ignore that a lot of eating disorders are triggers for these allergies ( and that we live in a world where the way we procure and prepare food is so unnatural, our bodies are developing problems. I mean, is it any coincidence that Crohn's disease is largely unique to the industrialized world? ( Also, I strongly agree with the point made by some previous commentors, in that framing these discussions as smoke and mirrors for eating disorders makes it easier to ignore people that genuinely suffer from these conditions and encourages others to play food police - which I think we can all agree is NOT helpful. I also think that this is not necessarily symptomatic of our culture's relationship with food but our larger relationship (largely media and capital driven) to fear and hysteria. Living in the information age has given way to conditions like "cyberchondria," and any time we're offered a new health concern, suddenly everyone is a victim. Just remember the swine flu, which made every airport a germ factory and every cough a death sentence when less than 500 people died from the disease (compared to the 36,000 that die every year from seasonal flu). In fact, only twelve cases of the disease were reported to the CDC between December and February, but because that was so rare, everyone geared up for a pandemic in May. ( An episode of Scrubs even muses that outbreaks flood their ER, resulting in only one or two legitimate diagnoses. Obviously fiction but from what I've seen in my everyday life, I would not doubt some truth hidden in that episode. Eeep, out of internet time..! Might clean up this comment later!

Crimson Wife said...

As a parent, I've heard a lot of talk about a gluten-free casein-free diet as a treatment for kids with ADD, autism, and other learning disabilities. So many kids these days are suffering from these disorders and there's a lot of parents out there who are looking for easy, non-medical solutions like a GFCF diet and not getting routine childhood vaccines and whatnot.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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