Do you eat gluten free? I do, and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me when people like Miley or Gwyneth advocate for a gluten-free diet as a way to drop a few pounds. I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that I cringe every time I come across an article mocking a diet that’s had massive, wonderful repercussions for my health and the health of many other gluten-sensitive and celiac suffers.
I wish I could just ignore these things, but it’s exactly this kind of bad publicity that’s made me realize something: Somewhere, somehow, our diet—the gluten-free diet—has become one big, fat joke.
Whether it’s Pat Sajak thinking he’s cute by reassuring everyone that Wheel of Fortune is gluten free or bottled water companies jumping on the GF bandwagon by marking their products with a gluten-free label (it’s water, people!), everyone can plainly see that gluten-free diets is a funny joke. Problem is, I’m not laughing.
Where the transition occurred—from helping people go gluten-free to mocking the entire lifestyle—isn’t entirely clear. Although there is a well-meaning web presence intended to inform those who need guidance about how to go gluten-free, it’s now pretty commonplace to read and hear words that preach, warn, caution, denounce and even ridicule a diet that’s main intention is to help those who are sick get better by avoiding gluten.
Though I’d love to point fingers at celebrities (most of whom really haven’t helped the cause at all) or writers looking to get more hits on their articles, I think a large portion of the blame falls on us in the gluten-free world. After all, we’re the ones who first bought in to the idea that gluten-free ANYTHING (doughnuts, pastries, pasta, pizza, cookies, brownies, etc.) is healthy, and we’ve allowed large food companies to call the shots. I know it’s great to indulge from time to time, but companies who want to be on the forefront of gluten-free and celiac education are working their marketing teams to the bone to make sure that you’re hooked to their treats and buying them on a regular basis. Ask yourself: What’s so healthy about that?
Since so many people are trying out a gluten-free diet whether they medically need it or not, everyone wants a slice of the gluten-free food-product pie. It makes smart business sense, since this niche market is expected to gross around $3.4 billion in 2015. Companies are literally tripping over themselves to make a splash in this sector because they figure it’s a sure thing. Growth is steady while the price for consumers for gluten-free products can be as much as two times higher than the “normal” versions on shelves.
Thing is, the gluten-free versions aren’t any healthier for you. Let’s bust that myth right now: Since they’re made from high-glycemic flours and starches (like rice, corn, tapioca and potato) and are loaded with added sugar, gluten-free products are total sugar bombs. Tasty? Sure. Great for the companies’ bottom lines? Yep. Good for you? No. Regardless of what “healthy” labels companies put on their products, I’d wager that most of what’s out there doesn’t make the cut because of the flours, starches, sugar and gut-irritating fats used to produce them.
And remember this: No matter how many gluten-free magazines and bloggers rave about a new gluten-free product that they were sent by a food company, it doesn’t make it healthy. Many bloggers are paid by food companies to write about their products or are handed lots of free swag to entice them to do so. It’s “nearly free” advertising that has a serious shelf life because the write-up will stay online indefinitely, just waiting for Google to find it.
All of this leaves me wondering: Who the heck is really looking out for us? Trusted voices of the gluten-free world are often paid by companies to promote their products. Meanwhile, the consumer is left clueless, waiting to be told which is the next best gluten-free cake or cookie mix to buy. All this comes with a price much greater than the sticker at the grocery store and has led to the unraveling of public support, which seems to be more willing to accept that food like brownies are still bad for you, gluten-free or not.
So the next time you wonder why the jokes are rampant about living and eating gluten-free, consider how so little time and space is given to discussions about health, especially when the point of going gluten-free was to save your own. As a community, we’ve bought into the idea that a gluten-free label is healthy and too many times would rather stay in the dark about what we’re actually eating, even though it could set us up for issues like diabetes and a laundry list of other conditions.
The only way out of this predicament is to truly care about your health and make it a priority. Educate yourself, learn to cook real, naturally gluten-free food, and realize that food companies are there to sell you something, not educate you. That’s exactly where this business of jokes about gluten-free diets got started: when we let food companies control the conversation so that their profits expand as we all get sicker.
Jennifer Fugo is the founder of Gluten Free School, a website dedicated to teaching gluten-sensitive individuals commonsense, simple and powerful steps to get healthy. She’s a certified health coach named a “Gluten Free Guru” by Philadelphia magazine, who co-hosts the popular “Gluten-Free Sugar Cleanse” that teaches gluten-free folks how to kick their sugar addiction, regain control of their diet and feel awesome again. Jennifer is sought after speaker and expert for news contributions who has been featured on Yahoo! News, eHow, CNN and Philadelphia Magazine. Join her communities on Facebook and Twitter!