Seeing the sudden popularity of gluten-free diets for people who have no form of gluten intolerance nor celiac’s disease is giving me deja-vu. Allow me to put on my hipster glasses and tell you all about how I first came across gluten-free diets and how they were packaged to me before books like Wheat Belly and other bestsellers touted living gluten-free as a means of whittling your waist.
Back in the olden days of 2004-2005, I was reading up as much as I could about autism and Asperger Syndrome, because I was naturally curious about my people, post-diagnosis. A recurring theme in the books, apart from the usual staples of socialization and behavioural adjustments, was touting a gluten-free diet. It was promised as a miracle which would change a “locked in their own world autistic” (sic) into an “active but odd autistic” (sic). There were entire recipe books devoted to avoiding gluten and casein (a dairy protein) and adapting an autistic child’s life to avoid the devilish proteins hiding away in just about every innocuous foodstuff.
I tried a gluten-and-casein free diet myself for a couple of months, while I was in college, hoping to find a fix to my anxiety, depression, sadness, and ongoing physical problems ranging from gassiness to bloating to constipation. Whatever side effects the gluten-and-casein free diet was supposed to curb or prevent, it was not worth the mental and physical anguish that it caused me. Having to constantly think and over-think about what I was eating, out of paranoia about accidentally consuming gluten or casein, made me miserable. Missing out on my favourite foods and having substitutes for them which tasted like sweetened sand made me miserable. The whole experience aggravated my symptoms, rather than relieving them. And, as it turns out, my personal experience was backed up by science. In Autism’s False Prophets, Paul Offit demonstrated that the effectiveness of “reducing” the signs of autism of gluten-casein-free diets was, at most, negligible, and in most cases, nonexistent.
Now I’m seeing gluten-free get a new spin, not as a means of managing autism, but as a means of making people lose weight. Unlike when I went gluten-casein-free, there are a great deal more options out there for gluten-free eaters, thanks to raised awareness of food intolerance and celiac’s disease. There are gluten-free cookies, bars, sweets, bites, and restaurant options too. Depending on the severity of your gluten intolerance (if you even have one) you don’t even have to depend on a gluten-free menu, it could be as simple as ordering a hamburger with no bun at McDonald’s. That probably makes it easier for those who want to live gluten-free and not miss out on their favourite treats. But if people trying to use gluten removal for weight loss the same way people used to (and probably still do) use it as a cure for autism or managing its “symptoms”, they’ll probably be disappointed. People’s bodies are all different, and there is no single magical cure for the vast variety of different bodies with different food preferences, intolerances, and personal body chemistry to magically get healthy.*
Lesson of the day: Eat whatever you want. You’re an independent being with agency who can decide what is best for your body, and if you feel a gluten-free lifestyle might be for you, go ahead. You are blessed with many options now. However, if you’re some quack trying to make a fortune off distortions of health and biochemistry and nutrition in order to make a quick buck, or some prescriptive tool who thinks that the world would be a better place if everybody adopted your dietary lifestyle, or a jerk who thinks that being thin equals being healthy, then I hate you, please choke on a bagel.
* I am not meaning to use it that way, but these books and promotional materials seem to equate “get healthy” with “lose weight”.