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.