Monday, 27 August 2012

The gluten-free fad dieter: friend or foe?

'Wave' by Art by MarkAC. CC licence
My diagnosis as a coeliac seemed to happen just before the crest of a gluten-free wave. During Year #1 of getting to grips with the gluten-free lifestyle, shopping for food involved planning and paranoia. Finding a dedicated free-from section was always a big 'high-five' moment.

But as the years ticked by, suddenly a free-from section seemed to materialise in almost every large store. I went from sighing over miniature loaves of dry bread bought in a health-food shop (note to manufacturers: gluten-free folk are humans of ordinary size) to standing amazed in front of shelves full of gluten-free crumpets, muffins and entire ranges of pasta. Suddenly mainstream supermarket own-brands (at least here in the UK) were on the bandwagon: Asda, Sainbury's and Waitrose dutifully chugged out free-from ranges, riding the waves of enthusiasm produced by Genius (in my opinion, the first palatable gluten-free sliced bread). They might charge more than double the price of a wheaty equivalent, but they were there, I was happy (and my waistband was getting tighter).

'Scale model' by Brett Jordan, CC licence
So what happened? Yes, awareness is improving which may raise diagnosis rates, but there was something else too: the gluten-free lifestyle being trumpeted as a health choice. Now, the concept of 'choice' was very far from my universe when I stared in shock at diet leaflets from my doctor; I certainly didn't sign up for a lifetime of squinting at lists of ingredients. But sure enough, people were adopting the diet out of preference, or believing that they had an intolerance (without a medical diagnosis), or simply as a move to be healthier. Genius, for one, leapt at this potential market with their high-profile 'the food that loves you back' advertising campaign, suggesting that consumers give a 'lower gluten lifestyle' a try.

Born this way? Nope, just a fad dieter.
Pic by Lori Tingey, CC licence

Lower gluten, rather than no-gluten, is of course no use to the bona fide coeliac, who needs to eliminate gluten from their diet. But for now, let's leave the science behind, as well as the questionable reasoning behind eating gluten-free cookies as a dieting trick (I'm talking to you, Lady Gaga). What does it mean for coeliacs to have lifestyle gluten-freers sharing our piece of the gf pie?

At first sight, the extra demand that came with the gluten-free trend brought a boom of new products and I've been pleased as punch to see these foods enter the mainstream. In the past year I've snapped up Nakd bars in newsagents and nibbled supermarket-bought gluten-free sandwiches, an impossible dream when I first embarked on the gluten-free journey. I can't help but think I have the upsurge in gf-by-choice dieters to thank for giving gluten-free a bit of airtime.

Keep those floury mitts off my dinner!
Pic by Lenore Edman, CC licence

But at what cost? Sure, the average waiter probably knows what gluten-free means better than in the past, but if gluten-free is associated with preference, rather than necessity, is he going to know to warn the chef against spraying wheaty crumbs across my plate? Or is he going to think his work is done if he simply leaves the bread rolls off my table? There's certainly some confusion already: one chain restaurant I went to, that had recently brought in a gluten-free pasta option, wasn't sure whether the pasta sauce contained gluten and asked me if it was necessary that the sauce be wheatless as well as the pasta -- why yes, very necessary thank you. There's certainly a risk that restaurant staff will be less than careful if they start thinking of gluten-free only as a dietary preference (and one that may or may not be abandoned once the dietee in question spies the dessert menu -- I've seen it happen!)

So we can't lay gluten-free vigilance to rest. Gluten-free diets are being adopted for a multitude of reasons now, meaning that gluten-free isn't just associated with allergies and intolerances. We have to spell out those dietary requirements loud and clear when dining out. But since this was already the status quo for coeliacs, I personally don't feel that gf-by-choice have done us a huge amount of harm. There was already misinformation about gluten-free eating out there, but my biggest problem in the past has been encountering people, waiting staff, supermarkets with zero understanding of the g-word. At least it's being talked about now, and catered for, so I welcome the gluten-free food boom. If the new gluten-free crowd helped to create that demand, I'm delighted for them to keep dodging gluten. But Gaga, don't expect the pounds to drop off...

EDIT: I re-read my post, and pondered whether my original 'fad dieting' wording was a bit harsh, so I made a few tweaks (keeping the headline though). Just to be clear, I don't have any beef with those who choose to give up gluten without a medical diagnosis (your diet, your body, and more gluten-free cake on the shelves), and I know there's a world of difference between someone who genuinely feels healthier sans gluten, and someone jumping on the Lady Gaga bandwagon.

Maybe you disagree: do fad gluten-free dieters create more confusion than they improve awareness of the lifestyle? Or are you happy to see gluten-free becoming a mainstream concept? Share with me in the comments!