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.