"A third of American adults say that they are trying to eliminate [gluten] from their diets," reports The New Yorker, in a long feature about our culture's weirdening relationship with this common protein composite. This is insane. Americans are insane.
Gluten, for the unaware, is found in grass-related grains like wheat, barley, and rye. When you knead dough made from a flour of one of those grains (usually wheat), gluten strands form and lengthen and link together, giving the dough elasticity; the more you knead, the stretchier the dough becomes. The development of long, stretchy, interwoven gluten is what enables, for example, pasta dough to be rolled flat and extremely thin without tearing. It's what gives bread and pizza crust their wonderful chewiness. This property of gluten makes it one of the cornerstones of cooking, pretty much all around the world.
Gluten also happens to be a staple nutrient of humankind; in all the thousands upon thousands of years since the advent of agriculture, it has been one of the primary protein sources in the human diet. It's cheap and abundant—and, crucially, it's completely harmless to the 99 percent of human beings who do not suffer from a congenital autoimmune disorder called celiac disease.
As you probably can deduce, that one-percent figure (celiac disease sufferers) doesn't quite match up with the 33-percent figure (Americans who say they're trying to eliminate gluten from their diets). This is the bizarre phenomenon Michael Specter interrogates in the New Yorker piece; what he finds is a soup of pseudoscience, conjecture, diet-fad stupidity, and the regular kind of stupidity.
"Gluten sensitivity"—a bullshit pseudoscientific term driving much of the gluten-free nonsense in our culture today—is largely self-(mis)diagnosed, by people who (conveniently) mistake the shitty feelings and physiological unwellness caused by a more broadly unhealthful lifestyle for a medical condition caused by wheat gluten. Most of the remaining "gluten sensitivity" diagnoses are made by unqualified quacks, as described in the piece by Peter H. R. Green, of Columbia University's celiac-disease center:
"I recently saw a retired executive of an international company. He got a life coach to help him, and one of the pieces of advice the coach gave him was to get on a gluten-free diet. A life coach is prescribing a gluten-free diet. So do podiatrists, chiropractors, even psychiatrists.'' He stopped, stood up, shook his head as if he were about to say something he shouldn't, then shrugged and sat down again. "A friend of mine told me his wife was seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety and depression. And one of the first things the psychiatrist did was to put her on a gluten-free diet. This is getting out of hand. We are seeing more and more cases of orthorexia nervosa"—people who progressively withdraw different foods in what they perceive as an attempt to improve their health. "First, they come off gluten. Then corn. Then soy. Then tomatoes. Then milk. After a while, they don't have anything left to eat—and they proselytize about it. Worse is what parents are doing to their children. It's cruel and unusual treatment to put a child on a gluten-free diet without its being indicated medically. Parental perception of a child's feeling better on a gluten-free diet is even weaker than self-perception."
When they're not just flat-out imaginary, the health benefits non-celiac "gluten sensitives" may get from switching to a gluten-free diet likely are incidental to the diet's lack of gluten: after all, a gluten-free diet often will contain fewer calories, fewer refined carbohydrates, and less alcohol (since beer contains gluten) than a normal one. Cutting back on refined carbohydrates, booze, and calories is smart; subsequently attributing your improved health to the elimination of wheat gluten from your diet is dumb. If adopting a no-throwing-yourself-off-of-tall-precipices lifestyle improves your health, it's because colliding with the earth at a high velocity is bad for you—not because you have a congenital sensitivity to wind.
(Not for nothing, given the considerable overlap between the gluten-free crowd and the anti-vax crowd, but: "Gluten sensitivity is the reason I felt better after I eliminated refined carbohydrates, beer, and excess calories from my diet" forms kind of a neat logical harmony to "I withheld preventative medicine from my child and he didn't develop autism, therefore it was the right choice." We Americans are not the smartest.)
Furthermore, gluten-free versions of popular foods often are worse for you—and more demonstrably worse—than the gluten-rich foods they imitate, since they replace gluten-rich wheat flour with ever more highly refined carbohydrates (potato starch, rice starch, tapioca starch, etc.) that throw your blood-sugar all out of whack. This dynamic is similar to what happened to yogurt during the dumb reactionary anti-fat craze of the '80s and '90s: Manufacturers removed fat from yogurt and replaced it with sugar and weirdo space chemicals, resulting in nominally health-minded products that, in actual fact, weren't so different from lancing your pancreas with a harpoon.
"Gluten-free" has become a kind of health-mindfulness merit badge, an artifact of our Puritanical conflation of self-deprivation and virtue—like how "anti-vax" is used to indicate a variety of take-no-prisoners parental vigilance, or "natural birth" is used to indicate empowered, anti-establishment toughness, or "gamer" is used to indicate virginity and loneliness. It is identity politics in the bread aisle—with a class-distinction edge, since gluten-free shit costs much more than the regular stuff and generally can only be found in the more exclusive parts of town. "Gluten-free" is a signifier—I have the time and money and grim determination to purchase my wellness—and, concomitantly, Therefore, I deserve it.
This is why attempts at educating the public about the harmlessness of gluten (for all but those with real-deal celiac disease) so far haven't done much to slow the spread of anti-gluten stupidity: Whether or not the physiological benefits of a gluten-free diet are imaginary or incidental, the optical benefits, for now anyway, are real.
In conclusion: Unless an actual doctor has diagnosed you with celiac disease, gluten almost certainly is doing you no harm whatsoever. If you should happen to be encountering it in foods that make you feel bad, that's probably because those foods have lots of other bad shit in them, like refined carbohydrates and space chemicals and nacho cheese. If you remove those foods from your diet, your health will improve; whether you continue eating gluten likely will not make a difference.
If you want to free your diet of something harmful, free it of stupidity.
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