Dorris ’15: Are you gluten-intolerant or just intolerable?

Opinions Columnist

For years, Steve Jobs ate nothing but fruit — apples, pears, polychrome smoothies blended with precision. To the amateur hypochondriac, it sounds like a classic case of OCD. To the average Brown student, it is a lifestyle choice called fruitarianism.

Jobs later died of pancreatic cancer. Some swear the two are linked.

Though one would have to stalk a few farmers’ markets to find die-hard fruitarianism at Brown, College Hill bears a cornucopia of other dietary restrictions — raw foodism, paleo, organic. The most common is known as “gluten-free.” Check any popular cafe on Thayer Street and you are bound to find a gluten-free menu.

In sufferers of celiac disease, the immune system treats gluten, a protein complex found in most grains, as if it were a pathogen. The subsequent inflammation damages the intestinal lining, leading to malabsorption of vital nutrients. Without a gluten-free diet, sufferers may experience abdominal discomfort, rashes or even increased risk of intestinal cancer. According to a study by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, only 1 percent of the world’s population actually has the disease.

On the other hand, some self-proclaimed sufferers of “gluten intolerance” experience the same symptoms as celiac sufferers but lack the presence of transglutaminase autoantibodies that cause autoimmune diseases. The problem is that there is not a single blood test for gluten intolerance, so diagnoses rely on patients’ feelings.

Lately it seems like the majority of people swinging around their quinoa cookies are not diagnosed with anything — unless it has a DSM-IV code.

Some believe humans are not meant to consume gluten. After all, at the beginning of time — when we were blanketed in hair and only lived until 35 — we did not consume the protein. However, a significant reason people abstain is to lose weight. Others claim its absence leads to clearer skin, more energy and stronger sex drive. With a gluten- and lactose-free diet, even Miley Cyrus has seemed to work — or rather, twerk — off dozens of unwanted pounds.

Yet according to the American Journal of Gastroenterology, 80 percent of those on gluten-free diets have no diagnosable condition, and many dieticians believe the diets are only useful for people with celiac disease. “For everyone else, going gluten-free is at best a fashion statement, and at worst an unnecessary dietary restriction that results in folly,” said David Katz, the director of Yale Prevention Research Center, in an article for the Huffington Post.

And as celiac researchers Antonio Di Sabatino and Gino Roberto Corazza of the University of Pavia told Time Magazine, claims of gluten sensitivity “seem to increase daily, with no adequate scientific support to back them up.”

But after watching Cyrus’ skeletal performance at the Video Music Awards, commenters on pro-anorexia websites were literally emoticon-ing with joy — “I am gluten-free too! It really works.”

None of this is surprising. For years Americans have sworn by fad diets with promises of weight loss and pre-packaged happiness. But this phrase sticks out in my mind: “I am gluten-free.” As in the verb, “to be.” I cannot think of any other diet that defines who you are. Would anyone ever say, “I am South Beach?”

Pretend we are at a dinner party. The person who claims to be South Beach would seem petty if he expected the host to change the menu. But this is 2013. If a guest claims to be gluten-free, suddenly the host is responsible for accommodation.

We have entered the age of pick-and-choose, self-imposed dietary restrictions. Paleo diet is mostly meat. Fruitarianism is only fruit. Raw food is anything heated less than 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Locavorism is food grown within 100 miles of purchase or consumption. For every scientist who disputes these, there is one who endorses them. Yet, as I have learned the definitions of some of these “lifestyles,” it leaves me to wonder: Why do we love the constraints?

People have begun to realize the potency of these “conditions” to quickly shed weight, while still hiding behind the ethical, moral and medical excuses they provide. In a consumer culture with just too many brands of bread, anything that makes choosing food harder actually makes everything easier.

In other words, these dietary restrictions are so familiar to us because they are glamorized versions of their older cousins — diets. Designer diets. It is more than food. It is about having control over one’s life. It is a way to completely obsess over food while simultaneously depriving oneself of it. Eating disorder sufferers have done this for years.

Of course conditions like gluten-free can be based on ethical, religious or medical choices. But we cannot ignore the possibility that some of these self-inflicted restrictions are not so different from commercial diets. The only thing that separates them is that diets are supposed to end. Instead, these are lifestyles. These are status symbols. And people use them to carve identities for themselves.

So if you are not good at sports or yoga or naked Production Workshop performances, then at least you can be gluten-free. And you even get your own dating website: GlutenFreeSingles.Com.

Doctor Atkins could never offer that.


