Thursday, August 16, 2012

Confessions of a gluten eater

The line between genuine medical dietary restraints and euphemistically-expressed dieting has never been blurrier: Refinery29 - straying from fashion once again - has a slideshow up profiling eight members of the fashion site's staff who have gone off gluten. Some did so for health reasons, others for quasi-health reasons, and only one admits to having gone gluten-free to lose weight, which, unsurprisingly, can work. But even she tosses in some genuine health concerns. Another begins with a very serious discussion of how a friend's cancer diagnosis inspired her to change her own eating habits, then adds (this is a fashion blog, after all) that her skin now "has a luminous glow to it."

There's no inherent reason why a healthier diet wouldn't make you look and feel better, but one senses that if it turned out the secret to longevity meant dull skin and gaining 15 pounds, there'd be fewer takers. One senses this precisely because the "health" concerns expressed in a fashion-writing context tend to be very pick-and-choose, like the actress referenced here earlier, who admits to drinking and smoking, yet freaks out if her skin products aren't "natural."

So on the one hand, if an office I don't work at decides to encourage disordered eating in the name of "health," this falls into the category of not my problem. Last I checked, my own diet of pasta, pasta, and a side order of extra pasta was actually encouraged for grad students, and because we can hardly afford to eat out/order in, but for whichever cultural reasons don't go in for fast food (though we do supplement the pasta with fresh produce and tiny bits of expensive cheese), we end up no less svelte (although decidedly less luminous) than the fashionistas. But on the other...

This morning's loot.

There are really two objections to this sort of thing. The first is that (as at least one Refinery29 commenter notes) conflating the glorified low-carb diets that already-thin women use to lose five pounds with celiac disease, which sounds like a pretty massive pain in the neck, is offensive to those suffering from that condition. The maybe-persuasive counterargument is that even those who won't die if they eat gluten feel healthier (and so much less bloated, aka thinner, although some insist - in vain, I'd say - that it's not about weight) if they cut out carbs, I mean gluten. I mean, who knows. Maybe? Is it terrible that when I read that gluten-free may reduce migraines, my thought was that I'll stick with migraines, Advil, and pasta? And maybe there is a subset of women (including those in the slideshow, or not) who really do only care about their health insofar as doing so is compatible with Fashion. At least they're eating vegetables and slathering on sunscreen, right?

The other objection, and the one for which there isn't any obvious counterargument, is that you hardly see men deciding to cut out some utterly normal ingredient, just to see what that does (i.e. whether restricting what you eat will make you lose weight, which it will.) Not never - remember Mark Bittman's lactose concerns? - but as a rule, this kind of worrying-about-it involves women who were never going to be fat to begin with wasting vast amounts of time and energy on being a size two rather than a size four, 120 pounds rather than 125. It's not that the ideal would be men and women alike worrying like this - ideal would be neither. But seeing as it's almost entirely women being held back by this behavior, this is a feminist concern.


Britta said...

Well, gluten free diets can only help you lose weight if you use them as an excuse to eat a low carb, lower calorie diet. Rice, potatoes and I'm pretty sure corn are all gluten free, and most "gluten free" baked stuff is made with rice flour, which is actually more calorically dense than wheat flour stuff. And yeah, I have some friends with celiac, and it is not an allergy or intolerance but an autoimmune condition which irreparably damages the small intestine with gluten exposure, and can lead to early death. It's not like lactose intolerance, where you have some discomfort and are then fine. They're happy that gluten awareness had made more products available on the market, but annoyed that everyone just calls themselves celiac because they decide grains makes them bloated or tired.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying myself immensely in the land of gluten, eating pasta and bread (and gelato!) for lunch and dinner, and cookies sometimes for breakfast. I am doing research for my book "Why Italian women don't get fat" :P Also, the general food situation here makes me want to cry. Everything is so much tastier and cheaper than the US equivalent (today I bought peaches better than those at HPP for .99 euro/kilo at some crappy supermarket my boyfriend's mother only went to because everything else was closed for lunch). I knew this would be the case from past experience, but it's something else to be reminded that a latte served at the table in a cafe here costs 1.80 euro.

Phoebe said...


It's no doubt technically possible to cut grains and gain weight. Just like there are vegetarians who eat nothing but cookies. But no gluten means nearly all the readily-available "bad" carbs are out. It seems you'd have to try really hard not to lose weight eating like that.

As for the trend making products more available, my sense is it kind of does, but also invents a new category of 'sort-of gluten-free', for people with diet/trendy concerns, but who won't actually become ill if their food has trace amounts of the stuff.

I'd be jealous of your Italian adventure, but having married into a family from another great food country, I get occasional exposure to this sort of thing. Even in Heidelberg, which is not a food mecca, there were things like the amazing croissants for 1.10 euro, much better produce, etc. The U.S., when it has good produce, may have better than Europe (the farmers' markets often being a bit more hardline re: local/seasonal), but the average, supermarket quality is another story.

