It's becoming more and more common: someone (usually a young woman) says they have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and begins eating gluten-free, but then is accused of having an eating disorder instead.
This happened to singer Miley Cyrus last spring and summer when she started eating gluten- and dairy-free and lost tons of weight. And in the past couple of days, this campaign seems to be escalating: I've seen numerous articles with titles like "Gluten-Free Diet ... or Veiled Eating Disorder" and "Does Eating Gluten-Free Mask an Eating Disorder?"
Guess what? Many people are going gluten-free because it makes them feel better (regardless of whether they have the official blessing of the medical community). And it seems some in the medical community -- doctors, nutritionists and others -- are fighting back by accusing those who eat gluten-free without an official diagnosis of suffering from a mental disorder.
"Gluten-free has become the latest clarion call to those who fear food, advertised wherever food is, announced from labels in the aisles of supermarkets, and making us think that gluten-free is a necessary part of life," writes rheumatologist Dr. Mark Borigini on the website Psychology Today. "Suddenly, the person claiming a sensitivity to gluten is now a patient with orthorexia nervosa--a term used by some scholars to describe individuals who develop an obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. This focus may turn into a fixation so extreme that it can lead to severe malnutrition or even death."
Now, it's certain that a few people are in fact using the gluten-free diet as a way of limiting their calories ... and obviously, those people need help (Susan Cowden, About.com's excellent Guide to Eating Disorders, can help you sort out out whether you should seek help -- to start, see her page on Symptoms of Eating Disorders).
But to make blanket statements that accuse the vast majority of people eating gluten-free of having a psychiatric disorder is, frankly, unspeakable and ridiculous. As a rheumatologist, Dr. Borigini should know the array of rheumatologic problems that go hand-in-hand with celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (joint pain, anyone?).
And many of the others talking about using gluten sensitivity as a "mask" for an eating disorder should know better, too. Yes, it happens. No, I really don't think it's particularly common.
Most of us are pretty well obsessed with avoiding gluten-containing foods, not because we perceive them to be unhealthy for us, but because they are unhealthy for us. I don't think I'm much different than the vast majority of people eating gluten-free ... we're doing it because gluten makes us sick, not because it's a more socially acceptable way of being anorexic.
Photo © Getty Images/Chris Andrews