Opinion: Gluten-Free Haters Have It All Wrong

Breaking news: Gluten sensitivity and intolerance is real.

I have it. So do hundreds of clients I’ve worked with over the past seven years. To identify and work with this intolerance or sensitivity—unless you have a diagnosis like Celiac disease—requires, well, sensitivity. A more nuanced view of nutrition information and listening to your own body is necessary. Over time, this allows you to become your own best expert.

The result? You won’t be at the mercy of fads.

Perhaps, like many, you no longer hear your body’s subtle pleading (bloating, skin irritation, fatigue) over blaring headlines engineered to garner clicks faster than you can down your 3 p.m. pick-me-up. In other words, there’s the actual subject of gluten sensitivity and then there’s the underlying assumptions that create media buzz.

A recent example: “Gluten Intolerance May Be Completely Fake,” says a Huffington Post headline. (Note the “May Be” there, because most people gloss right over it).

And another: “Doctor Who Started Gluten-Free Fad Says He Got It Wrong,” broadcasts Good Morning America.

And then there’s Jezebel’s headline: “Gluten Sensitivity Is Apparently Bullshit.” Ah, a child discovering the shock value of obscenity.

But why the tone of this headline and others like it? Let’s air some cultural-assumption laundry.

First, gluten-free may be a fad or craze and still have a real effect on how people feel. After all, something being popular doesn’t necessarily discount its value or truth. Yes, there are people who, as Jimmy Kimmel’s viral video spoofs, “Don’t eat gluten because someone in their yoga class told them not to.”

But there are also people who feel awful every time they eat food that contains gluten. And as the viral video also shows, many follow a gluten-free diet without even knowing what it is. (For the record, gluten is the protein found in wheat family products like barley, rye, wheat and spelt).

So what’s going on here? Two things: Some people who follow fads or diets that involve a certain amount of restraint are obnoxious about it. They take every opportunity to lord it over others as if they are morally superior. This smugness comes in many forms.

But others with newly diagnosed food sensitivities are on a learning curve. Having healthy choices (especially while eating out) is not the default environment. This can lead to hypervigilance that stems from a fear that if they don’t express their needs, they will suffer physically later.

And yet, this doesn’t negate the possibility that maybe gluten-free diets have spread so fast because many people actually do feel better when they avoid gluten.

Logically speaking, is it not conceivable that people follow a gluten-free diet because friends recommended it and they feel better because of it?

As Michael Pollan says, “Gluten, I think it’s a bit of a social contagion. I think that the number of people that are genuinely gluten-sensitive cannot be growing as fast as the market niche is growing.” I agree with Pollan’s statement, especially because many people have adopted it strictly as a weight loss diet and not necessarily to heal actual health issues.

However, wheat is processed to have more gluten than in the past. It’s emerging science, not a radical conclusion, to understand why gluten-sensitivity is growing. Increased awareness is necessary.

As Jennifer Fugo, founder of the Philly-based Gluten Free School explains, “The biomarkers for gluten sensitivity and intolerance are still undetermined, which means that there are no clear markers that scientists can actually quantify to make such an assessment as ‘Gluten sensitivity is fake.’” What Fugo is saying is while yes, there are still no real ways to measure gluten sensitivity or intolerance from one lab test, this also means you can’t deny or confirm it.

So, what’s shifted? The new research study that’s been making headlines concluded that gluten sensitivity wasn’t real because a grand total of 37 self-proclaimed gluten sensitive subjects’ “stomach distress” did not improve on a gluten-free diet. The scientists in the study acknowledged that more research would have to be conducted and that there are more questions than answers.

Why the nuance? Because one nutritional study does not equal a conclusion (which is why that “may be” in the HuffPo headline is so important).

One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that gluten sensitivity and intolerance (two different measurements) don’t just affect stomach distress. In many of my clients (and myself) there is a constellation of symptoms ranging from arthritis to acne to migraines that might affect the stomach or not.

As a health coach (yes, we exist), I’m continually forced to confront a more complicated reality with real people who are suffering in real ways. I examine the whole client during a two-hour consult. We discuss their health history and goals. I never just make a blanket recommendation they go gluten-free. We always experiment. They are their own lab studies. What works for one client may not for another.

