By: Taryn Cornell
As someone with a serious case of celiac disease, I often get questions about my thoughts on those who, for a variety of different reasons, decide to go gluten-free.
Firstly, there are a variety of non-coeliac gluten sensitivities with which people can be diagnosed. There is currently no indisputable evidence for the existence of these intolerances, but whether or not they are the result of a placebo effect is irrelevant. After cutting out gluten, these people feel better, and that is what matters.
The problem I have is the way many gluten-free “foodies” have reduced the diet to a fad. The problem I have is with the people who claim to be gluten-free and then pick apart a sandwich or navigate a crouton-laden Caesar salad, or even devour an entire pizza with a wink and an “I’m so bad.” The problem I have is that, while 10 years ago I had to explain what gluten was, now I have to assure weary waiters that I’m not, in fact, doing this for fun.
Celiac disease is not glamorous. It means turning down local food abroad without even trying a piece, unable to explain my rudeness. It means apologizing, mortified, to passengers around me because an airhostess—forgetting to use different serving utensils—has made me sick. It means cancelling dinners out and special events more times than I can count and being on my guard at every one. I’ve actually had more reactions since gluten became popularised, because despite more ostensibly gluten free foods being available there is now little demand or effort to manage cross-contamination. Now just because something is labelled gluten free doesn’t mean it is necessarily safe for me to eat.
Because people are so sceptical and dismissive when I say I can’t eat gluten, it’s made the age-old “So what happens when you eat it then?” question somehow more acceptable for strangers to ask. The answer is that it is really none of your business and I’d really rather avoid people envisioning me in my worst condition. Sometimes I want to respond with “explosive diarrhea” or “early stage leprosy” just to make them as uncomfortable as they made me. On one occasion, I responded that it was highly contagious just to see how quickly the conversation could end.
For the record, every celiac is different and there is a wide range of symptoms. For me, the symptoms include severe and unabated nausea, sometimes vomiting, uncontrollable shaking, big fluctuations in body temperature (usually cold), considerable stomach pain, rapid weight loss, eyesight problems and a pretty vicious personality change. I also know a celiac who bloats and gets appalling headaches. It is a manageable condition, but it varies from person to person. I’m very lucky my own case is not more severe.
It’s been 11 years since I was diagnosed. I’ve become accustomed to it and I don’t mind respectful curiosity, but those who use the diet flippantly have made my life difficult because it has reduced the gluten-free diet to a fad, or a stereotype. If you need to be gluten-free because it makes you feel better, you should. But please be a bit more scrupulous when you eat out so that we can avoid cross-contamination continuing as the norm. If you don’t need to be gluten-free but want to be because you wish to lose three pounds, well, then let me assure you that the only way it will make you run faster is if I see you taking the last of the good gluten-free bread.