Gluten Intolerance as Anorexia Cover? Writer Draws Attention and Ire.

“Wow, if I couldn’t eat bread/drink beer I’d be sooo skinny!”

Have you heard that one before? It’s one of my favorite reactions when someone learns what gluten is – and that there are lots of people who can’t have it.

When I say one of my favorites, what I mean is one of the most irritating – there’s just no easy way to respond to a statement like that.

However, the belief that gluten-free = good for weight loss is as pervasive as it is erroneous. Forbes writer Meghan Casserly recently wrote about teen girls disguising their eating disorders as gluten intolerances, and got quite the reaction from the celiac community.

Casserly tells an anecdote about a trio of teen girls who hid their anorexia under cover of gluten intolerances. She also pulled some disturbing information from a pro-anorexia “support group” online, specifically a post encouraging people to use gluten intolerance/celiac as an explanation for why they couldn’t eat in public.

Now, there were parts of Casserly’s article that I found misleading, and parts I found offensive. The diet isn’t easy, but it isn’t “incredibly restrictive” as most people who have been gluten-free for more than a few months can verify. The “writer’s aside,” in which she bemoans the difficulty in making conversation with a thin woman who was both vegan and gluten-free, is just plain stupid.

The community is demonizing her, but there’s an element of truth to Casserly’s article that shouldn’t be overlooked. The more that the gluten-free diet enters the mainstream, the more people will try it out solely as a means of losing weight. Some people will simply switch from standard frozen pizza to gluten-free, from cookies to ice cream, and their weight won’t budge at all (or will go up). Others will use the gluten-free lifestyle as an excuse to eat healthier – more whole foods, fewer empty calories, etc. – and they’ll find their bodies react accordingly.

Still others will use it to mask serious problems – whether they already have an eating disorder and have simply found a new ‘cover’, or whether they begin by restricting foods and end by developing the disorder. And some percentage of all three groups will find that they were in fact sensitive to gluten, and they’ll have done themselves a favor in at least one regard.

One thing is clear it’s a complex issue, and one worth taking the time to think about. You can take a read through the comments to find more and lengthier dissections of the article, and also some of Casserly’s thoughts and motivations.

Have you seen gluten sensitivity and celiac disease misused in your own community?

7 thoughts on “Gluten Intolerance as Anorexia Cover? Writer Draws Attention and Ire.”

  1. I also found the article troublesome. As someone who was anorexic BEFORE I went gluten free, I’m one of those who found I gained a ton of weight when I switched to a gf diet. What little I did eat was far from healthy, and the gf versions I tried were much higher in calories. There are plenty of excuses out there for anorexics – if not celiac disease, then plain old ‘I’m just not hungry’ will often suffice. And whatever the diet, health needs to be the #1 goal, gluten or no. I’ve been gluten free for almost 6 years now and only in the last few months have I been eating a healthful diet of fruits, veggies, whole (gf) grains, etc and finally I am starting to feel healthy again.

  2. Oh yay! That’s what my celiac teen daughter needs, people thinking she’s covering up her anorexia. Like being a celiac doesn’t come with enough challenges.

  3. I agree that Ms. Casserly’s article was disturbing. What’s more disturbing is that due to the up-roar from the GF community, her article has received a great deal of traffic, and hence is one of the top articles at ForbesWoman. If we as readers want to promote the right behavior, we need to stop propagating the bad stuff and promote the good, like the article I wrote for the same website at Forbes:

  4. My daughter is a celiac with all the classic symptoms. However, I have tested as negative. I still choose to eat GF, because it seems to clear up my skin problems. I may have a mild case of DH, but tests were inconclusive. The doctor, therefore, labeled me “gluten intolerant”.

    The last time I went to our celiac support group, I mentioned to the celiacs there that I’m gluten intolerant, but I’m not a celiac. I got an awful reaction from both the group leader and the group members. People rolled their eyes. The group leader even said, “Whatever. Good luck with that.” It was very insulting, and I haven’t been back to our support group meetings since then.

    So yeah, there are people out there who are fad dieters, even anorexics who are squashing the good name of “celiac” in the public eye. But not everyone who finds the diet helpful should be ostracized and treated as a pariah. Consumers who CHOOSE to eat gluten free, even though they don’t HAVE TO, are buying GF products. The more money we spend on GF goods, the easier it is for health food stores and GF companies (like Glutino and Bob’s RedMill and other smaller brands) to stay in business. And that’s good for celiacs.

  5. I am an overweight celiac. I am so sick of ppl commenting that they have never seen anyone GF who was heavy before and looking at me like I am lying. Why anyone would claim a serious illness that they don’t have I do not understand. I also have been getting the comments about how “oh that is so popular now’ gah!

  6. I have had people make the unfortunate statement “Wow, if I couldn’t eat bread/drink beer I’d be sooo skinny!” to me too. I am not skinny.

    I was on a gf diet as a small child, there were no special gf food products then but my mother worked real hard to keep us (3 of 6 kids had celiacs) on the diet. We had a neighbor who had celiacs and did not follow the diet. She was incredibly skinny, because I believe she had malnutrition. Her body was not absorbing nutrition because of the gluten she was ingesting.

    I think the Forbes article is unfortunate but there are people in the world with eating disorders. You wrote: “Some people will simply switch from standard frozen pizza to gluten-free, from cookies to ice cream, and their weight won’t budge at all (or will go up). ” I would think their weight would go up. I don’t want to call it junk food but there is gluten-free food with less nutritional value and higher calories, eating gluten-free products does not mean reduced calories. I am sure people with eating disorders read the nutrition labels.

  7. Well i know a few models who claim to be Celiac and i really feel theyre just embarrassed to admit they want to lose weight. Since people tell them theyre already skinny if they turn down carbs because if a diet, i feel like they say they’re celiacs so that others wont pressure them to eat. Its sad for actual celiacs but this is becoming common. These people claim they cant anything because like a peanut allergy, you never know if some wheat slipped into the food during preparation. So its an excuse to not eat. It might upset you but im glad someone is bringing attention to the issue.

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