Why gluten-free wins so many converts


During my sophomore year, I would eat a chocolate cupcake for dinner on Mondays. Those were the days I got free gluten-free baked goods (thanks, workplace). Something you should know about me: I’m not the carpe diem type. I’m so uptight that I cut out my morning glass of orange juice for fear it was causing an insulin spike. But I was comforted—so very comforted—by the gluten-free sticker on that box of cupcakes. I felt good about my choices.

Ever since high school, when my dad and I read Wheat Belly, the best-selling book by cardiologist William Davis, I had associated gluten with indigestion (at best) and heart attacks (at worst). The gluten-is-poison message prompted my dad to go on a Paleo diet of meats, vegetables, and limited amounts of dairy. I joined him for a time. But I figured I would still be treating my body like a temple if I started buying the brown-rice-flour versions of all my favorite things. I can’t tell you how many times I found myself in conversations with strangers about our “gluten sensitivity.” During my freshman year at King’s, I figured out who had the gluten allergies, and I told them I knew a cake recipe without flour OR eggs.

Just last May, when Jimmy Kimmel’s camera crew asked the pedestrians of L.A. to define gluten, many couldn’t get into specifics beyond “gluten’s in bread” (some launched into descriptions that can only be described as fiction). The answer, in fairness, comes straight out of a chemistry book: gluten is the protein composite made by glutenin and gliadin. This protein composite is what 30 percent of Americans are currently trying to cut out of their diets. Compare that number to the one percent of Americans who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune digestive disorder that causes life-threateningly bad reactions to gluten. The other 29 percent of Americans coined the diagnosis “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”

The diagnosis became popular after a 2011 study that quite surprised the medical community. A professor of gastroenterology at Monash University, Peter Gibson, monitored 34 people while they ate muffins and bread, and his findings seemed to link gluten with irritable bowel syndrome. Gibson shared his research with a word of caution: his sample size was too small to make any authoritative claims about whether “gluten sensitivity” existed.

But an authoritative lifestyle emerged. “Nevertheless, millions of people with vague symptoms of gastric distress suddenly found something concrete for which to blame their troubles,” Michael Specter wrote in his article, “Against the Grain” in last week’s edition of The New Yorker, tracking the rise of the gluten-free trend. Since 2011, the fear that our bodies are not equipped to digest gluten “has become so pronounced” that “sales of gluten-free products will exceed fifteen billion dollars by 2016.”

What hasn't made it into the spotlight is Gibson’s follow-up study, which directly contradicted his first study. This time, he studied a larger group of people, and was forced to conclude that a different component in bread—what scientists call FODMAPS for short—was the culprit for symptoms like abdominal pain and bloating. But America seems so sure. Haven’t there been other studies? Only a few, and “most of the data is unclear or preliminary,” Specter found. “Doctors rarely diagnose non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and many don’t believe that it exists. Few people seem to have been deterred by the lack of evidence,” he continued, in a seven-page piece that read as a plea to America to stop manufacturing unnecessary anxiety.

Why does it feel so good to go gluten-free, like an actual lifestyle change? In his best-selling book Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks offers a fascinating answer: that in this century, health codes are functioning the way moral codes used to function. In other words, being healthy is the new being good. “For many people, avoiding gluten has become a cultural as well as a dietary choice, and [offers] an entry ramp to a new kind of life,” Specter suggested.

An entry ramp to a new kind of life. That’s such a powerful promise; that’s why people move to new cities and decide to attend to The King’s College. Here’s my theory: going gluten-free “clears up indigestion” and “improves sleep quality”—and felt so right to me—at least in part because self-control is one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself. Self-control has always been associated with a clear conscience, and in this case, you get to visualize a clean body and mind, too. And at that point, you’re floating on air, even if the gluten-free chocolate cupcake you just ate is, in fact, fairly terrible for you.