When I started out as a new vegan some years ago, I sometimes would get questions about whether or not I also eat “gluten-free” foods. I knew less than a handful of people with Celiac disease who cannot eat gluten, and they ate a standard American diet as closely as they could without wheat—in other words, they were far from being vegan. Seeing that there are no ethical reasons to avoid wheat (that I know of), I found it peculiar that a plant-based diet would be conflated with eschewing gluten, but thought nothing of it (people also ask if I eat fish, chicken, or pork because of carnists who think “vegan” means someone who eats other animals except cows).

But soon I started seeing gluten-free bagels and toast in the same freezer section as vegan meals, gluten-free baked goods at the farmer’s market, and even “gluten-free” options were popping up on vegan menus. Celiac disease isn’t that common (about 1% of the population), so I knew something was up.

My brother gave me his take on the gluten-free explosion: “gluten” sounds a lot like “glutton” and as soon as a health fanatic heard about their best friend’s second cousin’s sister-in-law who had been sick, was diagnosed with celiac disease, and now eats gluten-free, they decided to also eat gluten-free because it must be healthier and good for losing weight—who wants to be a glutton, right? That sounds clever and I wouldn’t doubt many people stopped eating wheat for this reason, but I knew there had to be more than that.

It turns out that people have been diagnosing themselves as “gluten sensitive” and opting for gluten-free foods based on what seems to be celebrity endorsements, misinformation, and popular opinion. One fitness blog says the trend is in part “thanks to a perfect storm of mainstream anti-carbohydrate and anti-wheat propaganda and adoration of the Paleo diet.” Not surprisingly, some people who avoid gluten do not even know what it is.

Plenty have weighed in or otherwise lamented this food trend, going so far as to use ableist language in calling it a “craze“. To illustrate the magnitude of this fad, a French blogger created the Gluten Free Museum where classic scenes in paintings, photographs, and entertainment have had gluten-rich foods removed.

NPR had a nice piece on the faddism, the science (or lack thereof), and the effects of gluten-free on people’s health. As the article explained, “gastroenterologists who are trying to untangle the issue are coming to believe that only a very small number of nonceliac people are genuinely experiencing gluten sensitivity. As gastroenterologist Joseph Murray, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic who studies celiac disease, told The New Yorker, “Everyone is trying to figure out what is going on, but nobody in medicine, at least not in my field, thinks this adds up to anything like the number of people who say they feel better when they take gluten out of their diet.”

I’m definitely happy that people who cannot eat gluten now have so many food options even if its for the “wrong” reasons, much as I am glad that the vegan foods market expanded because of dieters. But I find it still strange that such a widespread food reaction has been spawned by a health concern that most likely doesn’t exist. That’s not nearly as problematic as the backlash that people who need actually gluten-free foods won’t be taken seriously because of the association as a fad diet.

Funny enough, I had considered cutting out wheat from my diet because I thought I might have been sensitive to wheat. While I don’t think I have a problem with gluten, I have noticed that I get phlegm after eating baked goods (especially cakes), almost like I used to when I ate dairy. I haven’t figured out the culprit yet and I gave up systematically eliminating one type of food at a time to gauge my reaction or lack thereof to foods a while back. I don’t eat all that often to be too bothered by it.

What about you, dear readers? Have you started a gluten-free diet or other popular health diet? If so, what inspired you and how long have you maintained it?

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