Going gluten-free—or hiding an eating disorder?

Lylah M. Alphonse, Senior Editor, Manage Your Life

While the nation is focused on childhood obesity, BMI, and healthy eating, some teenagers are using their new awareness of certain food allergies to hide their eating disorders.

"With the eating disordered population, I'd say that 110% of them are using intolerances or food 'problems' as a means to avoid eating these foods in a socially acceptable way," Julie Dorfman, director of Nutrition at Philadelphia's Renfrew Center, a residential treatment center for women with eating disorders, told Forbes. "Gluten just happens to be the fad right now."

Gluten is a protein found in all forms of wheat (including durum, semolina, spelt, and kamut) and wheat-related grains like barley and rye (though not in grains like rice, corn, and some types of oats). People with Celiac Disease have "an immune-mediated toxic reaction" when they eat even a tiny bit of gluten, which leads to damage to the small intestine and a host of other problems, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.

With diagnoses of Celiac Disease on the rise, gluten-free diets have been touted as a way to ease symptoms of everything from joint pain and digestion issues to infertility and autism symptoms. "Gluten-free" living has gone mainstream and become less mysterious-which makes it easier for people with eating disorders like anorexia to claim they can't eat conventional foods.

In her blog post at Forbes.com, Meghan Casserly quotes a commenter named "Ima_Be_Thin" on a pro-anorexia site, who called being gluten-free the "best diet trick ever":
I told everyone I was going to the Dr. because I was having stomach issues. I never went and then a week l8r I told everyone that it was suspected that I was gluten intolerant. It's extremely common and Gluten is in EVERYTHING. It's in almost all salad dressings, it's in most marinades, soy sauce, breads, noodles, beer, oatmeal, almost All cereals just everything. You can't eat out because you can get glutened through cross contamination as well. You can't eat anything at fast food places except salad. Even Mc D's chicken on salad has gluten. My sister has it and she lost a bunch of weight because there is nothing she can eat and it's just such a common allergy no one 2nd guesses me. Hope u guys are all well and good luck! But, as Ima_Be_Thin shows, those who are dedicated to their eating disorders will say or do almost anything to protect them. People who can't digest gluten aren't worried about whether they look fat-they're worried about why their stomachs hurt after they eat, why their joints hurt when they move, why their skin breaks out into horrible rashes for no apparent reason. They're battling infertility, fatigue, nerve issues and/or migraines. They're not necessarily avoiding food; they're desperately trying to figure out what they actually can eat.

Luckily, the list of what's OK to consume has grown in the last few years. While "whole foods"-things like fruits, vegetables, and un-processed meats-are naturally free of gluten, food manufactures have created gluten-free versions of everything from cake mixes to sugared cereals, and keywords for the "dangerous" ingredients-things like MSG, barley malt, modified food starch, and more-are easier to recognize. And several fast-food and family-friendly restaurants (like Wendy's, Chipotle, and Outback Steakhouse) offer gluten-free menus, giving diners with gluten allergies plenty of options.

Casserly ends her article by asking: "What's left to eat? Next to nothing. And for some, that may be exactly the point." But she's wrong. If your teen or tween has dropped a lot of weight and is refusing to eat even unprocessed fruits or veggies for fear of getting "glutened," sirens should be going off in your head. There's plenty of food out there for people who genuinely need to avoid gluten. The danger isn't in going gluten-free-the danger is in doing it, or pretending to, for the wrong reasons.

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