Lately, I've seen a number of articles expressing concern about the proliferation of gluten-free foods. Some people quoted in the articles describe this as an alarming trend, while others flat-out state that there is no reason to eliminate gluten from the diet unless you have celiac disease. While I understand that the people who are saying this mean no harm, and are trying to educate people who may have stopped eating gluten because they think it's a good way to lose weight, I am really troubled by the dismissive tone that sometimes accompanies their concern. The assumption that people who are eating gluten-free are on a fad diet, replacing all of their food with highly-processed gluten-free substitutes for bread, is not only dismissive, it can be dangerous.
As many of my friends and family know, I stopped eating foods that contain gluten about a year ago. I was having a slew of digestive health problems, including nausea, heartburn, and painful bloating. I was constantly tired, and I basically just felt awful all the time. My doctors didn't know what was causing it. They had run tests that indicated there wasn't anything structurally wrong with me like Crohn's or IBS, and had put me on medications that weren't really helping. Finally, I decided that I would try an elimination diet - I'd cut out gluten for three months, see if my symptoms improved, and if they didn't, I'd try eliminating dairy for the next three months and see if that was the culprit. As it turned out, I didn't have to wait very long to find my answer.
Within two weeks, my heartburn was gone. My nightly battle with heartburn - choking down antacids and hoping the pain didn't wake me up - totally gone. The nausea disappeared, too. I used to be nauseous every single day. Two weeks into my experiment, I had no nausea. The bloating stopped, and the other GI symptoms that I won't detail here - everything went away. I wasn't as tired, I was sleeping better, and I felt great! I distinctly remember, about two months after I'd stopped eating gluten, looking over at my husband and saying "Holy crap! I feel AWESOME!" I hadn't felt like a normal person, who could eat dinner and then go for a walk afterward without feeling bloated and crampy and awful, in years.
Three months after starting my experiment, I went back to my doctor. I listed all the symptoms that he'd heard about before, and told him how they'd all vanished after I'd stopped eating gluten. The heartburn puzzled him - he said he hadn't heard of that symptom being associated with gluten intolerance or celiac disease before - but the rest made sense. He also told me that testing for celiac disease is only accurate if someone is still eating gluten, and I was presented with a dilemma. Do I go back to eating gluten and feeling like crap, even for a little while, so I can get an official diagnosis? Or do I just continue eating in a way that makes me feel great?
The kicker: the only treatment for celiac disease is to stop eating gluten.
I decided not to get the blood test. I did try another test: I ate one thing containing gluten after not eating gluten at all for several months. I experienced the severe bloating and cramping that most doctors suggest would happen with a celiac patient. As Dr. Terry Simpson says, that's the most objective test:
The blood tests are far from 100 per cent. The most objective test is to have someone remove all gluten from their diet for several weeks. This is a difficult thing to do as gluten is used in many agents like soy sauce, thickener in soups — so it takes a lot of work. Then introduce a bit of gluten to see if the symptoms happen– this is not subtle. If someone has celiac disease, and becomes gluten free it takes them a few weeks before their gut returns to normal. The introduction of a single Wheat Thin cracker will cause severe cramping, bloating, and diarrhea.
But people still question it. I've mentioned that I'm gluten intolerant to friends, and have been met with skepticism. I've been asked if I'm on a fad diet. I've been told that grains are good for me. (I do eat grains, just gluten-free ones.) I've been asked by a sneering waiter if I'm actually celiac or just following a trend. I've heard similar stories from my celiac brother-in-law and other friends and family members who are gluten-intolerant. And the most troubling thing I've seen is a report about a chef who deliberately served gluten to customers who requested gluten-free foods and posted about it on Facebook.
I'm fine with a healthy dose of skepticism. I don't fault people for thinking that too many people are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon when they're not really sensitive to gluten, and I certainly don't think it's a good idea to drop gluten unless eating it makes you feel ill. What I find problematic are the assumptions that can cause people to take things to the other extreme - thinking that people who ask for a gluten-free meal are just following a fad, so if some gluten gets into their food, what harm could it do? As it turns out, it can do plenty of harm.
My doctor agrees with my approach and has blessed my gluten-free diet. My blood tests, which showed vitamin deficiencies prior to my change in eating habits, are all normal again. I am no longer the person with the "sensitive stomach". I don't eat a lot of substitute foods like gluten-free breads, but I do cook at home a lot more with fresh ingredients, which is healthier for me, but also benefits my husband. And though some may see the proliferation of gluten-free labeling as problematic, I'm thrilled when I'm traveling and I can pick up a Kind bar with its gluten-free label and know I won't have to cut an evening short or miss a full day of vacation due to pain and cramping from accidentally eating gluten.
My point is this: if someone tells you they eat a gluten-free diet, please try not to automatically assume they're trying out a fad. They might be someone like me - without an official diagnosis, but feeling amazing for the first time in years.