Saturday, 27 April 2013

Five things not to say to a gluten-free eater

I like to think of myself as happy-go-lucky, but sometimes you have the kind of week that demands a rant.

As ever, it's not gluten-free living that troubles me, it's the unpleasant attitudes you can sometimes encounter when navigating life on a special diet.

Image by Kristine Lewis. CC BY-SA 2.0
Most people fall somewhere on the spectrum from neutral acceptance to actively supportive when you "come out" to them as eating gluten-free, but there are always people who blurt out a response that is frustrating, condescending or just plain rude. Here is a rundown of the five least-favourite reactions I've had when explaining that I'm gluten-free.

1. "Oh my god, I'd just die if I couldn't eat pizza!"

"You must really enjoy pizza. Or not enjoy life, I can't quite tell."

Maybe the hyperbole is intended as sympathy for the inconvenience of a gluten-free diet. The implication (intended or not) that life without wheat isn't worth living may be laughably absurd, but it genuinely infuriates me. Imagine how this translates to any other health problem: "oh my god, I'd just die if I was diagnosed with diabetes; I'd just kill myself if I had to use a wheelchair; I'd hurl myself off a cliff if I suffered disfiguring burns..." Uncomfortable with how that sounds? Coeliac disease is a medical condition that is manageable through a change of diet - if someone implies, however casually, that this renders my life too awful for them to contemplate, I feel embarrassed for their lack of perspective. Not to mention how insulting this attitude is to people who battle much more painful or inconvenient health problems than coeliac.

Coeliacs: we can only eat rainbows.
'Rainbow' by Girish Gopi. CC BY-SA 2.0
2. "Is there anything you can eat?"

"I subsist purely on air and light. Gwyneth Paltrow does it too."

Sadly coeliacs all-too-often encounter mean-spirited digs, often from someone with a bee in their bonnet about "faddy eaters". Often it's the kind of person who has no knowledge of food intolerances and allergies, hates vegetarians with a passion, and prides him/herself on "eating anything", as though it's a badge of heroism. Since they're asking, I can eat fruits and vegetables, corn flour, quinoa, rice, potatoes, chicken, fish, all seafood, amazing cupcakes I bake using brown rice flour, milk, yoghurt, butter, olives, peanuts, raisins, ooh all kinds of dried fruit, wine and lots of it, cheeses - my favourite is Brie, steak, potato waffles, turkey, soups, the zillion kinds of gluten-free bread on offer, ham, bacon, pancetta, tomatoes, apples, one of many brands of gluten-free sausages, coconuts, avocados, coffee, tea, sugar, sushi, buckwheat, kebabs, polenta, smoked duck, chocolate truffles, salmon and cucumber with cream cheese, fruit smoothies, chia seeds, apricot jam, Genuis croissants, almond butter, grilled octopus, walnut and blue cheese salad, hummus, marzipan, gluten-free beers like Estrella Damm Daura, spirits like vodka and whiskey, corn tortillas, pulled pork, balsamic vinegar, sour cream, prawn and cashew nut stir-fry, Nutella, Corn Flakes, ostrich meat...

Eyes glazing over yet? Now wouldn't it just have been quicker to ask what I can't eat?

3. "So how come suddenly there are all these allergies that never used to exist?"

"It's actually part of a government conspiracy. You didn't hear this from me."

Call me a cynic, but whenever I hear this, it doesn't exactly seem to be in the spirit of genuine scientific enquiry. The genuine answer is that food intolerances and allergies have always been around, but their correct diagnosis has only dawned along with the long, slow progress of medical science. Old Aunt Agatha with her "digestion troubles" a few generations ago might have had an undiagnosed dairy intolerance or coeliac disease. A couple of decades ago, IBS was used as a diagnosis for a cluster of conditions - nowadays we're discovering that people diagnosed with this may have a specific food intolerance. And it's only recently that coeliac disease is being diagnosed via a blood test for antibodies, sometimes in people who feel mild or zero symptoms. The implication that there is a crazy fad or fashion for dietary intolerances is a huge insult to those who don't choose to follow a special diet, but who do so for essential health reasons.

Biscuits in wheat flour shocker!
'Biscuits' by Emilian Robert Vicol. CC BY 2.0

4. "Wait, so you can't eat chocolate biscuits? What about custard creams? You can't eat Jammie Dodgers either? What about KitKats? No KitKats?!"

"The truth is, I have a phobia of the crunching sound biscuits make. Please respect this and don't offer them to me again."

Not everyone is au fait with what gluten means, nor do they need to be. But how dull it is to have to explain that yes, the main component of mass-produced biscuits and cookies tends to be wheat flour, so yes, I will be turning down the offer of a ginger biscuit, just as readily as the offer of a chocolate digestive, bourbon, chocolate chip cookie and Jaffa cake. I don't mind people forgetting, but I do so loathe interacting with people with whom you can't have a single conversation about food without them going into theatrics of astonishment that the biscuit they hold in their hand contains wheat flour. Thanks for offering me the treat; no thank you I'm afraid I can't eat that; let's move the conversation on without yet another discussion about whether or not biscuits contain wheat. Spoiler alert: they probably do. Curb your amazement and move on.

 5. "What's the point of going to Italy if you can't eat pasta?"

"You can eat pasta at home, so why would you bother going to Italy?"

Florence. It isn't made of wheat.
'Florence, Italy' by Bob Hall. CC BY-SA 2.0
As a frequent traveller, this used to offend me but now it makes me laugh. I have answered this deadpan in the past, saying that coeliac disease pretty much kills the enjoyment of Florence's dazzling Uffizi Gallery, breathing in the scent of a delicious Chianti in Tuscany, or the feeling of the warm waters of the Amalfi Coast lapping against my toes. Without my mouth being crammed with wheaty pasta, roaming around the ruins of Pompeii is without wonder, and staring up at Milan's Duomo is joyless and empty. Nowadays I gently inform people that while I'm delighted they find pasta their principal reason for visiting Italy, they might be surprised to find out that food is one of the reasons I love the country too. Quite apart from the naturally gluten-free cuisine (truffle cheeses, fresh seafood, risottos, steaks, mozzarella, wine, gelato...), Italy has a higher diagnosis rate of coeliac disease than my own country, the UK, so gluten-free pizzas and pastas aren't hard to find. And even if they weren't, do I really need to spell out Italy's many other charms.

What's the worst reaction you've ever had to telling someone you're gluten-free?


  1. When someone offers me food and I explain that I can't eat it due to celiac, and they say "surely a little bit won't hurt". Umm, yes actually, it would.

  2. "Just have a *little* bit of poison!" Yep, I can definitely relate to the frustration of hearing that!

  3. I get a lot of 'It's not that hard to be gluten free. Just eat vegetables and meat. It's surely not that expensive either.' The concept of cross contamination and the checking of every single label on food never crosses their mind or the expense of it all. Same with the just 'don't eat bread and you'll be fine' and the 'why would you want to replace gluten foods with a gluten free version, what a waste of time' attitudes.

  4. Yep, I hear your frustration. If it's so easy to be gluten-free, why are things like salad dressing, potato crisps and pretty much anything processed so often off limits? My heart always sinks when someone sprays their wheaty crumbs all over a cheeseboard and I'm left thinking, 'Great, I can't eat that either.'