Gluten Isn’t Bad — I Just Can’t Have It

I hate gluten. Maybe this is a phrase that you’ve heard before. I have.

Gluten is bad for you, anyway. Another phrase that I’ve heard consistently, usually in response to learning that I can’t eat gluten (and usually with a hand wave and an inward curl of the shoulder to indicate that it’s not such a huge loss).

When I was writing “The Adventures of Celia Kaye,” I paid close attention to how the characters in the book interacted with gluten-containing foods. I wanted to make sure that little Celia Kaye fully understood her restrictions, had a healthy relationship with food, and focused on the positive instead of viewing celiac disease as a Bad Thing. These were important traits for me to portray, since they are important traits for the readers of the book to display.

I don’t hate gluten, and gluten isn’t bad — I just can’t have it. Here are a few reasons why this distinction is an important one.

1. “Gluten is bad for you” is largely inaccurate.

Gluten itself is not bad. What happens in the body of someone with celiac disease after ingesting gluten can be bad. But if I don’t have celiac disease or some other type of intolerance to gluten, what exactly is bad about it? Gluten is a protein, not a demon.

2. It can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.

Even “junk” foods aren’t necessarily bad in themselves. It’s outside factors that determine how bad they are for our bodies — namely, the amount we consume, the way we consume them, and how our bodies are equipped to handle that consumption.

Eating unmonitored amounts of candy despite having diabetes? Probably not so good. Eating three slices of cake after lunch? Also not great if you do it more than you would honestly admit. Enjoying a reasonably sized scoop of ice cream once a week? Likely perfectly fine.

Thinking of a food as bad may lead to an eating disorder, even if it is motivated by health. Unfortunately, when many people think of gluten they think immediately of carbs: pasta, bread, cookies. It’s easy to start thinking of those foods as bad because they are the “gluten foods,” and spiral from there.

3. It focuses on the negative.

Saying “I hate gluten” puts a negative spin on living with celiac disease. Gluten didn’t do anything wrong. Yes it can be a pain, but the real struggles of having celiac disease don’t often lie in finding gluten-free foods.

There are plenty of gluten-free food options, doctors are becoming more informed—and what better way to treat a disease than with a diet change? If I had to choose a disease, I’d certainly choose one that has such a noninvasive treatment.

The real struggle lies in cross-contamination, accidental contamination, etc. But that’s not gluten’s fault. That’s human error. Hating gluten as a way to bond with other people who have celiac disease? It seems to me that this diminishes the idea of gaining a positive, supportive network. It opens the door to being resentful instead of coping, which can turn celiac disease into a preoccupation rather than something to consider but not be ruled by.

These negative phrases surrounding gluten may not only be damaging to adults, but can send a negative message to children who need to eat gluten-free. In order to set an example for children who will be gluten-free for the rest of their lives, it may be wise to start by ensuring the accuracy and clarity of statements made, and steering clear of generalizations about the badness of foods in and of themselves.

– Kaitlin Puccio