Gluten For Punishment

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Words || Isabelle Messenger

It was 2012 when things really started looking bad for gluten.

Miley Cyrus trashes it as ‘crap’ via Twitter, while Lady Gaga bids it farewell in an attempt to lose weight. It’s not long before Gwyneth Paltrow agrees public enemy number one should be taken down and releases her It’s All Good cookbook, confirming her whole household, including little Apple and Moses, are now safe from the poison. Katy Perry, Russell Crowe, Kourtney Kardashian and Bill Clinton have all since joined the club. Even Novak Djokovic is claiming he owes his success on the court to a gluten-free diet. As recently as October last year, gluten made the headlines with claims of the development of a pill in Melbourne that can combat the effects of gluten sensitivity. And the sensation of Ryan Gosling gluten free memes have left us in no doubt the anti-gluten fire is still burning:

But what’s the real deal with this fad? And is it more than just that, a fad?

Let me pause to quickly clarify that Celiac Disease is a very real thing. It’s an autoimmune disorder that affects 1% of the population. If gluten is ingested, it can cause serious damage to the small intestine.

But gluten intolerance is the heart of this world-wide phenomenon, along with the claims that not eating gluten is ‘better’ for the average person. One in ten Australians claim they have some intolerance to gluten – 1.8 million people. I consider myself one of that number. Since about Year 3, I’ve suffered from debilitating cramps – curling up on cold bathroom tiles and snuggling with heat packs. Out with friends, I’ll sometimes spend hours putting on a brave face all the while feeling the knot in my stomach getting tighter and tighter; until I can finally crawl into my car and lie down on the back seat. Yet of the countless blood tests I’ve had, every single test has come back negative for Celiac. Doctors have scratched their heads and ummed and ahhed until finally coming to the conclusion – probably don’t eat bread.

Gone were the days I could go out to dinner and boast eating a whole pizza by myself, nibbling on fairy bread at parties and enjoying a warm bowl of spag bol after a long day. That’s not to say I still don’t do some of those things. I’ve always rebelled against the thought that my gut could make me different to everyone else and deprive me of those glutenous and oh-so-good experiences, so I enjoy my gluten in moderation. But the fact is I still don’t know if gluten is the real enemy, as do a lot of people. The thing about gluten intolerance is there’s no specific test for it. Methods to determine if you’re gluten sensitive are really just a matter of excluding other ailments and removing and reintroducing gluten to see if it’s problematic. And symptoms vary from person to person. Stomach pain, bloating, fatigue, headaches, skin inflammation and depression to name a few.

What causes these reactions? Again, we don’t know. Some evidence suggests the condition is related to genetics and the immune system, but it’s a very murky area. What most medical practitioners and experts will tell you though, beyond a doubt, is that it exists. It’s not a coincidence people find their stomach pain and fatigue disappears when they remove gluten from their diet.

However, I really don’t think gluten is the villain it’s made out in the media. Yes, there are health perks to trends like the Paleo diet, but there’s no solid scientific evidence that gluten is harmful to the average person. If Lady Gaga finds she loses weight by cutting out gluten from her diet, it’s probably also because things like doughnuts, pizza and copious amounts of pasta don’t do great things for weight loss. If it works for you, by all means, jump on the bandwagon. I have to admit it’s a bit of a bumpy ride when you start craving pancakes, but that doesn’t mean in the end you won’t be better for it. Just a little hungrier.