Your gluten-free ‘fad diet’ is putting my health at risk

A gluten-free diet is not the latest health craze.

A few months ago, my husband and I had a rare couple of hours alone together, so we decided it was the perfect time to try a new restaurant. There was a particular spot we had our eyes on, but the timing never lined up, until now. It was nothing too fancy, but we were happy with any place that offered good food, a quiet ambiance and the chance to eat our meals without our children interrupting.

The waiter came and took our drink order and we asked for a few more moments to look over the menu. I had to be careful when eating at a restaurant — making sure I asked all the right questions to ensure the food I would be eating would be safe. I settled on a safe bet — a salad.

“I need to eat a strict gluten-free meal — can you tell me if this salad comes with croutons? And if I can get it with no dressing?” I asked the waiter after he took my husband’s order. The waiter told me that the salad does come with the crunchy topping, but it can be made without, so I ordered that and sipped on my cold ginger ale while I waited.

After the food came, I picked up some crisp leaves of the salad with my fork when I spotted something — was that a crouton?

I called the waiter over reluctantly and asked if this was made without croutons like I had requested. “Well, I just picked them out for you so it would be gluten-free like you asked,” the waiter replied and I figuratively felt my jaw hit the floor.

Eating gluten-free is not a choice for me and according to the latest statistics it isn’t a choice for the estimated three million people in the United States who, like me, have celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disorder that damages the small intestines and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food — and the only treatment is eating a strict gluten-free diet. Symptoms can be debilitating and range from digestive upset to the development of other autoimmune disorders, infertility and can even increase your risk of developing certain cancers.

Celiac disease is no joke and yet it’s wildly misunderstood, which I believe is in part due to the widespread idea that eating gluten-free is the latest quick bet for anyone who is trying to lose inches and pounds. I’ve heard people equate the gluten-free diet to a lifestyle preference like eating low-carb or choosing to eat fat-free foods — diets that you can cheat on once in a while, or just pick the offending food out of your meal and enjoy. But it’s not that simple for me.

The gluten-free food market, according to a poll conducted by Packaged Facts in 2012, has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching 4.2 billion in 2012, an increase of 28 percent in just four years. While at face value that may seem like a great thing for those of us who medically need the gluten-free diet (yeah, more options!), it is not that cut and dry.

Why? Because the same study that looked at how much the gluten-free market is booming also mentioned the top motivation for consumers to eat gluten-free is, “the conviction that gluten-free products are generally healthier.” That information paired with a poll conducted by the market research company the NPD Group — that found 30 percent of adults said they wanted to “cut down” on gluten — is the right equation for a new diet fad. But…

  • Bread is still calorie-heavy, whether whole-grain or gluten-free.
  • Cookies still have too much sugar and processing going into them to ever be considered healthier, gluten-riddled or gluten-free.
  • Gluten-free pizza is still high in fat, sugar and salt — and no healthier than your friend’s “normal” pizza.

While I generally don’t care what other people do with their lives and the food they choose to eat on a daily basis, those that eat a gluten-free diet because it’s the latest trendy diet or lifestyle choice, are in some part to blame for my waiter’s notion that he could simply serve me that crouton-picked salad and think that was good enough.

If no one is talking about celiac disease or the multitude of other medical reasons people use the gluten-free diet, and if all we ever hear is how it is just a tool to lose weight, my health — and three million other people — will continue to be at risk every time we ask a waiter for a salad with no croutons.

More on gluten free

Celiac disease: What you need to know
Gluten-free camping: Keeping safe and having fun
Gluten-free doesn’t always mean gluten-free