It all started with a news article that was retweeted into my Twitter feed. The article was very short, and reported that many people were going gluten-free even though they had absolutely no medical reason to do so.
The person who was retweeted into my Twitter feed is someone I do not know. She commented: “I’ll say it again, Unless you have a diagnosed condition, gluten free is not a “healthier” option”. According to the person’s Twitter bio, she is a PhD Researcher (Molecular Nutrition). I’m inclined to believe that she knows what she’s tweeting about.
This got me to wondering about something. Why would a healthy person willingly choose to restrict their diet unnecessarily?
To put things in context, I am a person with a “diagnosed condition” who cannot safely consume gluten. I was diagnosed with a severe allergy to wheat, rye, and barley (therefore – gluten) long before doctors had any idea what celiac disease was.
As far as I know, I do not have celiac disease. Instead, I’m stuck with a severe allergy to foods that contain gluten. As an example, I wasn’t tested to see if I was allergic to Spelt. A few bites of a pizza made with a Spelt crust, that the server insisted was gluten free, made me really sick. A little research on the internet showed me that some people who cannot tolerate gluten get sick if they eat Spelt. Others can tolerate Spelt. I’m unlucky.
Anyway, I started tweeting my thoughts about the article that ended up in my Twitter feed:
* As someone with a diagnosed condition (who can’t have gluten) – Don’t get why people would unnecessarily restrict themselves.
* Having to avoid gluten is really difficult and takes a lot of research. Greatly limits the variety of things I can safely consume.
* I don’t get why healthy people would make their lives more difficult when they don’t have any medical reason to do so.
Twitter, or course, limits the amount of characters a person can type, so I couldn’t express myself there as fully as I can in this blog post. In my head, the following thoughts were running around in circles.
Because I can’t have gluten, I have to take the time to read every ingredient on every package of food when I go grocery shopping. Sometimes, I need to get my phone out so I can look up an ingredient that I am unfamiliar with. Does that one have gluten? Is that ingredient a cross-reactive allergen with another food that I’m allergic to? It takes a lot of time.
I read the ingredients on packages of foods that I believe are safe – just in case they changed an ingredient since the last time I bought that particular product. If I guess wrong – well, I end up sick (like the time I ate Spelt).
Products that are specifically made gluten free, by companies that specialize in it, are more expensive than the “regular” versions that contain gluten. My grocery bill is always going to be higher than the grocery bill of a healthy person – even if we bought the exact same type of foods.
I doubt most people realize that there is gluten in (most) soups. If the soup has noodles – it has gluten. Many soups use wheat as a thickener for the …. soupy part of the soup (for lack of a better term). There are a few companies that make gluten free soups. Guess what? A can of gluten-free soup is… yep… more expensive than the same version of a “regular” soup.
Most people can decide, on a whim, that they want to go to a restaurant. They can take a few minutes to read the menu and can order whatever sounds good to them at that moment.
I can’t go to a restaurant unless I’ve done some research on it first. There are plenty of places that have absolutely zero items that I can safely eat (due to the gluten problem as well as my other food allergies).
Soy sauce has wheat in it. A little research showed me that I cannot eat at a Panda Express ever again (and should not have been eating there in the first place). Everything except the white rice, and the brown rice, has been cooked with soy sauce or contains wheat. Their mixed vegetables contain wheat. This is just one example of a restaurant that doesn’t offer me anything I can safely eat.
Some places have things I can eat if I modify it. Like, for example, I can eat a burger or hot dog if it isn’t on a bun. Sometimes I can eat french fries, but that’s a risk if the restaurant puts anything that is coated with wheat into the same fryer. So, I can eat… but not like a normal person would. I’d be eating to stay alive. Other people get to enjoy their food and feel satisfied when they are finished.
There are times when I think I’ve done all the research about a restaurant, and have picked out two options that appear to be safe for me to eat. If I’m lucky, there is one menu item that doesn’t contain anything I’m allergic to and can safely eat as-is. Or, I might find something I can safely eat if it is modified (by leaving out certain ingredients).