But some do kick gluten, and the results often feel miraculous, especially when they thought whole wheat was the healthy choice.

That’s the position I found myself in eight years ago, way before gluten was a fad. I had a thick medical chart with a history of asthma, allergies, acne, cancer, depression, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

I had tried every conventional medicine and—with the exception of my cancer treatments—nothing worked long term. As I searched outside the medical system, I found functional medicine and realized my own symptoms were largely autoimmune. With 70 percent of your immune system in your gut, I needed to heal my own, which had been compromised by gluten intolerance and all the antibiotics and steroid medication I was on to calm my other symptoms.

Here’s the thing: I no longer have any of the symptoms. Going gluten-free was a major influence in raising the quality of my life at 35. Best of all, I’m no longer on any medications.

As scientist Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

See for yourself.


Ali Shapiro is a health coach who combined her background in functional medicine, holistic health counseling and Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania to create her Truce with Food® method. A client-described Swiss Army Knife of wellness, Ali helps her clients using the tools of a nutritionist, trainer and psychologist. She is also a 21-year cancer survivor. 

Ali has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Shopping, Huffington Post, Redbook Magazine, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine and was a regular health contributor to the NBC 10! Show.

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  • Athena Mannings

    Finally, some intelligence added to this conversation. Love the mix of media commentary and health information. Great opinion piece.

  • matthew brandley

    Sweet Freedom bakery. Best in Philly!

    • Ali Shapiro

      Have you check out PS & Co? Their desserts are gluten-free with even less sugar!

  • phillysportsfan

    I liked it better when it was called “celiac sprue.” it was more mysterious, somehow.

  • tjt

    this is embarrassing. Look up the placebo effect and understand how double blind clinically experiments work. Besides, it was Gibson’s work that originally was used to justify gluten sensitivity as a scientifically valid concept (with <37 participants in his 2011 study). And he's got a strong replacement hypothesis that would explain why gluten free foods still help people feel better (FODMAP). It could be that going FODMAP free helped you, and that's great. But there's no evidence from anecdote that can compare to an actual clinical study.

    It isn't about biomarkers. It's about what works. And science just provided strong evidence that gluten free works because it also removes FODMAPs from the diet, not because it removes gluten from the diet. Why disagree? Not much on your side of the process–the diet planning and tweaking–has to change. In fact, it may provide evidence that there's even better dieting options available because we can now target a different, more accurate, cause of the problems you're fighting.

    • There are clinical studies that have been done to suggest gluten sensitivity is actually more prevalent than celiac disease. I went gluten free 12 years ago because I was dropping weight without trying and my hair was falling out. I had been sick since birth and everyone told me I was just making it up.

      If it wasn’t for a naturopath and an elimination diet, I would still be sick and probably much worse. I had no idea what he was looking for. I just told him I stopped feeling sick for the first time in my life while I was on the diet. When I re-introduced wheat, I got sick again. In this scenario, the placebo effect theory goes right out the window.

      Little was known about gluten sensitivity in 2002. Nobody knew what I was talking about back then. Not everyone who gets on this diet is doing it because it’s “in” now. I know some do, but I suspect the majority are genuinely sick from it.

      Here is a link to some studies if anyone wants to take a look at it: http://www.askdrmaxwell.com/2014/06/gluten-intolerance-is-real/

      • tjt

        evidence from anecdote again (and it doesn’t disprove the placebo argument, nor the FODMAP argument that the re-introduction of wheat affected you). I’m glad you feel better, but scientifically, your story doesn’t prove a thing and that askdrmaxwell link is unconvincing–now gluten is behind schizophrenia too? that’s just dangerous and it’s not really good evidence if you look at the actual study. Let alone the other scientific articles that conclude that NGCS “may exist” but do not speak so definitely.

  • Ali Shapiro

    TJT: You bring up some interesting points and not a final word. Evidence isn’t just what is present. It’s also what isn’t there, like knowing how to measure gluten sensitivity beyond stomach distress. Gibson himself acknowledged more research is needed. And he isn’t the only scientist seeing the affects of gluten sensitivity or intolerance.

