Gluten-free diets have stayed a trend for far longer than I thought they would. On the fateful day that I found out that gluten was my main migraine trigger and the day a year later when I found out that I had an anaphylactic wheat allergy, there was little information about what it meant to be gluten-free. Finding wheat-free foods meant sticking to cooking everything from scratch and restaurants being utterly confused when I would try to order.
Growing awareness, the good and bad
These days, everything from your local breakfast joint to any one of a gazillion meal delivery services are touting their gluten-free menus. I’ve heard the gluten-free diet touted as a cure for everything from obesity to arthritis and just about everything in between. As awareness has grown, so has the misinformation and backlash.
The abundance of the myth that gluten intolerance isn’t real
Restaurant workers who see this start to believe that the need for gluten-free food is just a fad. That it isn’t serious. Chefs start serving patrons regular pasta because they believe customers are lying about their needs.
Or there are the people who, bolstered by their fake gluten-free friends’ choices, believe that a gluten-free diet is a fad at best and a punchline at worst. For kids, I’ve seen it turn into flat-out bullying. For some reason, there is this persistent myth that gluten intolerance isn’t real. (That got a boost when the media ran with coverage suggesting it not to be real…based on a single study of 37 people).
Despite the bullying and diet shaming, millions of people still eat gluten-free and many of them, such as myself, don’t have a choice.
When gluten-free is the only way to eat
If you have been diagnosed with Celiac disease, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (yes, it is a real condition) or a wheat allergy, you must eat gluten-free. There is no cheating. No cheat day cupcakes. No caving and ordering deep dish pizza with your friends.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, not an allergy
With Celiac disease, any bit of gluten will cause your body, specifically your intestines, to go on a murderous rampage and start killing your intestines. Literally. Celiac sufferers have to eat gluten-free so that their diet doesn’t kill them. And while that will be a slow, painful death, every time a wee bit of gluten sneaks its way into their diet, they can end up with symptoms such as intense abdominal pain, migraines, brain fog and swollen joints.
The seriousness of wheat and gluten allergies
If you have a wheat allergy, side effects can be severe and instantaneous. The smallest amount of wheat can trigger an anaphylactic reaction where you have difficulty breathing due to airway constriction and possible death. While gluten can kill a Celiac over time, it can kill an allergy sufferer in an instant.
Sufferers of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, a newly discovered, but very real condition, renders patients without Celiac or a wheat allergy with severe gluten-related symptoms. Migraines. Intestinal distress. Depression. Bloating. Severe weight loss or gain. Because we don’t know a whole lot about the long-term prognosis for NCGS, it is recommended that patients follow a strict gluten-free diet. Many patients with this condition are also often diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It is possible that NCGS is a precursor to several autoimmune disorders.
When a gluten-free diet may make you feel better
Some of the conditions batted around when discussing a gluten-free diet are autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s, Lupus and Crohn’s. These diseases don’t require a gluten-free diet, however, some studies have shown that patients with associated autoimmune disorders may benefit from a gluten-free diet. (Some research also suggests that it may be due to the reduction in FODMAPs in the diet, but all this research is preliminary).
People with these conditions who go gluten-free may see some of their symptoms diminish and experience flare-ups when they return to a normal diet. If you have one of these conditions and haven’t tried going gluten-free for a couple of months, it could be worth a shot.
It’s Celiac Disease Awareness Month
This month, take a minute to celebrate life without gluten. Because we know more than we ever have about who gluten may affect. We have strategies and foods (including some amazeballs pasta) that allow us to live our best life, despite a limited diet. And how many conditions can be managed by simply changing your diet? Not many. So let’s celebrate and show those bullies how to live and love life.
Mary Fran Wiley is a well known gluten-free and positive living blogger from Chicago where she writes Curiouser and Curiouser, maintains the Chronic Positivity Project, founded the organization hope.dance and has been featured in Allergic Living Magazine, Care2.com and Today.com.