Like The Verge‘s Rachel Becker and Slate‘s Laura Bennett, I went gluten free way before it was a thing. 1999, to be specific. I was about 15 lbs underweight, had a constant dull headache and a slew of digestive complaints. My mom clipped articles about Celiac Disease from a magazine for me to read and discovered one brand of frozen gluten free bread at a local health food store.
It held together for about a minute and quickly disintegrated into chalk after the first bite.
Yes, I was the freak in the cafeteria with the chalk sandwich. Despite feeling better just weeks after starting the gluten free diet, my 11-year-old-self felt like “gluten free” was a death sentence.
But then the food industry marketing machine kicked in. Suddenly when I said “gluten” at restaurants I got knowing looks rather than deer-in-headlights. After a couple more years, the judgement came: “So are you, like, actually Celiac? Or are you gluten free just because?”
This is a small price to pay for all the conveniences that the gluten free movement has brought to my life. The recognition of my diet (especially on long flights) was life changing. I also have access to tons of new gluten free products. But every now and again I’ll get a comment that irks me–not because I am offended, but because the underlying misconceptions about being gluten free have the potential to sabotage legitimate wellness goals.
1. “Gluten free food is healthier/will help me lose weight”
I blame this misconception on the magic of marketing. There’s an assumption that because something is removed from a food it somehow contains fewer calories or less “bad stuff.” Low fat, no fat, sugar free and now gluten free all seem to tap into that same mindset. Don’t buy into it.
There is nothing inherently more healthy about gluten free food–and especially not packaged gluten free food. In fact, in my experience, gluten free packaged foods tend to actually contain more sugar than their glutenous counterparts. Gluten is largely what gives dough its unique texture. When gluten is not present, gluten free bakers are forced to use other starches, gums and, yes, sometimes even more sugar, to enhance the texture and flavor.
There’s a place for gluten free packaged foods. But it’s the same place regular packaged food belongs–in the occasional, “I’m in a pinch and I need to eat something quickly” category. Whether you are actually gluten sensitive or not, gluten free packaged food is not going to help you lose weight, let alone make you healthier.
2. “I’ve been feeling [insert random symptom] so I think I should cut out gluten”
This isn’t necessarily a bad way of thinking. But I have to wonder, why pick gluten? Often times the “[insert random symptom]” bit is a digestion-related complaint. Could your bloating and stomach aches be related to gluten? Maybe. But those same symptoms could also be related to dairy products, nightshades, sugar, grains in general, problems with gut flora, stress or just general diet and lifestyle imbalances.
If you’re confident you have a good handle on your diet, are taking a high-quality probiotic (or better: eating fermented foods) and still experiencing poor digestion, then maybe it’s time to explore what foods could be triggering your symptoms. Look into an elimination diet that systematically removes common trigger foods and allows you to really quantify what’s going on with your body. Be a detective. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that replacing your multigrain toast with Udi’s is going to do much of anything for you.
3. “If I eat what you eat, my health will be like yours”
This is the one that really gets to me. I enjoy swapping recipes and sharing meal ideas. My Instagram account (@kristina.wellness) is pretty much devoted to that. But when I feel like someone is asking me a series of questions to catalog my food intake or mentally scanning the contents of my tupperware at the office, it makes me really uncomfortable.
I understand some curiosity about the gluten free diet and I’m willing to answer questions about it. Awareness is good. But outside the context of my health coaching practice, the topic of what I’m eating at any given moment is really boring. I eat real food. I follow the 80/20 rule. The base of my food pyramid is fruits and vegetables rather than grains. That’s really all there is to it. There’s no big secret to what works for me because I experimented and figured it out for myself. My goal is to help my clients do the same.
To assume “the diet that works for her will work for me” is hugely limiting. Don’t miss out on the amazing experience of listening to your own body, eating intuitively and being loyal to what works for you rather than what works for someone else.
Living gluten free for so many years has done a lot for me. It has made me conscious of the direct correlation between how I feel and what I put into my body. It has trained me to read labels diligently and be concerned about where my food is coming from. It has exposed me to people who have opened up restaurants and markets that are just a bit more health conscious. But I didn’t actually feel my best until long after I went gluten free–after many additional discoveries about what supported my health and what didn’t.