The gluten-free diet has become a popular trend, not in its original incarnation as a recourse for gluten-intolerant people with Celiac Disease, but as solution for people with the murkily defined "gluten sensitivity," or those who want to lose weight. And now some experts are saying that in fact, "gluten free" may be an especially convenient cloak for an eating disorder.
Restricting Gluten Conveniently Restricts Almost Everything
There's gluten in nearly everything. Aside from the obvious things like bread, pasta, and pizza, you'll also find it in many sauces, medications, pickles, cheese, French fries, even hot chocolate. In many restaurants, or homes of friends, forgoing gluten means forgoing dinner, the perfect scenario if one's goal is to eat less, or not at all.
It's Socially Acceptable
"If someone with an eating disorder went to a party, he or she could get out of eating a lot of things like cookies, cake, or pizza simply by claiming gluten intolerance," Laura Meagher, an RN with the Inner Door Center, a treatment facility for eating disorders, told Yahoo! Shine.
"We do see an increase in the numbers of those who complain to be gluten intolerant, and in those suffering from disordered eating, saying 'I'm gluten intolerant' appears to be more accepted and less likely to be scrutinized than 'I have anorexia," Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld, a psychologist that specializes in eating disorders, told Shine.
It Can Lead to More Serious Disordered Eating
Gluten-intolerance is one in a long list of possible "diets" that are a socially acceptable way to restrict food intake, Dr. Rosenfeld told Forbes. "You set a rule that you're not going to eat dairy, maybe, and the amount of food you can eat becomes limited. Then maybe you're a vegan. And now you can be gluten intolerant."
This kind of restrictive pattern is an eating disorder with a name all its own. Orthorexia is "an unhealthy fixation on eating only healthy or "pure" foods," according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which can lead to "to social stress and ultimately isolation."
"First you say you're cutting out gluten. Then, you're only eating whole or organic foods, then you're cutting out processed foods altogether. Over time, what started as gluten-restriction has now become a full-blown disorder," Meagher told Shine.
Of course there are people who are genuinely unable to eat gluten-those that suffer from Celiac Disease are allergic and can get seriously ill after ingesting even the smallest amount. But the rest of us should be able to digest it normally. "There is a test for Celiac Disease. But if you don't have an issue with gluten, it's never been scientifically proven that restricting it has any health benefits," Meagher said.
But many people without Celiac Disease claim that restricting gluten has had a positive effect on their wellbeing. "I'm relatively convinced at this point that the diet has improved my energy and concentration, which is apparently a reasonable outcome for people that are gluten intolerant. Although it wasn't my goal, I have lost some weight since starting the diet, " gluten-dieter Ian Martin told Yahoo! Shine.
"I started gluten free because I have Hashimoto's disease, an auto-immune disease. My holistic doctor recommended I try as gluten protein can trigger my antibodies even more to attack my thyroid," Brooklynite Deborah Rogeaux told Yahoo! Shine. "It hasn't helped on the antibodies aspect so far, but my doctor says it can take up to a year for gluten to clear your system. I am less tired than I was and lost 15 pounds. When I had gluten by accident recently, I was nauseated and sick."
In the end, restricting gluten could help you to make healthier choices and lose weight by eating fewer carbohydrates. But for those at risk for disordered eating, going gluten-free may be a socially acceptable way to continue dangerous behavior.