In 2013, I found out that I have celiac disease, more commonly known as the gluten allergy. For the most part, it has been an incredibly positive experience to understand why my health as a seemingly normal, fit young woman had become so fragile, and to take the steps to heal my body.
However, the biggest downside (beyond having an incurable autoimmune disease…) is that I joined the celiac community just in time for the gluten free backlash. For some reason, a vocal minority of the population is disgusted by the existence of the gluten allergy, making it the butt of jokes and the target of misinformation. I had never realized before that people could have such visceral, emotional reactions to the existence of a medical condition! Even in popular culture, “I have the gluten allergy” has become shorthand for someone either high maintenance (usually a ditzy girl) or sniveling and weak (a geeky guy). Who knew that the impact of a protein molecule on intestinal villi said so much about the substance of your character?
So, in case you’ve ever wondered what this gluten free fad is all about, here are some basic facts about gluten intolerance.
- Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and about a dozen other, less common edible plants. For some reason, for some people, that protein makes the immune system go haywire. You’ve heard of lactose intolerance—this is the same premise.
- Gluten intolerance is not technically a food allergy. Think of peanut allergies and strawberry allergies—those kids in school always needed EpiPens nearby in case they got exposed and their throats closed up. They also broke out in hives. That’s a food allergy. Instead, gluten intolerance is an autoimmune disease that impacts the digestive system, not the respiratory system. Doctors only started calling it an “allergy” because they think the general public is too stupid to understand “autoimmune disease.” And just to drive home the point that gluten intolerance is a real thing, you confirm that you have it with a blood test. There is proof that these out-of-whack antibodies exist, in black and white.
- The immune reaction for someone like me is unbelievably intense when I accidentally ingest gluten (or when I was unwittingly eating it all the time in the past). Think of the worst stomach flu or food poisoning you’ve ever had—it’s that, but with weird other symptoms too, like high fever, full-body muscle cramps, headache, skin rash, heartburn, hypersalivation…shall I go on? For me, this lasts from 24 to 72 hours, plus at least 48 more hours of feeling worn out and dehydrated. Seriously, if you could avoid having this happen to you, wouldn’t you try as hard as you could?
- It doesn’t take very much gluten to trigger this reaction, even just a crumb.
- Gluten is hiding everywhere. The most basic defense of course is to banish all of the foods that use flour (most foods, really). Beyond that, it’s in any foods flavored with barley and rye (more than you realize). It’s in all grain-based alcohols. It’s in foods that have wheat added for bulk or texture or to keep the individual pieces from sticking together. It’s in everyday materials like pills, toothpaste, shampoo, lipstick, and envelope glue (who knows why?). It’s in pet food and kitty litter, so pets are coated in it. I can even get poisoned if food prep surfaces and tools aren’t cleaned properly.
- Over the long term, repeated gluten immune reactions become a big deal. For one thing, every time your digestive system purges, it rips out some tissue with it. That tissue takes six weeks to regrow. Eventually, if it happens too much, the tissue stops growing back the way it should. Not good. And when your digestive organs are sick for too long, they swell and crush the organs around them, in turn making those organs function improperly and causing more permanent damage.
- One final myth to address: if you are not clinically gluten intolerant, the gluten free diet will do nothing for you but make eating a huge hassle. Gluten isn’t some magically cursed chemical compound that must be avoided at all costs! Take the peanut allergy again—it is very dangerous for some people, but would you ever avoid eating peanuts if you don’t have the allergy? Would you somehow expect to lose weight or increase your health just by avoiding peanuts? If you don’t have the allergy, it’s a totally arbitrary deprivation. (That being said, if you really care about it and going gluten free without an intolerance diagnosis makes you feel better, all the power to you.)