I first heard the term “gluten-free” a few years ago while gathered around the food table at a party. The woman who stated she was gluten-free was standing – arms crossed – at the food table while the rest of us grazed like cattle over the delicious spread before us. The woman said her diet restricted her to eating only the corn chips and salsa at the table.
I was baffled. No cookies? No cake? No pasta? No sauces? No bread? No beer? How does one live this way? Surely her diet restrictions led her down a healthier path than mine as she was limited to fresh meat, fruit, dairy, rice, potatoes, vegetables, and most importantly, wine; however, I couldn’t imagine being restricted from things like pizza and Chinese food for the rest of my life.
A few cocktails later I was informed by the most trusted of sources – gossip – that this same woman has suffered from an eating disorder her whole life. Very clever, I thought. People would hound this gaunt-looking woman if she claimed to be on a diet, but if she claimed to have a legitimate autoimmune disorder, surely they would encourage her to snub the food at the table. It got me to wondering, how many people are using the term gluten-free to mask an eating disorder?
I did a little research on the gluten-free diet and learned that it is the only treatment for celiac disease. People with celiac disease who eat food containing gluten experience an immune reaction in the small intestine. The most common symptoms are abdominal pain and diarrhea. The number of people being diagnosed with celiac disease appears to be rising every year, and doctors believe there are hundreds of thousands of people whom have yet to be diagnosed. It is certainly a real thing, and a gluten-free diet is absolutely necessary for people suffering from celiac disease to live a normal, healthy lifestyle.
I’m not suggesting that everyone who follows a gluten-free diet has an eating disorder. What I am suggesting is that not everyone who follows a gluten-free diet has celiac disease. They may be using the diet to live a healthier lifestyle, but then again, they may be using it to mask an eating disorder in front of even close family members. You can’t really force a vegetarian to eat a fatty meat dish, and you certainly can’t force someone with what could be a legitimate autoimmune disorder to eat gluten.
I had a bulimic roommate in college. I never confronted her about it. In fact, if I am being totally honest, at the time it sort of pissed me off that she was eating my food and then leaving me with the disgusting task of cleaning the toilet. That is terrible. I know. For those of us who have had a love affair with food our whole lives, it can be difficult to understand an eating disorder. In fact, the only eating “disorder” I have ever had is an extreme aversion to ketchup and ranch dressing, though some might just call that un-American. Looking back, I cannot believe that I was too selfish to confront her. Looking back, I hate myself for ignoring her disorder. Looking back, I realize she needed me.
I guess what I am suggesting here is that you should perhaps be conscious of the idea that it is possible for someone to abuse the term “gluten-free diet.” If you suspect that someone close to you has struggled with an eating disorder and is now claiming to be gluten-free, perhaps you should find the courage to confront him or her in a loving and caring way. For that matter, if you suspect that someone close to you is struggling with an eating disorder at all, I think you should speak up. I wish I would have.
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