Do all those people who swear they need gluten-, dairy- or wheat-free genuinely suffer from a food intolerance? Or may they actually have an eating disorder?
Back In The Old Days
Try today to invite over some friends for dinner, and chances are you end up serving cardboard.
It’s the only thing everyone can eat without nearly fatal consequences: Mary can’t eat gluten, Joe is allergic to dairy, Liz has to say no to anything that contains glutamate, while Hank is strictly vegan and Pamela a vegetarian.
Just twenty years ago you may have had a vegetarian or diabetic among your guests, maybe an allergic, but in general, food allergies were far from common. Now they’re almost the norm.
Why is that, when in those two decades our eating habits changed only little?
Take, for example, celiac disease, an illness that causes damage to the small intestine and hinders absorption of nutrients from food. People afflicted with it have to avoid gluten, a protein occurring in wheat products.
Celiac disease is easily diagnosed through a blood test, intestinal or skin biopsy. In western societies, about 1 in 133 people are affected by it, which for the United States gives us around two million sufferers. Two million in a population of 300 million.
But two years ago a panel of medical experts discovered that we have an epidemic of gluten-intolerance that can’t be explained by celiac disease. The doctors named it “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (PDF). People who suffer from it get worse when they eat gluten, and better when they don’t.
So far the doctors are clueless about what causes it, but I’ll take a wager.
Is It The Gluten Or An Eating Disorder?
One simple reason why self-diagnosed gluten-intolerance sufferers feel better after cutting out gluten is that it often means they changed their nutrition in general.
Where before it was pizza, hamburgers, milkshakes and other caloric behemoths, they now eat a lot more fruits and vegetables. This results in weight loss, and that in turn goes hand-in-hand with improved cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and, last but not least, a better self-image.
Self-image ties in with my second proposed explanation. It goes back to what a friend of mine, who worked on the eating disorder ward of a psychiatric hospital, told me about the patients he worked with: the vast majority of those affected by eating disorders report having food allergies.
This connection has become so common that psychiatrists gave it a name: orthorexia. The list of symptoms reads like a how-to manual for food intolerance self-diagnosis.
If It Makes Them Happy?
It’s simple to say, so what, if believing in gluten-, wheat- or dairy-free makes people happy, just let them be! Which in general is my position as well: whatever rocks your boat, do it.
However, we may have to draw a line when voluntarily cutting out certain food groups causes deficiencies. Saying no to gluten, for example, can not only cut the gluten, but your sources of fiber and B vitamins as well. If a person indeed suffers from orthorexia, then the obsession with food is just the symptom of a far deeper problem that left untreated can end in self-destruction.
By all means, if you believe you suffer from food allergies, get them tested. But if you self-diagnosed yourself and the changes you made to your eating style cause you problems, it may pay to also look deeper.
Picture courtesy of Mike Linksvayer.