Britta said...

Ha! I still feel a but of a smug asshole about my trip, especially since "Italian villa" is so far off from my real live and the "starving grad student" image. Though, strangely it's much cheaper to be here, considering my boyfriend's parents won't let me pay for groceries, and being out in the middle of nowhere with no personal access to a car considerably cuts down on spending, (well, after my 18 euro sunscreen).

Your picture reminded me that my bf's mother asked me to cook a meal I liked to make, and I had a moment of panic when I realized I mostly cook pasta with Italian-like sauce (garlic, olive oil, tomatos, random vegetables or meat), and if it's kind of gross I just cover it in parmesan. Of course, there's no way I could do that here, where every sauce has a name and a very particular way of being made.

Britta said...

*life, not live

Lisa said...

Normally I agree with many of the things you write about, but on this issue I have to disagree. Cutting out gluten is not something people do solely for weight loss, and acknowledging that gluten sensitivity does exist (and is different from celiac) does not diminish the suffering of people with celiac disorder. There have been double blind studies on people with a self-diagnosis of gluten sensitivity that shows that going on a gluten free diet and then having a gluten challenge have real effects on unpleasant symptoms like IBS, fatigue and bloating (

Gluten sensitivity and the anti-gluten "fad" is not something that women only do. The Paleo / Primal diet is embraced by many men, and getting rid of gluten is one of its most important points. On the flip side, many people that avoid gluten, whether due to a celiac diagnosis or gluten sensitivity, still eat high carb diets and can even maintain normal (or overweight) figures. So, we're not all fainting juicers concerned about that last ten pounds.

The fact that you are mocking people (with or without debilitating migraines, for example) for trying to eat in a way that makes them feel better day-to-day because it's cheaper to eat pasta is... a little confusing. The "rice and lentil" poor people diet is just as frugal as pasta, and contains no gluten. I get that it's cooler now to make fun of people trying to be cool by avoiding gluten, but maybe do a little more research next time?

Britta said...

I can obviously not speak for Phoebe, but I would never deny that there are people who have wheat and/or gluten intolerances, and I do have friends with diagnosed gluten intolerances and allergies separate from celiac. However, that there are people with this condition doesn't mean it's not still a "fad" in that it's increasingly widespread, trendy, people tend to self-diagnose and attribute everything and the kitchen sink to their allergy/intolerance, and use it as a excuse for all other sorts of behaviors (not that all do). Also, I don't personally care what other people eat, since, as you rightly point out, it's none of my business, nor do I know individual people's medical histories.

On the general topic of US diet in general though, I think several things: first, in the US, we seem in popular culture to be unable to promote moderation. In the 90s, it was all carbs all the time, which I agree is unhealthy, and now we're seeing a backlash, which is no carbs and/or no gluten. In 15-20 years, it will probably be something else, and "all the evidence" will support that. I also regard the paleo diet with a very large grain of salt, unless people are out there primarily living on roots or maybe raw seal. Not to mention that our sources of protein are no less modified than our plant sources. There's nothing 'natural' about any of the food we eat, if natural means untouched by human interference (which I think is an arbitrary definition).

Studying the fossil record to determine the coevolution of food and humans is quite difficult and doesn't lend itself to easy conclusions, except that humans, like rats, are pretty much able to survive on all but the most extreme diets, which is why we've overpopulated the planet. What we *thrive* on is perhaps an unanswerable question, especially since we have no way of isolating diet as a single variable and it may prove that there is no single answer.

Phoebe said...


On this, you can totally speak for me. I agree that there are medical concerns other than celiac that impact how some people feel after eating wheat. I'm addressing Lisa's comment in another post, but in the mean time, just wanted to get that out there!

Phoebe said...

Oh, also, for Britta,

I agree (as I get into in the new post) that we shouldn't express concerns about what people sitting with us, or other individuals generally, are eating. But the problem is that we should care what others are eating, insofar as we need to be concerned that the default for women is to be preoccupied with diet concerns. The question I'm left with is how to balance caring what others generally are eating with the imperative not to care what others as individuals are up to in that regard.

PG said...

Wouldn't it be somewhat implausible that the healthiest diet would give you dull skin and hair, though? From what I understand, the more cross-cultural aspects of beauty are those that correspond to health (and for women, youth), for evolutionary reasons. So the ideal size of hips and breasts and so on have varied, but that it's good to have bright clear eyes, strong thick hair ("thick" in the sense of lots of it), smooth skin, etc. seems fairly consistent.

Phoebe said...


Not necessarily. What indicates fertility doesn't always indicate longevity. Thus the studies showing it's better to be emaciated - "better" as in for living to a hundred, certainly not better for conceiving/bearing children.

PG said...

I think those studies are somewhat debatable, whereas the link between conceiving/bearing/breastfeeding children likely to survive infancy, and having a strong immune system and ability to endure at least brief periods of deprivation, is stronger.