Gluten-free is a treatment, not a trend

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April 27, 2017

Bekah Jensen has celiac disease. Jensen feels that there is a misconception today about the disease. When Jensen tells people she has Celiac disease, “They usually react by saying ‘Oh, that must really suck’ or ‘I’m so sorry that must be so hard,’ which is stupid because it’s not,” Jensen said.

Jensen feels that because of the current popularity of going gluten-free, most people know celiac disease means she can’t eat wheat, but most don’t realize that it also includes barley and malt. They also cannot define gluten. They just know it makes her sick.

People have made gluten-free diets a trend in attempts to eat healthier, but this trend is likely doing some harm. The people that have celiac disease often view the trend in a negative light. Celiac disease is an allergy to gluten that if mistreated, is life threatening, over time. Because many people take it lightly they don’t understand the seriousness of the disease.

''They usually react by saying 'Oh, that must really suck' or 'I'm so sorry that must be so hard,' which is stupid because it's not.''

Mark Johnson, a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Celiac Association, explains celiac disease a little more clearly. “Celiac is an autoimmune disorder whereby gluten destroys the absorptive lining of the small intestine, and for a celiac to eat gluten increases his or her risk of malnutrition, osteoporosis and some particularly lethal cancers of the gut,” Johnson said.

Over the last few years, the disease has shown an increase in numbers. An EpiCast report press release said that it is estimate that by 2023, the number of celic disease cases will reach 8.08 million and continue growing at 3.92 percent.

According to a Nov. 28, 2014 Fox News article, more than 1 percent of people have the disease. Many of them don’t even know it.

Despite the increase in the disease, the majority of people eating gluten-free products do not have celiac disease.

Many people go gluten-free without really knowing why, but “it is important to be tested for celiac disease because a diagnosis means a strict, gluten-free diet for life,” Johnson said in the article. “Before making that major lifestyle change, you should know where you stand health-wise, and having a confirmed diagnosis will help motivate you to stick to the diet, as you must. It will help everyone – including yourself – take your condition more seriously.”

According to NBC San Diego’s news article, Consumer Reports’ Deputy Health, Patricia Calvo, who oversaw the study says, “People think that going gluten-free will help them lose weight or get better digestion and a whole host of other health benefits. But when Consumer Reports looked at those gluten-free products and found that they’re not necessarily healthier and they may be less so.”

Like many dietary fads in the past, going gluten-free is not a cure-all. “One concern is some gluten-free foods contain more fat, sugar or sodium than their regular counterparts. And products made of enriched-wheat flour provide essential nutrients like iron and folic acid, but you don’t get those in many gluten-free foods,” according to the article.

Marshall Oelkers, 23, learned that he had celiac disease just over a year ago. “I started feeling sick and losing a lot of weight. I was suspicious that it may be celiac disease because my sister has it and I knew that it doesn’t always kick in until later in life. So I had the blood test done and a week or two later I had an endoscopy performed where they found that the celia in my small intestines were severely blunted, which was a sign that I had celiac disease.”

Once diagnosed with celiac disease, Oelkers knew that his life would be different from then on.

“When I found out I was extremely bummed out,” Oelkers said. “I called my sister, who recommended I might as well go on one last gluten rampage, so I drunk myself in gluten one last night, enjoying all the things I wouldn’t be able to enjoy anymore and then started fresh the next day. It took a while I think for the celia to heal, but eventually I started feeling a lot better.”

Despite the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet, many people are highly uninformed. Often even employees in the restaurant industry, whose job it is to know food, can make mistakes due to the lack of information.

“The only thing that is really hard has nothing to do with what I can’t eat. Going out to eat it’s usually hard to find a place that’s okay,” Oelkers said. “Oftentimes, the waiters or the restaurant don’t actually know what’s gluten free, or the menu is all messed. So I usually just trust myself over them.”

Dietary fads are not a new notion, but going gluten-free is one current fad for people watching their health. In some ways, the popularity of the trend makes it almost easier for people with celiac disease to find food to eat, but it is not always that simple.

“Because it’s such a fad, sometimes it feels like people don’t take it entirely seriously, which I get because I don’t take the people that are in it for the fad seriously myself,” Oelkers said. “But, because of that sometimes you’ll get sarcastic stares, or the ‘oh, okay,’ kind of thing. So I can be kind of tough. Frankly sometimes I’m too embarrassed by it so I don’t really stick up for myself as much as I should.”

Examples such as this show how those going gluten-free without a serious medical reason are lessening the seriousness for those with the disease. However, one pro to the increased popularity of the diet is that companies have begun taking notice. More gluten-free options continue to appear in the majority of places. Grocery stores have adapted health food sections that carry many gluten-free options. Restaurants have even started gluten-free items into their menus, or even items that can specifically be made gluten-free upon request. Not everyone is on board yet, but there are companies that focus on the importance with great seriousness.

P.F. Changs is one example of a company that has embraced the gluten-free necessity. Ashley Erickson, manager of P.F. Changs in Orem explains the process the restaurant takes to ensure that its customers get the best experience, even with serious dietary restrictions.

“We have separate stations for both prepping the food as well as for woking the food that are gluten-free always,” Erickson said. “Basically what that means is that we have to have a person that is only working gluten-free during the shift so that way he can only prep gluten-free things.”

''We have separate stations for both prepping the food as well as for woking the food that are gluten free always.''

Not only does P.F. Changs pay particular attention to the preparation, they also have made it possible to adapt many of their signature dishes into gluten-free dishes upon request.

“We also have separate sauces that are gluten-free that he works on, separate meats and vegetables and things like that because nothing gluten can touch a gluten-free dish. So that way we make sure that it’s one hundred percent gluten-free,” Erickson said.

Erickson goes on to explain that tall the extra work required is the reason gluten-free items are typically more expensive.

Megan Matthews has had celiac disease for almost five years so she has developed a system that helps at knowing where she can and cannot eat out.

“When I have time to scope out a place in advance, I use Urbanspoon or YELP and search for gluten free restaurants,” Matthews said. “The ones that pop up aren’t always super gluten-free friendly, but it narrows down the list a ton.

One of Matthews favorite websites is Gluten Free Registry

She said the website doesn’t look like much, but they have a great iPhone app that helps find gluten-free friendly restaurants nearby. It is especially useful in finding new places to eat when she is traveling or even just a few towns over. “Most of the time it just pulls up chains that cater to us, but they are getting better about expanding to include other more unique places that can as well,” Matthews said.

Like Matthews, many people with celiac disease still want to eat food that has variety.

Jackie Ourman, a professional chef who personally has celiac disease doesn’t let the disease stop her from cooking and eating what she wants. “I started to get more creative in the kitchen,” Ourman said. “Instead of focusing on what we couldn’t eat, I focused on what we could. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and frightened over the impact these issues would have on my children throughout their lives, I felt empowered and responsible to show them how they would be able to live full, happy lives and love food despite their dietary restrictions.”

Ourman dedicates her time to cooking in a way that can enable those with celiac disease to still enjoy each meal, and help inform those without the disease how important of an issue it really is.

The growing gluten-free trend has some obvious positives for people with celiac disease, but overall the need for a more informed public is apparent. Fortunately and unfortunately, as the disease increases so will awareness. For now, humor has become one way that people are learning about celiac disease.

To learn more seriously about celiac disease, look to the Celiac Disease Foundation.

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