Dear New Yorker,
There was a time when I couldn’t wait for you to arrive in the mail each week. That was in the mid-1990s, when I was in my late twenties and worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Your covers and cartoons delighted me, your articles and essays informed and challenged me. Spending time with you, I felt smart and sophisticated. Often, I looked to your writers for guidance before formulating my opinion on a topic. It was hard to imagine life without you.
But Michael Specter’s recent article, “Against the Grain: Should you go gluten-free?”, didn’t go down so well. He seemed to make too many leaps of (il)logic that made me wonder, New Yorker, why I had practically worshipped you. Before I highlight the concerning passages, let me share a bit about me. I’m a highly educated female, 47, lacking a history of the fad dieting mentioned in the article. Physically healthy and with a healthy level of skepticism, I never experienced body dysmorphia, jumped on a nutritional bandwagon or became a SnackWell’s addict. Still, about a month ago I stopped eating gluten as an experiment after learning from multiple sources that it might contribute to anxiety and depression, conditions that have dogged me for years. After a few days sans gluten, my sleep was more restful, my brain felt clearer and I had more energy.
As Mr. Specter writes, “Nearly twenty million people contend that they regularly experience distress after eating products that contain gluten, and a third of American adults say that they are trying to eliminate it from their diets.”
Yet, rather than take these staggering figures as an indication that many of these people might be aware of the effect of gluten on their systems and doing what is right for them, he adds, “While there are no scientific data to demonstrate that millions of people have become allergic or intolerant to gluten (or to other wheat proteins), there is convincing and repeated evidence that dietary self-diagnoses are almost always wrong, particularly when the diagnosis extends to most of society. We still feel more comfortable relying on anecdotes and intuition than on statistics or data.”
Almost always wrong? Does Mr. Specter believe his fellow citizens to be lemmings, marching off the dietary cliff du jour?
I cannot be the only person among the twenty million who already had a fairly clean diet (free of alcohol, sugar, coffee and junk food), when I chose to eliminate gluten on a trial basis. Had I experienced no changes, then, after my three month trial period (which ends in eight weeks), I would have restored gluten to my diet and enjoyed a reunion with Trader Joe’s imported Italian ravioli. But I am willing to bid farewell to tender pasta in exchange for more energy. Rather feeling deprivation or disappointment that my diet doesn’t conform to the mainstream, I experience relief. Being gluten-free is not akin to inhabiting a food wasteland: there are plenty of tasty things to eat, still. My only regret is that my aversion to trends, my foodie identity and skepticism kept me from eliminating gluten a whole lot sooner.
Mr. Specter writes that, “The (gluten-free) diet can also be unhealthy….That becomes clear after a cursory glance at the labels of many gluten-free products. Ingredients like rice starch, cornstarch, tapioca starch, and potato starch are often used as replacements for white flour. But they are highly refined carbohydrates, and release at least as much sugar into the bloodstream as the foods that people have forsaken.”
How does a cursory glance at labels make anything clear, other than the writer’s propensity to jump to conclusions?
What Mr. Specter and his interviewees apparently failed to consider is that rather than impulsively and unthinkingly stocking the cupboard with processed gluten-free substitutes, as if no other choices existed, it’s quite possible that more than a few gluten avoiders started eating more vegetables, fruits and grains. I will concede this point, which Mr. Specter did not make: perhaps it’s an increase in the ratio of vegetables and fruits to processed foods that accounts for improved health undetectable by studies, a shift facilitated by removing bread, bagels, pasta, etc. from the diet. Since there is only so much a person can eat in a day, loading up on fruits and veggies leaves less room for other items.
Mr. Specter quotes Peter H. R. Green, the director of the celiac-disease center at the Columbia University medical school: “ ‘A friend of mine told me his wife was seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety and depression. And one of the first things the psychiatrist did was to put her on a gluten-free diet. This is getting out of hand. We are seeing more and more cases of orthorexia nervosa’—people who progressively withdraw different foods in what they perceive as an attempt to improve their health.”
I wish Mr. Specter had inquired into the “getting out of hand” part. What if that psychiatrist was getting back to basics, honoring the Hippocratic Oath, which contains this line: “With regard to healing the sick, I will devise and order for them the best diet, according to my judgment and means; and I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.”
