“Is this gluten free?” My friends laugh and imitate my question in an Valleygirl-esque accent. While it is becoming easier to go to restaurants with friends because of the increasing number of people going gluten free, making light of a gluten-free diagnosis by adopting it as a “diet,” or labeling your gluten-intolerance as celiac disease, trivializes the difficulty of having celiac disease.
It is important to understand the difference between celiac disease and gluten intolerance. According Pathway Genomics, “Celiac is an auto-immune disorder … that can cause similar side effects [to gluten intolerance] but a much more extreme level that could potentially lead to death.” Unlike celiac disease, gluten intolerance, while uncomfortable, does not cause severe and long term damage. Over time, if a person with celiac disease consumes or is exposed to gluten, it causes permanent damage to the intestines, chronic fatigue, bone and joint pain, bone loss, tingling in hands and feet, and even depression, anxiety, and dementia.
It is currently estimated that approximately 1% of the US population have celiac disease. In terms of gluten intolerance, a 2015 study in the Journal of Digestion found that 86% of self-proclaimed gluten-intolerant people actually could tolerate it. While it is up to personal choice to maintain a gluten free diet, it is important to understand that most people can tolerate gluten.
The reality of a celiac-disease-related gluten-free diet is not a glamorous one. Three years ago I was diagnosed with celiac disease. The fear of consuming gluten is, in fact, all-consuming. For me, the result of consuming gluten entails many hospital visits and a painful purging process consisting of stomach pumping, days of vomiting, passing out, migraines, and bloating. Many people with celiac disease are also required to have surgery on their intestines to prevent further damage.
Additionally, the cost of a gluten free diet in and of itself is astounding. A recent study compared the prices of gluten-free foods and regular products. The mean price per unit for gluten-free products was $1.71 compared to $0.61 for regular products … meaning a gluten-free diet is 242% more expensive than a regular diet. This is ironic considering those who adopt a gluten-free diet without a celiac diagnosis neglect extensive research showing that many gluten free products are in fact higher in calories, fat, sodium, and sugar in an attempt to compose a gluten-free food that mimics a gluten-full food in terms of flavor or texture.
Being gluten free is not “cool.” While each person is entitled to their own diet choices, we must be aware of how labeling a choice as life-threatening medical condition affects the perception of being gluten free as a whole. While the stereotypical “gluten-free LA girl” is a joke I hear so often that it has seemingly become a part of my identity, it is a painful part. I would gladly trade in rock-hard bread, crumbly-flavorless donuts, and many nights bent over the toilet in pain for a croissant or even just a piece of real bread.