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Celiac Disease Awareness: Is All Attention Good for the Cause?

Posted Aug 13 2009 7:49pm

If you follow the celiac listserv like I do, you probably have seen a series of posts about a recent article at Slate Magazine.  Daniel Engber has written one relatively short, somewhat offensive article about dietary trends in the United States, and he has put his magnifying glass on the gluten-free diet.  Without even reading the article, you know who is going to be featured because there is a big, bright picture of her on the first page.  Yes, in case you were wondering, it’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck.   As many of us know, Hasselbeck has published a whole 234 page book, The G-free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide, which has been marketed as a yet another diet that will make Americans healthier.  The book, thanks to Hasselbeck’s celebrity status, has also given celiac disease attention in the media, for better and for worse.  The author tells her story of having celiac disease, she gives advice, she gets celiac expert Dr. Green to write the forward to her book.  There is no denying, however, that the book, its inaccuracies aside, has the characteristics of other diets books written about regimes like the Atkins, The South Beach Diet, etc.

Daniel Engber then enters the picture with his article,  ” Throwing Out the Wheat: Are we being too tolerant of gluten-intolerance?”   It is clear to me after reading Engber’s article, that he did not consider multiple perspectives when putting the article together.  He decided to focus on the gluten-free diet and he chose not discuss other trendy diets that are making the news these days.  I suppose interviewing more celiac experts probably wouldn’t have helped his argument so he limited himself to that information which would support his ideas.  Sure, he referenced the Harvard Medical School advisory and the British Journal of Nutrition.  He even included some of his interview with leading celiac expert, Alessio Fasano, but he used the information from his interview with Fassano to support his thesis that our country is “turning its back on wheat” to follow the newest fad diet, The G-free diet.   But is that the only diet making the news today?  Was it really necessary to single out the gluten-free diet given that it is a medically necessary regime for someone who has celiac disease?

It’s true that our country falls for fad diets.  We have what Michael Pollan calls a “national eating disorder”  (Pollan, 2006).  Pollan summarizes this idea in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  He states, “The lack of a steady culture of food leaves us especially vulnerable to the blandishments of the food scientist and the marketer, for whom the omnivore’s dilemma is not so much a dilemma as an opportunity”  (Pollan, 2006). So, there is no doubt there are people out there who will be lead to the gluten-free diet because it’s has been presented as a health regime, not because the people really need to be gluten-free.   However, if Engberg wanted to focus his article on diet trends in this country in the year 2009, he could have chosen to focus on other known diets such as the raw diet, the blood type diet, the genotype diet or even the vegan diet.   These are not diets that are connected to a specific medical condition. Instead though, he honed in on the one diet that is medically necessary for approximately 1 in 133 people in the United States, and he ended up offending celiacs, people with the non-celiac form of gluten intolerance, and the families of children with autism. 

Engber’s article is unfortunately the byproduct of a book that has been called, “misleading and inaccurate” by Elaine Monarch, Executive Director of the Celiac Disease Foundation.  While I feel that Hasselbeck has brought more attention to the disease, and we should be thankful for attention on some level, I am bothered by the way she marketed her book because it has misrepresented the gluten-free diet.  As a result, now our community has to deal with articles like the one that Engber wrote.  I wonder if Ms. Hasselbeck had taken a different approach with her book, if we would even be having this discussion about Mr. Engber’s article?  I bet we wouldn’t.   


Pollan, Michael.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.  Penguin Books: New York, 2006.

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