    FODMAPS are certainly part of the equation and gluten sensitivity can still exist.

    I think we can both agree that science by definition is a continuous quest for knowledge. One study is never the final word.

    And for those of us who don’t have the health privilege to wait for the final word, we have to do the best with what is working for us now. The body has a wisdom we should value equal to that of science.

  • jh

    celiac sprue is a medical disease; gluten intolerance is not. It’s akin to saying I’m allergic to broccoli because it gives me gas.

  • mfs

    I do know for years how tired and weary I felt, among other maladies, after a diet of toast for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch. Wish I had known about gluten intolerance then. Feeling so great now that I know to “follow my gut”!

    • Ali Shapiro

      Love your use of metaphor MFS. We all need to learn to trust ourselves more. Doctors and researchers are great and they don’t live with our bodies 365 days a year like we do. It’s important to take a co-piloting lens with our health care providers for the best outcomes.

  • cwiz

    Why would someone be so opposed to a gluten free diet? Because it’s hard to change even if we know it’s probably the best thing to do! It’s easier to say, “Oh, that won’t work!” There are just too many people who have been helped by a gluten free diet to dismiss it.

    • Ali Shapiro

      Exactly Cwiz! We all have blindspots and often we dismiss information just because it contradicts with our bigger understanding of things like…science can solve or explain everything. It can’t! Life is vastly too mysterious to have everything figured out…including something as micro as gluten! Underneath all of this food shaming and obsession is a need for everyone to learn to deal with uncertainty more, which includes the possibility that you might need to be gluten-free. And you might not!

  • THIS: “One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that gluten sensitivity and intolerance (two different measurements) don’t just
    affect stomach distress. In many of my clients (and myself) there is a
    constellation of symptoms ranging from arthritis to acne to migraines
    that might affect the stomach or not.” IME, it’s a full-body/full-mind thing. Thanks for your post.

    • Ali Shapiro

      Claire – mind and body are certainly connected. I actually think this might be the most interesting thing to the entire study (although why they used whey protein which is also highly allergenic is also interesting!). If we are to get technical, the mind cannot be located. It’s actually a projection of the body and brain together. Neuroscientists, at least those who believe in this connection, are proving this. Dr. Antonio D’Amasio’s book “Descartes Error” is a great read on this!

  • Dragon

    Thanx for putting a common-sense perspective into the mix. We ‘gluten-sensitives’ appreciate it.

    • Ali Shapiro

      Thank you Dragon! Good to know I’m not alone. I’ve been so thankful for the support.

  • justaguy2001

    Anyone with common sense knows that gluten free is a fad and complete hoax!! I had an old bag of chips I found in my pantry from 2 years ago, before the gluten and go scare. (It was on of those snack bags and it got stuck between a shelf and the wall… no I don’t keep food that long, anyway) and just for giggles I checked the ingredients against a bag of new ones of the same brand that had “gluten free” written all over it. There was nothing different. Not a fat percentage not a carb, nothing! So, next time I went to the store, I started looking around. Everything has a ” gluten free” version, and most are 20-30% more expensive. So, I checked on the bag, on line, everywhere! Not a single item was different in any way. It’s the same with ” organic” transfats”, all that crap is designed to make you pay more money for smaller quantities of food. Get over it, it’s a money making scheme!!!

    • Ali Shapiro

      There is a lot of money in gluten-free foods. But you don’t have to purchase them. In fact, a gluten-free diet at its core is whole, real foods. The best foods are the ones without any labels, with those majority being naturally gluten-free!

  • Tia

    I said something to a gastro doc about my constant bloating and problems. He did a blood test and came back saying “negative” I am guessing for celiac. And he dropped it. I later found the book Wheat Belly and quit eating things with wheat and there has been such a difference in so many areas! Too many just listen to docs and suffer…

    • Ali Shapiro

      Tia – I’m so glad you took your health into your own hands. Most doctors aren’t trained in nutrition. It’s important we view them as co-pilots not the only ones responsible for our health. Most of all, I’m so glad you are feeling better! The results get cumulative too 8-) Keep up the great work.

  • chucklin72

    I’m positive the emperor’s new clothes are spectacular. I’ve seen it myself.