How many times have you heard of people going “gluten free?” Some people, do it as a diet to try to lose some weight because a diet heavy in wheat/grain can cause some folks to pack on the pounds. A few years ago, being “gluten free” was the fad diet. But, for some people, being gluten free isn’t a choice at all; it’s a medical necessity.
Many people who give up gluten suffer from celiac disease, which basically boils down to a bodily intolerance for gluten. Even trace amounts, ingested accidentally through issues like cross contamination, can cause major intestinal distress. Neurological and skin-based reactions are also common after gluten ingestion, and the symptoms can take several weeks to disappear.
That’s why it’s not fair to lump all of those who are gluten-free into the same “hipster” category. Everyone is entitled to make their own dietary choices, and should be respected in doing so, but it can’t be equated with someone who has a medical condition that will make them very sick. So, not taking gluten allergies seriously during food preparation is not funny or cute. You’re messing with someone’s health and overall wellness; it’s not a joke.
So, what exactly is celiac disease? According to the Celiac Disease Foundation website, celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where ingestion of gluten (a protein in found in wheat, rye, and barley) leads to damage of the small intestine. The damage of the small intestine leads to the body not being able to properly absorb nutrients.
As of right now, the website estimates that 1 in 100 people worldwide suffer from celiac disease, and two and a half million Americans are currently undiagnosed. The lack of diagnosis can lead to some very severe long-term health benefits, including higher risk of other autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Because the body isn’t properly absorbing nutrients, those with celiac disease are also more likely to develop anemia and osteoporosis, to suffer from infertility, and develop neurological disorders like migraines and epilepsy. Celiac disease is hereditary, so those with a first-degree relative, like a parent or sibling, or even a child have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac themselves.
Right now, the only way to avoid doing further damage to their bodies is for those with celiac to completely avoid eating foods with gluten. Seriously. That’s the only way to stay healthy. If they accidentally eat something with gluten in it (and gluten is in far more things than we non-celiac folks may realize) it can take months for the body to recover. That’s right, months. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, even eating something as small as a breadcrumb can do damage that takes a long time to repair. A breadcrumb!
Can you imagine being in pain for six months because of something you ate? It would really freaking suck, wouldn’t it? That’s just part of the reason why having a gluten intolerance is a very real, and very shitty (no pun intended) disease, and not just a cute little fad where you realize that your love of white flour is making you feel bloated.
In her blog, Gluten is my Bitch, April Peveteaux lays it all out: “Some of us wish real hard that gluten intolerance, celiac, autoimmune disease was a load of crap. But in reality, we do crap when we have gluten, and not in a dainty way that could be taken care of by a chamber pot out the window. But enough about me and my poop. Celiac disease is a very serious autoimmune disease (and there are other very serious autoimmune responses related to gluten as well) and if you do eat gluten, you could actually die. Eventually. Not right then, unless dying of embarrassment is a real thing. But not removing gluten from my diet (as a celiac) could lead to horrible diseases like cancer, osteoporosis, brain damage, strokes, and lots of other gross body-falling-apart stuff. That’s just science. And it sucks.”
People who suffer from celiac disease are typically very open about their struggles. Like most diseases, it affects every single part of daily life. So, maybe we can try to not be pretentious assholes about those who are gluten-free?
Jennifer Hicks, whose daughter was diagnosed with celiac eight years ago, at age eight, writes about the challenges parents of children with food allergies/intolerances face. As a parent, she has to advocate for her daughter in a world of people who think that celiac is nothing more than a pain in their butt.
“We’ve literally walked out of restaurants because either they weren’t willing to accommodate her or find the answers to the questions we had about food prep,” Hicks said. “We’ve even had a few restaurants tell us they didn’t have a single thing on the menu that was either GF or could be prepared so that it was. So we left. Because her health is more important than the risk we’d be taking in having people who are nonchalant or inflexible being part of preparing her food.”
She also added that they have to pack a bag of snacks for her daughter for long car rides, and she will often offer to bring meals for her daughter to people’s houses, or give them guidance in how to cook meals that are gluten-free.
Bianca, who was diagnosed with celiac 15 years ago, was tested four times before she was finally diagnosed. As a result of years of eating gluten and not knowing it was essentially poisoning her, she has permanent bone damage and another autoimmune conditions that likely stem from the unchecked celiac disease.
“It’s kind of frustrating for people that actually have it like me, because I constantly have to emphasize that I’m actually allergic,” Bianca says. “So people don’t think I’m just being trendy.”
When we treat being gluten-free as a joke or a trend, we are dismissing a growing number of people who could actually die, and making them feel like they don’t matter. It is important to remember that for many, being gluten free isn’t trendy at all, it’s a crucial step in living a healthy, thriving life, and we must begin to be more respectful (and mindful) of that.
If you are curious about Celiac Disease, you can find more information here.