A blogger at Forbes recently suggested that the gluten-free diet is dangerously convenient for teenage girls who want to disguise their eating disorders. My cousin Kim wrote a response on her own blog, which chronicles her and her son's lives living with celiac disease. (Kim is also a former anorexic (go Kim!!!).)
It's fortunate for those of us who follow the gluten-free diet that it's gained enough steam to come into the media's bull's-eye. In the four years I've been eating gluten-free, prices have come down and a zillion new products have become available. Gluten-free bread went from practically inedible (sometimes literally inedible when all the slices were helplessly frozen into one solid chunk) to actually really good. Mainstream brands like General Mills and Betty Crocker started putting gluten-free products right alongside their traditional lines. Rice Krispies recently welcomed a gluten-free sibling.
But some, like Time Magazine, are accusing the gluten-free diet of being largely a fad. Pause: isn't Time Magazine responsible for a good percentage of America's fads? And am I the only one who notices the food fads? Portabello mushrooms started trending in 2002. Roasted red pepper. Green tea. Asiago cheese. Goji berries. Antioxidants in general, in any form. Yes, that pomegranate iced tea will save you from cancer.
If gluten-free is a fad, there's good reason for it. Even if a person has no adverse reaction whatsoever to gluten, if she goes gluten-free, she doesn't have the option to shove ninety percent of the random stuff she used to eat into her mouth. A striking demonstration of this is the USDA's list of the Top 25 Sources of Calories Among Americans, out of its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 (PDF, page 12). The top 10 are:
1. Grain-based desserts
2. Yeast breads
3. Chicken and chicken mixed dishes
4. Soda/energy/sports drinks
6. Alcoholic beverages
7. Pasta and pasta dishes
8. Tortillas, burritos, tacos
9. Beef and beef mixed dishes
10. Dairy desserts
That's where America gets its calories from. Dessert, bread, Coca Cola, and beer, with a little meat thrown in for protein. Actually, that does sound right.
If you can't eat gluten, the top 10 above reduces to 4, maybe 5: chicken (without breading), beef, soda, dairy desserts, and some forms of alcohol. Even dairy desserts are hard to come by (wheat makes ice cream so much tastier). Among the entire list of 25 items, gluten-free knocks away about half. And the top 25, as you can imagine, are among the most unhealthy things man has created to eat ("fried white potatoes").
As the USDA notes in the document, a statement that is obvious but so important:
Although some of the top calorie sources by category are important sources of essential nutrients, others provide calories with few essential nutrients. Many of the foods and beverages most often consumed within these top categories are in forms high in solid fats and/or added sugars, thereby contributing excess calories to the diet. For example, many grained-based desserts are high in added sugars and solid fats, while many chicken dishes are both breaded and fried, which adds a substantial number of calories to the chicken.
So if you go gluten-free, you're automatically eating healthier. Your chicken isn't breaded. Your food is fried only when you feel super-confident that it won't be fried alongside breaded food, which is never. More and more, you can find a gluten-free substitute for something you used to love, but that substitute will cost 2 or 3 times as much as its gluteny kin does, and that'll make it more of an indulgence than an impulse buy.
When a co-worker brings in donuts, you'll see them as punishing glazed pain tori, saving yourself those co-worker-inflicted calories and fats and sugars for the day. When you need food on the run, you won't hit up a drive-thru but will instead head into a trusted restaurant or, one of my standby maneuvers, a grocery store.
Over time, your taste buds will adjust, and you'll be filling in healthy food for the junk you used to eat. You'll be eating more fruits and veggies and whole grains. You'll be getting more of your nutrients from the foods you eat and consuming fewer empty calories.
And what's that? With your new diet, you'll feel better. Hence Time Magazine's "fad." Feeling better is contagious! Plus, for a minority, eating gluten-free solves identifiable medical problems, but I'm not surprised that so many other people are liking the gluten-free diet. After countless personal testimonies, medical professionals have found scientific evidence of gluten sensitivity outside of celiac disease.
Now for a short history review. Let's remember that you'll need to eat approximately 25 cups of celery to equal the calories in one cup of wheat. That kind of economy has (arguably single-handedly) allowed Western societies to flourish. Corn and rice provided similar utility in their native lands. The more calories per cup, the more people we can feed. If early societies had relied on celery, the wheel might just now be creaking out of Mesopotamia.
So of course a diet that eliminates society's central nutritional tool has provoked a round of hooting and doubt. Any development that challenges the status quo undergoes a phase of detraction and nitpicking. Regardless, if the development has merit, the status quo changes.
I'm happy gluten-free is rooting into society en masse, and for reasons beyond my bank balance: shortly after going gluten-free, my body woke up. Less pain, less need for sleep, no headaches, a quiet belly. If other people feel as good as I do eating gluten-free, I am so happy for them.