A few weeks ago, I met a friend for lunch at a popular spot in my tourist-friendly town. It’s mostly comfort food, but they’re able to accommodate most mainstream dietary needs.
“Could I see a gluten-free menu?” asked a woman a few tables over from me.
“Seriously?” her friend sighed audibly. “You’re still doing that, huh?”
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Not at the gluten-free orderer—at her friend, who was engaging in one of the most annoying fads I’ve learned about lately: Gluten-Free Shaming.
As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter whether this restaurant patron had Celiac disease, a gluten sensitivity, or simply decided to try out the gluten-free diet because her favorite celebrity is doing it. These days, most restaurants offer gluten-free options, so it’s hard to conceive of ordering a wheat-free dish as even a mild inconvenience.
And even when it is inconvenient for dining companions — or chefs, or dinner party hosts, or whoever else — would you roll your eyes at someone with a shellfish allergy who needs to make sure they don’t end up with a shrimp cocktail? What about a person with a peanut allergy, whose dish needs to be prepared in a nut-free zone?
Of course you wouldn’t. If you’re a gluten-free shamer, you’ve probably got a few arguments lined up as to why it’s OK to make fun of others’ dietary preferences. I know what most of them are, because—full disclosure—I, too, used to tease my gluten-sensitive friends and roll my eyes when I had to scrounge up a GF option for a barbecue. Here’s why I decided to knock it off.
“It’s not like other allergies!”
Nope, most Celiac sufferers aren’t going to go into anaphylactic shock if they’re exposed to wheat. In that sense, a gluten allergy isn’t quite like a peanut or shellfish allergy. But, does someone really have to be in anaphylaxis to gain your sympathy? What about breaking out in hives? And who likes dealing with headaches, rumbling stomachs, or irritable guts? If eating gluten makes someone feel physically ill, how “bad” does their allergic reaction need to be?
Imagine that you’ve been feeling miserable all the time, maybe even for years. You’ve had an upset stomach, regularly experienced major discomfort after you eat, and generally felt low-energy. After some doctor visits, you’re diagnosed with Celiac. This means some lifestyle changes, but it also means not feeling bad all the time. You wouldn’t want to give that up because your friends didn’t feel like walking an extra half a block to a gluten-free-friendly restaurant.
“Is it really an allergy? Like, do you have a diagnosis?”
There are legitimate medical reasons for choosing to follow a gluten-free diet even if you haven’t been diagnosed with Celiac, but that’s beside the point. You wouldn’t ask to hear all about someone’s diabetes diagnosis to believe they needed their insulin, just like you wouldn’t ask a friend with a broken arm to see the X-rays to decide for yourself whether they really needed that cast.
When it comes to medical diagnoses, the majority of people believe what you’re saying—or they figure your health is between you and your doctor, and don’t insist on being an impromptu member of your medical team because they’ve read a few articles online. In general, it’s a good rule of thumb to mind your own business when it comes to other people’s medical diagnoses (or lack thereof). For some reason, though, lots of people seem to think gluten-free dieting is an exception. It’s not!
“You shouldn’t say something’s an allergy when it’s really just a preference.”
This one gets thrown around a lot. In restaurants, when a customer has an allergy, the kitchen has to get out special utensils and cook in a different area where contaminants can’t make the customer sick. For a preference, on the other hand, the kitchen can simply not include the undesirable item. Sure, not all GFers will get sick if wheat touches their food—but some will.
Unfortunately, because of the persistent stigma and eye-rolling about the gluten-free diet, not everyone takes requests for gluten-free dishes seriously. If you’re convinced something is just a preference, not a “legitimate” allergy, it’s easy to justify not taking extra steps to keep someone from getting sick. If we all simply believed people about their dietary needs (as opposed to questioning them), life would be a lot easier for gluten-free folks.
“All these non-Celiac gluten-free dieters make it harder for people with allergies to be taken seriously.”
Aforementioned arguments aside, this one’s patently untrue. As far as gluten-free options go, it’s something of a blessing that the diet has become so mainstream. A decade ago, people with Celiac disease were largely on their own to figure out how to eat in a way that wouldn’t make them sick—and that meant missing out on more than their share of parties, potlucks, and a ton of great restaurants.
Now that millions of Americans follow a gluten-free diet, the options have made significant progress. There are gluten-free options at just about every restaurant, work function, and gathering of friends, and GF folks can even pick out quick meals in the freezer section, just like everybody else. With more than 3 million gluten-free dieters nationwide, it doesn’t make sense to laugh it off as a fad.
What it really comes down to, though, is this: Who cares if someone’s gluten-free? Surely you can find a more interesting topic of dinner-table conversation. Let’s cut out the gluten-free shaming.
Written by Emma Walker for The Gluten Free Bar.