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The Gluten-Free Schism


Jun 27 2014
Responding with grace when food sensitivities—and fakers—disrupt our fellowship.

A recent cartoon in the New Yorker depicts two women sitting across from one another. "I've only been gluten-free for a week," one says, "but I'm already really annoying."

Going gluten-free has become both popular and profitable, with pasta and bread manufacturers scrambling to develop products free from the protein commonly found in wheat and grains. That's no easy feat, since gluten's elasticity is what allows baked goods to rise and gives pasta its texture.

For a few people – perhaps a bit more than 1 percent of the population – gluten is toxic. Another estimated 6 percent have some degree of gluten intolerance. But most who foreswear gluten do so believing it is the answer to a range of health issues. Proponents of a gluten-free diet claim it eases digestion, helps with weight loss, and even improves the quality of your sleep and your skin.

When a Forbes headline not long ago announced that, with the exception of celiac disease, "Gluten Sensitivity May Not Exist," some people were exultant, thinking that comedian Jimmy Kimmel was right all along when he quipped that most people who went gluten-free did so just because someone in their yoga class told them to.

My family was largely gluten-free back when no one had ever heard of gluten. Some of my earliest memories involve my dad going to doctor after doctor for test after test. He was wasting away from a disease no one could diagnose. Painfully thin and extremely anemic, he had a mouth full of canker sores and suffered chronic diarrhea. When he was finally diagnosed with celiac disease, he regained 20 pounds in a single month. In those days, there were almost no gluten-free products, and what few existed tasted like nothing you'd ever willingly eat, and so we all became adept at cooking rice, which mostly replaced pasta and bread in our household.

As I entered my teen years, I, like most American girls, began worrying about my weight. Eventually, I came up with a perfect strategy: I'd feign celiac disease too, and thus create the perfect excuse not to eat pizza, bagels, and virtually all baked goods. While I was at it, I managed to become lactose intolerant as well. My friend Kate summed up her concern about the popularity of gluten-free diets this way: "It just reminds me of girls in high school who were 'vegetarian,' when for a lot of them it was a way to hide an eating disorder."

Speaking just for myself, that's precisely what going gluten-free was for me – a form of what the physician Steven Bratman has termed orthorexia: an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating that tends to eliminates category after category of food.

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The Gluten-Free Schism