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 firstname.lastname@example.org.