Suddenly, the phrase “gluten-free” is all over the place. Chelsea Clinton’s 500-pound gluten-free wedding cake seemed to spark the fire, because in the weeks following her New York wedding, there have been two segments about gluten-free on the Today show, a discussion of the Old Spice Man’s gluten-free vegan diet on Jay Leno, and article after article on the gluten-free “diet craze” in the news. Hollywood seems to be heralding gluten-free eating as the hot new detox and weight-loss diet. Which is great, right? It’s raising awareness of what gluten is and the fact that some people avoid eating it. It’s making manufacturers perk up their ears, wanting to get in on the profits that come with new markets. For all we know, this craze might lead to more bakeries, restaurants, and pizzerias offering gluten-free dishes galore.
But, if you have Celiac, you might be finding all the talk about the gluten-free “diet trend” kinda annoying. The word “fad” is defined by its fleetingness – here today, gone tomorrow. But the truth of the matter is, for anyone diagnosed with Celiac, that the gluten-free diet is a lifelong diet. There is no cheating allowed, no reaching a weight-loss goal and rounding off into a “maintenance” plan. There’s no giving up when a craving hits. If you have Celiac, you can’t cave in the face of fresh bread. You can’t sneak a bite of your husbands’ leftover pizza when no one’s looking. You stick to the diet because your health depends on it. The gluten-free diet heals you.
Gluten-free isn’t a trend, like animal print or acid-washed jeans. Gluten-free is a lifestyle. And it’s a lot of work. It requires extra time checking labels in the grocery store, extra money to buy specialty products, and extra effort to call ahead to restaurants and then follow up with the manager and chef when you arrive. Contrary to what some of the GF trend-followers might think, simply cutting out bread and pasta doesn’t mean “gluten-free.” Gluten-free isn’t the Atkins no-carb diet. (Besides, eating gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose weight due to the high fat, sugar, and salt content of a lot of GF goods, which a lot of Celiacs know because they went through an initial post-diagnosis weight-gain.). Sensitive Celiacs have to avoid all traces of gluten, which means not allowing crumbs of gluten-containing bread into your mayonnaise jar or your toaster, wearing gloves to feed the dog because of the gluten in the dog food, and sending a salad back to the chef because there was a single crouton hidden among the leaves. It’s stressful. It’s challenging. And it’s probable that those jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon for weight-loss are not managing their gluten-free diet to such an extent. Which brings us to a possible setback….
The Upside and Its Downswing
I hope that all this talk about gluten-free means that more dining establishments will start offering gluten-free menu items. We’ll start to more see gluten-free pizza, cupcakes, maybe even sandwiches and chocolate croissants. Grocery stores will expand their gluten-free aisles, and major brands will print “GF” on their labels. The Gluten-Free Dream come true!
But, as anyone with Celiac knows, while having gluten-free food on menus is great, the knowledge and mindset of the kitchen staff is what really matters. And if restaurant chefs start viewing gluten-free dining as a trend, rather than a medical necessity, there may be a greater risk of carelessness (and cross-contamination) in the kitchen. When a chef is told about a customer’s peanut allergy, he will take a lot of precautions to avoid sending a diner into anaphylactic shock. That’s the level of seriousness that kitchens should take when dealing with Celiac: it’s a medically necessary diet, which, if not followed, can lead to severe discomfort and long-term damage to the intestines. If a person is eating gluten-free just for the heck of it, a splash of regular soy sauce or a pot of water that previously boiled gluten-containing pasta won’t do real harm. But for someone with Celiac, such “minor” mistakes are Bad with a capital “B.” Ideally, restaurant chefs will add gluten-free items to all of their menus, and they’ll train their staffs to know that they can’t be flippant when it comes to gluten-free diets, even if labels such as “fad,” “craze,” and “trend” get attached to gluten-free dining.
Deep down, it can be a little bit hurtful to see people diving into gluten-free dining for reasons such as weight loss or “detox.” At the end of the day, those people are choosing to eat gluten-free and they can choose to give it up whenever they really want to eat a cookie. If you have Celiac, you didn’t make a choice. Gluten-free is forever part of your life. But know that when the “fad” is over (assuming it steps off the stage after fifteen minutes), you’ll still be surrounded by thousands of others like you who can’t eat gluten and never will. More people are being diagnosed with Celiac every year and realizing that they can feel better again by following the gluten-free diet. Trendy or not, the gluten-free community will continue to grow and encourage itself through support groups, bloggers, and GF-aware companies.
So, should Celiacs view the momentary “hotness” of gluten-free as a positive? A lot of non-Celiacs who’ve tried the gluten-free diet have said that they see a difference and feel better for it, so they’ll probably stick to it (and maybe the popularity of the gluten-free diet will even stick around), which is great. However, it’s likely that, for most of the fad-followers, the demands of gluten-free living will be too challenging, and they’ll drift on to the next butter-and-bananas diet. But, if we can do anything about it, they’ll leave in their wake a greater awareness of the gluten-free diet and, hopefully, some new products and menu options. They’ll have expanded the gluten-free market, which means the Celiac community will see the benefit of a wider selection, higher quality, and lower price of gluten-free specialty foods. It wouldn’t hurt to see a few new brands of GF beer, now, would it?
Are you happy that people are paying more attention to gluten-free, and do you think the increased awareness will stick around? Or do you feel more at risk because of the diet’s “fad” status?