No such thing as gluten sensitivity? Really?!

Excruciating stomachaches, painful mouth sores, low muscle tone, depression and fatigue has plagued my family for years—but it wasn’t until my son’s weight dropped from 95th to 5th percentile that I put him on a gluten free, dairy free diet. Although all the symptoms pointed to celiac disease, medical tests revealed no official diagnosis. Only one thing was clear: He got better on a gluten free, dairy free diet—and so did the rest of my family. 

We’ve now been gluten-free for seven years, which is why friends sent me the link to Michael Specter’s article in The New Yorker last week. Titled “Against the Grain,” they wanted my opinion. The article attempts to provide an overview of the popularity of the gluten free diet and to answer the question–“Should you go gluten free?”(1.)

Although Mr. Specter’s article covers a lot of territory, the tone of the article is quite offensive to those on a medically prescribed diet for celiac as well as for people who are gluten-free because of non-celiac gluten intolerance. The author, like many people who are not affected by gluten, is clearly trying to establish that the gluten free diet is just another fad diet like the fat free diet or the grapefruit diet.

The most upsetting part of the article is the inclusion of Dr. Greene’s statement “First, they come off gluten. Then corn. Then soy. Then tomatoes. Then milk. After a while, they don’t have anything left to eat—and they proselytize about it. Worse is what parents are doing to their children. It’s cruel and unusual treatment to put a child on a gluten-free diet without its being indicated medically. Parental perception of a child’s feeling better on a gluten-free diet is even weaker than self-perception.” (2)

As much as our restricted diet is a daily struggle for our family, let me tell you what is actually even harder than not being able to eat food that contains gluten and dairy–HAVING A SICK CHILD!!! Not a “runny nose–I have a cold” sick child, but a sick child who is profoundly unwell whose parents and doctors are watching get sicker and sicker and are unable to help. 

Dietary intervention for chronic health problems is a very real treatment that can allow people to lead healthier lives. Unfortunately, in our society, for a number of reasons, the idea that “everyone can eat everything” is not true anymore.

As pointed out in the article, the environment and the shifting the microbiome might be factors.  Our unchallenged immune system, pesticides like glycophosphate and GMOs are also possible causes for this shift in food tolerance by individuals.

Of course, not everyone is affected by these changes and not everyone has allergies and intolerances—and for people who are not affected, like Michael Specter, the idea of a gluten free diet seems “silly.”  (And, yes, for Mr. Specter  it might be!)  But the explosion of life threatening peanut allergies and the rise in celiac disease are both real and while there is no science on how many are affected by non-celiac gluten intolerance—it also seems to be rising.

There are a number of published research articles available through pubmed on the connection between diet and devastating diseases like schizophrenia, arthritis and autism. These are not  reports of “parent’s perception”–they are research reports in medical journals by doctors who are witnesses to the changes and looking at data. Of course, more studies are needed to understand the connections between these devastating disorders and gluten–and who might benefit from a gluten free diet. 

Some individuals can not wait more science to be done. They, or their children are sick and they are forced to find their own answers. In many, many cases after consulting with many doctors and pursuing mainstream medical treatments, they find success with dietary intervention. We should be listening to the people who have these successes–not dismissing them. 

In some cases, as with The New York Times article about “The Boy with a Thorn in his Joints.” the gluten free diet is miraculous despite negative testing for celiac–and one day, I hope, the science will help us understand why. (4) 

(1) Specter, Michael. “Against the Grain.” The New Yorker. November 3, 2014.

(2) Specter, Michael. “Against the Grain.” The New Yorker. November 3, 2014.

(4) Meadows, Susannah. “The Boy With a Thorn in His Joints.” The New York Times. February 1, 2013.