These days it seems like everyone is going gluten-free… from Gwyneth Paltrow to Miley Cyrus… fad diet…. these gullible fools think it’s healthier… blah blah blah
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Your eye catches the words “gluten-free” on the screen and you are immediately suckered into a news article claiming that a third of us are gluten-free, or at least “trying to cut down”.
There’s yet another article in the Daily Fail today on this very topic, that seems to imply hordes of us are wreaking havoc on the Free From aisles, zombie apocalypse-style.
I call bullshit on this claim. Gluten-free is my business and so as part of the “what do you do?” dinner party questions, the topic invariably comes up when I meet anyone new. I know anecdotes do not equal evidence, but I generally meet very few people who are gluten-free, and the ones who are fall into the following categories:
- They are diagnosed coeliacs
- From the sounds of their diagnosis story, their doctors messed up (much like mine did) and while they aren’t officially diagnosed, eating gluten causes them to explode in a fit of poo and tears, and they most likely do have coeliac disease.
- They have IBS/general gluten intolerance
- They have other symptoms (e.g. eczema) which doctors are not interested in, or which hasn’t responded to regular medicine and someone has suggested they try going gluten-free… and it seems to be helping.
Since diagnosis I have not met one single person who has told me that they are gluten-free because they think it’s “healthier”, or want to lose weight. Not one.
So why do the media think everyone is suddenly going gluten-free? Well, it seems that sales of gluten-free products are skyrocketing.
There are many possible reasons which may partly account for the rise in sales, which don’t involve everyone blindly jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon.
- Gluten-free food on prescription is being cut across the NHS and diagnosed coeliacs are now having to supplement their prescription food with supermarkets’ Free From ranges
- 1% of the population may be coeliac, but in the UK only 15% of coeliac are diagnosed. So diagnosis rates are going up and more people know they have coeliac disease.
- The quality and range of Free From food is improving so coeliacs are buying more of it.
- Dieticians frequently put people on a low-FODMAP diet upon initial assessment, which involves cutting out gluten for a month or so.
- Dieticians, GPs and nutritionists often suggest going gluten-free/wheat-free to help alleviate symptoms of IBS, skin conditions, and even autism and ADHD. Therefore people are going gluten-free on the advice of a health professional.
- Don’t forget some people also have wheat allergies, as opposed to coeliac disease (which is an autoimmune disease, NOT an allergy).
- There is also the possibility that wheat/gluten is a far more widespread allergen than previously thought, and as we have increased the amount of wheat/gluten we consume, we are reacting more and more to it.
We need to stop demonising people (especially women) for the choices they make with regards to their diets. We are under pressure to be slim and fit, but god forbid we go on a diet to get there. We are told to cut out “refined carbohydrates”, but going on a gluten-free diet is just faddy. We are obsessed with our own health to the point where a food can be intrinsically “healthy” or “not healthy” without stepping back to consider what health is really about. Are we talking about sheer longevity and “whoever scores the most years wins”? Are we talking about quality of life? Or, as is most likely the case, are we talking about absence of unpleasant symptoms?
I know it’s hard to believe, but not everyone is an idiot who blindly follows any old health advice they find on the internet. Don’t get me wrong, some do (just browse the “Health & Fitness” category on Pinterest). But switching to an entirely gluten-free diet is so much extra hassle and expense that the people who think gluten-free is an easy fix will soon be in for a rude awakening.
As Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist and all-round badass, once said: “It is easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet.”
But if the gluten-free diet works for them, who are we to judge, really? A gluten-free diet is really not, in itself, any less healthy than a normal diet. The only concern I have heard raised among experts is that switching to a gluten-free diet may reduce overall levels of whole grains (and therefore fibre) in the diet, and that is something that’s relatively easy to fix: eat more veggies! (Broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, beans, squashes, celery and leafy greens are all high in fibre and pretty tasty too)
So before we get our collective knickers in a twist, let’s chill out about diets, let’s stop obsessing about antioxidents, cholesterol in food, “superfoods”, ancient grains, and the rest of the nutrition chatter that surrounds us if we dare to read the health/science sections of the newspaper. Unless a new fad diet is causing severe deficiencies and health problems for those who follow it, it’s really none of our business what everyone else is eating.