After e-mailing a psychiatrist I had consulted twice to let him know I had voluntarily given up gluten and felt much better, he responded by encouraging me to consider avoiding grains, too. While I don’t have a double blind study with data to support his statement, several people I know who’ve given up grains, either temporarily or permanently, reported more vitality than ever. Anecdotes? Yes. From intelligent people I respect? Yes.
That an MD suggested grain free implies that he’s seen its effect amongst his patients. Ditto for the psychiatrist mentioned in the article who recommended gluten free. Thank goodness some mainstream health professionals are finally waking up to the fact that some brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to certain inputs than others and that pharmaceuticals, whose modus operandi is arguably even more complicated and mysterious than gluten’s, might not be the first remedy of choice. It makes sense that a doctor would first want to rule out gluten before prescribing medication, often a crapshoot. Despite the clinical data available on antidepressants and anxiolytics, they don’t help everyone, or everyone in the same way; sometimes, in alleviating one symptom, they create others that are equally intolerable. Trusting “statistics and data” over one’s own experience can be a recipe for misery, whether we’re talking prescription drugs, gluten or anything else.
But what made me wonder if anyone had edited Mr. Specter’s article were the last two lines. While gluten-free products seem here to stay, and growing numbers of people testify to positive changes in their lives after eliminating this substance, Mr. Specter, rather than becoming curious and experimenting with a gluten-free regimen himself, appears to dismiss it all and simply has this to say: “But I am certainly not going to live without gluten. That just seems silly.”
Oh, New Yorker, what’s silly is that for so long I trusted you more than I trusted myself. Those days are over.
Thanks for supporting this blog:
Bravo and Amen, Ilona! I hope you sent this to the magazine editor and Mr Specter.
I tweeted it to both of them. If you are willing to share it, that would be great!
One of my colleagues has Multiple Sclerosis which she manages very effectively through exercise. She recently began a course in nutrition and the trainer grabbed their attention when she opened with “I have MS and three years ago I was in a wheelchair. I am now standing because I changed what I ate.” Like you, I love pasta but after experimenting on myself I have cut wheat out of my diet: my mind is clearer, digestion improved.
I think the NYT was right to suggest that there are people who cut gluten because it’s fashionable. A friend with coeliac disease is grateful “because it makes it easier for me to find food I can eat safely”
I steered clear of mindfulness for years because it is fashionable (you will understand) and now know I was wrong. The effect of a recent workshop have ‘turned up the dial on life’, I am more effective at work and more present when with other people.
I am looking forward to starting Feldenkrais training (planned for April 2016) and see it as a continuation of my existing practice. Last summer I visited a current training where I was introduced to Elizabeth Beringer who directs. “Oh”, she said, “you’re Shelagh’s student aren’t you?” I am, and was very impressed!
Yes, diet is rather important! Worth experimenting to see what works. I’ve heard great things about Elizabeth Beringer, by the way. Congratulations on deciding to enroll in a training. Which one do you have your eyes on?
Last August I was lucky enough to have a prepared first sentence for Elizabeth: “Thank you for editing Moshe’s papers” (which became the book Embodied Wisdom). The ATM she led was a bit null, but that may have been me not her. I am going back to that London training in April and will meet her again. When she talked about being in Moshe’s apartment in the 1970s I was uncharacteristically jealous: “that might have been me”. I flew to Israel in 1976 and went for the first time to Jerusalem on my 18th birthday.I don’t normally regret the past, a skill I absorbed while serving in the Foreign Legion, where it is part of the ethos. Plus free haircuts.
I take strength from my mistakes: I spent 30 years using my body just to carry my head around, so meeting and befriending my body has been powerful medicine which I want to share with others. Colleagues tend to respond to my mentioning Feldenkrais as if I were selling a new religion so I am delighted to be taking one to my next ATM.
I hope to join the London training starting in spring 2016 and keep in contact with Scott Clark (http://www.feldenkraislondon.com) who is both organiser & assistant trainer to the current course and may end up promoted to trainer.
Ilona, thank you.