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In the name of health, part two

Posted Jul 28 2009 10:07pm
Sometimes I think this series on "In the name of health" could go on ad infinitum ( you can read the first episode here ). For my own mental well-being, I won't write an endless series of posts about it, but an article I found on Facebook (h/t Libby and Amy) made me realize that I certainly needed to do more than just the two original planned posts.

The name of the article? Throwing out the wheat: are we becoming too tolerant of gluten intolerance?

Writer Daniel Engber takes a long, hard look at the sudden proliferation of gluten-free foods, sales of which have risen an estimated 28 percent each year to make an industry worth nearly $2 billion. Take a look at some of the boxes of Chex cereal these days- many are now prominently labeled "gluten free."Although avoiding gluten, a protein found in wheat and certain other grains, is necessary for those with celiac disease, this autoimmune condition affects no more than 1% of the population (or at least, less than 1% of the population has received an actual diagnosis of celiac disease). And though this proliferation may be beneficial for them, it doesn't seem that such a small segment of the population would drive such a large segment of the food industry.

Engber's hypothesis is that most people who cut out gluten don't actually have full-blown celiac disease. Rather, it's a way to avoid foods in the name of "health" and maybe lose some weight in the process. In other ways, the association is blunt and in your face, as Elizabeth Hasselbeck's latest book The G-Free Diet: A Gluten-FreeSurvival Guide contains a chapter titled "G-Free and Slim as Can Be!"

Writes Engber:

The fact that "going G-free" means eating fewer cupcakes and less pasta suggests another source of relief. It is, after all, an elaborate diet—and so delivers all the psychological benefits of controlled eating and self-denial. "Once G-free, you are no longer simply robot-eating bag after bag of pretzels," writes Hasselbeck...Gluten intolerance may be a medical condition, but according to Hasselbeck, it's also an approach to eating—like South Beach or Skinny Bitch—that's supposed to make you lose weight and feel good about your body.

One of the most fascinating parts of the article is the graphs that compare the rise in newspaper mentions of "gluten intolerance" with the rise in popularity of the Atkins diet.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But it strikes me as kind of unlikely, especially when you compare the rise in "lactose intolerance" that happened alongside the popularity of the Mediterranean diet.

Engber makes his key point here:

I'm not suggesting that anyone who avoids gluten is secretly trying to lose weight. The purpose of a gluten-free diet is, naturally, to feel better. But there's a complicated relationship between feeling good and eating less. When a restrictive diet becomes an end in itself, we call it an eating disorder; when it's motivated by health concerns, we call it a lifestyle. That's why Hasselbeck says going G-free will make you slim (a sign of wellness) rather than skinny (a symptom of anorexia). It might also explain the relationship between food sensitivities and fad diets: People who are intolerant of gluten or lactose get a free pass for self-denial.

And it's the last one that concerns me. When people say they are doing something for "health reasons," we become automatically less likely to question it. Dietary changes for health reasons can be totally legitimate, and suffering caused by undiagnosed food allergies and intolerances is very real. But I think the new surge in "cutting out..." gluten, corn syrup, dairy, meat, food in general has less to do with an increase in food allergy diagnosis and a lot more to do as a way to avoid food and not get called out on it.
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