As a child, I was allergic to a lot—eggs, milk, practically all nuts, and all fish. I knew what it was like to read ingredient lists religiously and be wary of the slightest cross contamination. And I grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when people were not quite so sensitive to people’s problems with food (I was met with outright skepticism at many a restaurant when I questioned the waiter over how religiously the kitchen would wash the pots and pans).
In some ways, I am happy that suddenly, everyone is on some kind of “restrictive” diet. With all vegan products being labeled, I can avoid milk more easily. I will admit that I spend a lot of time Googling new diets such as keto and paleo, since I have started to become fascinated with fitness.
Gluten-free is an interesting case though—arguably, it’s an easy “diet” to pick up, and it’s the return of previous diets such as the Atkins Diet, which was a popular low-carb diet released in the 1960s. However, the gluten-free diet is based on an actual medical condition—celiac disease, in which consumption of foods with gluten (such as wheat or oats) damages the villi lining the small intestine. Those with celiac disease suffer considerable discomfort , as well as potential health problems, if they consume gluten.
Approximately one in one hundred people have celiac disease; functional gastrointestinal diseases also make up a large number of gastrointestinal complaints in the United States. Gluten may be the cause of some of these gastrointestinal complaints, but judging by the way that gluten-free has become its own behemoth, I somehow find it unlikely that everyone on the gluten-free diet has a diagnosed reason for avoiding gluten.
Jimmy Kimmel created a segment a few months ago, where his staff asked several people in the Los Angeles area if they knew what gluten was. He probably edited people who did know what gluten was out of his video (it is funnier to see someone ignorant than someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about), but the ignorance of these people is interesting. Most of them said something along the lines of “Uh…it’s bad for you. It makes you gain weight.” None of them identified it as a protein, and some of them misidentified what foods it was in.
Gluten is a buzzword that magically explains ailments. Prviously, Americans might have tried to solve their stomach ailments through medications; now they Google their symptoms or self-diagnose themselves via a friend who is already gluten-free. Buying gluten-free products feels like a step towards “healthiness”. Never mind that gluten does not affect the digestion of most people, nor does it actually cause weight gain even for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Eating gluten-free is relatively expensive—shops charge an premium for gluten-free crusts or breads. But perhaps that one or two dollar difference is a sufficient placebo for people to feel better about whatever stomach discomfort they’re feeling. And if the gluten-free diet is leading people to eat fewer carbs and overall calories (and as long as people actually suffering from celiac disease are not hurt by this craze), then the gluten-free craze might just be beneficial to its adherents, as well as the food industry.