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Is gluten-free a fad?

A couple of days ago, I criticized the New York Times for its story on gluten. Yesterday (May 10, 2007), National Public Radio aired a very similar story called For Most People, Gluten Isn’t a Diet Enemy. In this piece, as in the NYT article, there is speculation that there is a “celiac fad diet” and that people are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. So I am pondering the question: is gluten-free a fad diet?

If so, then it should be compared to other fad diets, such as The Zone, the Atkins diet and the South Beach Diet. I see 2 main differences between these low-carb diets and the gluten-free diet:

  1. These low-carb diets all promise weight loss, which is the primary reason for their popularity. By contrast, doctors do not recommend the gluten-free diet for weight loss (although this may be a side benefit); in fact, many people with celiac disease gain weight after going gluten-free.
  2. These low-carb diets were each created by one person, who then promoted it with books, frozen food, or supplements. I am not saying that the original intent of the creators was not for the good of their patients, but each diet came out of one person’s head. The gluten-free diet is recognized internationally as a medical treatment for the autoimmune disease, celiac disease. There is ongoing research into gluten sensitivity or intolerance as a separate medical condition treatable with a gluten-free diet. Oh, and by way, it is a genetic condition. I’m not sure if they have identified a Zone gene yet.

“Gluten-free” is not some crazy American diet named after a doctor or a beach. The reason the media thinks it is a fad is because we Americans are just catching up with understanding what other parts of the world (Australia, for example) already know – that gluten-free is a way of life for certain people.

Both news articles imply that the growth of gluten-free products on the shelves is evidence that the gluten-free diet is a fad. I think it means that awareness is increasing, more people are getting diagnosed and that food manufacturers are recognizing that there is a true market of people who cannot eat gluten.

Are people jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon? I don’t think so. I have found that the general perception about the gluten-free diet is that is a curse and a sentence. Almost everyone says to me something like “Oh, that must be so hard. I could never give up bread.” I believe that people go gluten-free only when they are at the end of their ropes – they can’t get a diagnosis, they feel awful, they have tried medications and other diets with no alleviation of their suffering. Most people don’t do it on a whim, and because there is no cheating allowed, it is a commitment that people are unwilling to make.

Not only is the diet difficult at first, but there is a perception that “gluten-free” means “tastes yucky.” Most people’s attitudes about regular old gluten-containing food is like Joe Hotchkiss’s from the NPR story — “he loves the taste, and he can’t imagine why anyone would choose to eliminate wheat, and therefore gluten, from their diet.”

Fortunately for us with a gluten-free life sentence, food manufacturers are realizing we exist and are here to stay.

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