Why It’s Dangerous My Food Allergy Is Perceived as a Fad

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Gina Eykemans)

Fads are fun to reminisce about, right? I look back fondly on things like slap bracelets, hammer pants, and wildly permed mullets. I spent a lot of time in the late ’80s making fun of my mom’s need to wear shoulder pads in everything.

But fads shift and change along with the cultural conversation, and presently, the way I eat is largely perceived as a fad diet. Every week there is a new article about how gluten-free eaters are really just big babies who should put on their big-girl, wheat-eating pants and just order some pancakes already. Okay, maybe I paraphrased that heavily, but the opinion is out there. My serious food allergy is being seen, and often treated, as a fad.

The Gluten Problem

This feels unsafe, especially when dining out. I don’t choose to eat gluten-free because I’m a blasphemous fool who hates pasta. I eat this way because if I don’t, I get really sick.

It took me a long time to figure out what was making me sick — much longer than most fads last. Like many high schoolers, my body was predominantly made up of large slices of pizza, Diet Coke, and hormones. I would go out to lunch with my friends and each of us would order a piece of pizza bigger than our face, a side of ranch dressing, and sometimes round it out with bread sticks for the table. We were young and thin and worshipped at the altar of cheese and carbs.

However, unlike my friends, I was constantly sick. My purse doubled as a pharmacy where I would tote around actual bottles of Pepto-Bismol. If you’re wondering, there’s nothing cool about being the 16-year-old girl at a party with a serious tummy ache. While other teens were shooting back whatever weird booze they could get their hands on, I was the girl reaching into her purse, doing shooters of medicinal bubble gum, and worrying that I most likely had appendicitis.

Even though I was constantly miserable, I assumed most people lived somewhere between crippling abdominal pain and their next Imodium. It never crossed my mind that what I was putting into my body was literally poisoning me.

In my early 20s we figured out I had a pretty severe allergy to gluten, which was causing my debilitating stomach pain. Gluten is a mixture of proteins that lives in wheat, barley, and rye. It acts as a kind of glue and helps baked goods get that wonderfully chewy texture. You know that crusty loaf of warm bread you’re eating? Totally full of gluten.

As you can imagine, my Italian heart was broken as I tried to reimagine a life that didn’t revolve around pasta. In the beginning, there were several dramatic grocery store moments. I would stand in the bread aisle with the somber face of someone who was visiting a cemetery. But life moves on and you adjust. I felt immeasurably better. I no longer felt like my stomach was trying to murder me. I spent way less time on WebMD panicking over the telltale symptoms of appendicitis. Weekly migraines disappeared, along with a brain fog I didn’t even know I had. Life was so much better without having to chase each precious moment with Pepto-Bismol.

The Gluten Fad

Eight years after my diagnosis, gluten-free eating has almost gone mainstream. I can go to my local breakfast spot and order a gluten-free bagel. However, this doesn’t mean I can let my guard down or become less vigilant about checking to see which items on a menu contain gluten.

For every restaurant that understands my food allergy is a big deal, there are many others that either don’t understand it, or treat me like I’m a crazy lady whose request to leave the bun off my hamburger is about as indulgent as asking the waitstaff to remove the calories from a slice of cake. There have been eye rolls and sighs and the, “So, are you actually allergic to gluten, or do you just not like it, or think that being gluten-free is cool?” inquiry.

I’m not upset if you don’t understand my dietary restrictions. I will happily explain them to you with a smile and without condescension. I have a lot of respect for servers. I understand that working in the service industry is hard, and you have to deal with every kind of crazy human out there. You deserve tips. Honestly, truly. However, I could do without the blatant questioning of my choices.

Yet, if I was to answer that question: “Yes, I’m very allergic. Who doesn’t actually like gluten? It’s delicious. And no, I’m not doing this for cool points.”

I’ve had people deliberately serve me gluten in order to see if I was really allergic or simply subscribing to a fad diet. In these instances, someone’s opinion about my dietary choices have left me sick on the couch for days. When things like that happen, it makes you feel out of control and unsafe. It feels dangerous. The fad perception is making my food allergy into a joke, and I’m tired of being the punchline.

I’m proposing a truce — a call for respect in all personal dietary decisions; it doesn’t matter what these personal choices are. The thing is, you never really know why anyone is doing anything. We all know our own bodies and stories best. If you are waiting on me at a restaurant, you’ve only just met me and we probably don’t have the time for me to catch you up on all the pizza I used to eat, and that one time I thought I was literally dying because I ate a baguette. I’ll tell you that I’m gluten-free and that should be good enough. I’m not going to start putting beef into my vegetarian friends’ soup just because I eat meat and think it’s delicious. If a person has that unfortunate gene that makes cilantro taste like soap, it would be really awful to add an extra handful of soapy herbs to their chicken. If a dude tells you he can’t eat peanuts, believe him.

If you’re only eating gluten-free because you think it’s the coolest, that’s fine with me. Let’s just be friendly about it. Because, fad or not, it’s really not worth getting sick over.