There have been times when I’ve done all my planning only to find that the restaurant is out of those menu items or has completely changed their menu. There have been times when I had every reason to believe that I’d picked an option that should have been safe – only to start getting symptoms that indicate I had consumed gluten. For example, an omelette with grated cheese is safe for me. An omelette with cheese sauce is NOT (because the damned sauce contain wheat).
Recently, I had to stop taking a medication that my rheumatologist prescribed for me because it turned out that one of the inactive ingredients contained gluten. The medicine that was supposed to make me “better” made me incredibly sick. The doctor didn’t know that the drug had gluten in it. It was an unavoidable mistake. As a result, there is no drug he can prescribe for me. (Fortunately, my acupuncturist has found me some herbal medications that help with inflammation.)
When I eat something that contains gluten, there are four symptoms that happen right away. Those symptoms don’t stop for weeks. You see, when your body cannot process gluten, and you put gluten in your body, your digestive system has an incredibly difficult time trying to get the gluten out of your body. In the meantime, your body can’t properly process the other food, the safe food, that you put into it until the gluten has been removed.
These are the things I think about when I read articles that tell me that there are people who are choosing a gluten-free diet despite having absolutely no medical reason to do so. I cannot understand why a person would willingly choose a life as tedious as mine when they have other options. My life is incredibly tedious. For me, there is no choice but to be overly cautious about food all the time. Why would anyone choose to make food, something most people get a lot of satisfaction from – into an exercise in tedium, frustration, and extra expense when there is no medical reason to require them to live like that?
One of the things I love about Twitter is that people can answer the questions I throw out there. Someone who I do follow had an answer for me. This person said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that people who choose to eat gluten-free when they don’t have to are doing it because society trains people to chase optimality even when it isn’t actually healthy.
To be honest, I had to look up what “optimality” meant. After I sorted that out, I found the person’s comments enlightening. This was especially true when the person continued, and pointed out that (again, paraphrasing) that people have been taught that gluten is bad for you (like fat, salt, etc). A second person, who may or may not have read the first person’s comments, shared a similar thought. The second person said (again, paraphrasing) that gluten-free sounds healthy (like fat-free, or sugar-free).
I did not expect my short Twitter rant would result in an epiphany – but it did. These healthy people, who are choosing to eat gluten-free, despite having no medical reason to do so, are not doing it the same way that I am. I honestly had not thought of that.
It’s possible that some of the people who are eating gluten-free because it sounds healthy are having “cheat days” in which they consume a bunch of foods that contain gluten. Or, they are selecting a box of cookies that says “gluten-free” instead of a box of cookies the doesn’t say it – and aren’t spending any time reading the ingredient label. They are probably ordering the soup at Panara Bread, instead of a sandwich that includes bread that has gluten in it – without realizing that most of Panara Bread’s soups contain gluten.
These people, who have no medical reason to avoid gluten, are seeking optimality. They think they will get the best nutrition, or lose the most weight, or be the most healthy if they avoid gluten. Someone told them this, or they read it in some random article on the internet, (and never bothered to ask their doctor about it).
But, this type of optimality isn’t optimal at all. People who have to avoid gluten need to take extra care that they are getting enough fiber in their diet. It can be done if you are taught what grains are safe to eat and/or consume produce that has a lot of fiber in it. Those that are avoiding gluten for no medical reason can end up causing themselves harm due to lack of fiber.
When I first read the news article that appeared in my feed, I was annoyed at the people who opt for a gluten-free diet for no reason. It seemed incredibly stupid to choose a life as tedious as mine has to be when you are able to easily avoid that entire problem simply by eating the way a healthy person can.
But now, considering the optimality concept … I kind of feel sorry for those people. They don’t have to restrict their diet they way I do. But, they believe that they need to do that, and so, miss out on all the tasty foods that they could safely be eating.