Cara Dorris ’15 believes gluten intolerance stems from gluten ignorance. She can be reached at


  1. this is so good

  2. Some of these constraints are about perceived health benefits (which do exist, at least for some of the population). Others are about environmental, religious, moral, or personal reasons, as you have identified.

    People who choose to follow those diets don’t see them as “constraints;” they see the food they do choose to eat as fitting into their world view. They’re probably letting you eat what you want to eat; you should do the same.

    As a vegan with food allergies, I can’t begin to tell you how much crap I received all the way through Brown (of all places) for my dietary choices (and those that were not my choice). I received “dietary advice” from people who had no idea what they were talking about. Please don’t go that route.

  3. I just ate a bagel says:

    I love this. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who go gluten-free for no reason other than “(insert celebrity) swears by it and looks fabulous!”

  4. Wow. This was actually a really intelligent article.

  5. Just like the rise of “autism” – a strong hand and discipline in the home is what’s needed! Great article Cara!

  6. convincing yourself you have a gluten intolerance because otherwise your perfect life is almost too perfect.. well that’s another issue

  7. “Gluten intolerance stems from gluten ignorance” – lol

  8. As an individual with sever gluten intollerance I have an issue with some of the comments. I have the celiacs gene, but I was never diagnosed with celiacs. When i went to my dr after my cousin was diagnosed I was told there was no chance I had it because 1) the % of both of us having the gene was small
    2) I was over weight, and over weight people cannot have celiacs
    She kept diagnosing each symptom as a new issue and giving me a new pill. Before I went gluten free I was on 6 + medications and here are some of the symptoms
    1) Severe almost daily migraines, even after taking 225 MG topomax daily
    2) sever clinical depression
    3) social anxiety
    4) crippling IBS (I believe all IBS is an undiagnosed food intollerance)
    5) Memory loss (blamed on the topamax)
    6) fatigue
    All of these cleared up after going gluten free except the memory loss, which was b12 defiency caused by the malabsorption of nutrients for 15 years.
    I take no medicine except for Maxalt for the occasional hormonal migraine.
    However, I do get irritated at people who insist on eating gluten free and then have a roll.
    When I ingest the smallest amount (if someone were to dip a gluten cracker into dip) I have stomach pains, migraines, chronic depression, anxiety for a good week.
    So please do not be so easy to dismiss

  9. Just because you are not diagnosed celiac, does not mean that gluten intolerance does not exist–but in fact has been medically proven. Gluten intolerance is not a “feeling” but real, physical thing, and those suffering can exhibit symptoms similar to celiac and can even cause intestinal damage. It’s insulting to A) not be recognized as legitimate and B) be grouped together with fad dieters. We don’t just haphazardly label ourselves for the fun of it but have been suffering, have been tested for celiac, wheat allergies, and conducted elimination diets. And then have come to the conclusion that we are gluten intolerant. Some of us (a lot of us) have other DIAGNOSED autoimmune conditions that trigger gluten intolerances. And let’s not pretend that the overly processed foods we, our parents, and grandparents have been consuming has not altered the way in which our bodies digest foods like wheat products. Let’s just ignore it all, give in, and call it a fad and pretend some of us aren’t getting sick from ingesting what is basically poison to our bodies. For an informed perspective:

  10. don’t compare the gluten-free fad to EDs.

    also, does it really matter to you? people engage in follies all the time — at least this doesn’t affect you.

  11. I’ve had significant digestive issues that have cleared up by going gluten free. You don’t know my experience, or any of the other folks who’ve decided to go gluten free for a variety of reasons. This article is presumptuous, dismissive and rude.

  12. this is funny!! but i think it’s import to separate the people who are super pretentious/preachy/insincere about their dietary choices from the people who *do* choose their diets for less noble reasons, but cop to it. the former group is fair game to make fun of, but the latter is just… you know… people doin’ their thang.

  13. Accidental Vegan, Sometimes. says:

    I think this is more about how people believe the world ought to bend to their will as demonstrated in the dinner party example, and less about how people eat. This egocentric narcissism you have alluded to time and again in many of your pieces and its where your arguments resonate.

  14. I don’t really see the problem. Years we have followed the wrong fat free diets that were supposedly based in science and have gotten sicker and fatter. If people feel better or just convince themselves they feel better without gluten, let them. It’s not like wheat, especially the way it is eaten in Western societies today, adds much if anything in terms of nutrients to a diet. Plus it seems to lead to more options and better restaurants access for real celiacs, which has no downside from where I am standing.

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