In his new, much talked about book, The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat, Dr. Alan Levinovitz—an assistant professor at James Madison University—addresses how cult mentality and misinformation has led to the rise of one of the diet world’s current super villains: gluten.
The book—which has sparked extensive discussions about the connection between religious fervor and fad diet mentality—works to debunk the notion of foods as “clean” or “unclean” while pushing for a less dichotomic (processed food: bad! “natural” food: good!) approach to healthy eating.
Levinovitz talked with us about why gluten-free has become such a diet trend, the connection between bandwagon restrictive diets and disordered eating, and the craziest fad diets from the past 100 years (including rice and bananas).
What is it about gluten in our current cultural climate that’s made it so scorned?
The first thing to know about eating gluten-free is there is a small, but significant, percentage of the population that it really helps.
So, when you have a diet like gluten-free that produces genuine results in people with Celiac Disease or IBS, those people provide really strong, evangelical testimony to the efficacy of the diet that are rooted in reality. The second thing is going gluten-free is a simple way to cut high calorie foods out of your diet. For a lot of people, going gluten free gives them a simple way to lose weight.
People took this diet that was good for some people and started demonizing gluten. They started saying things like “gluten belly” and “grain brain” and other things that made gluten seem essentially evil. The fear gives people extra added incentive to stick to their diet, but what they’re actually seeing results from is cooking more at home and then feeling better about themselves. They confuse that with the impact of removing gluten from their diet.
It also really synced up with this paleo [diet] narrative of a rotten present and a “paradise” past where no one was diseased, ill, or fat and everyone was a ripped caveman swinging from the trees. People always find ways to pin things on modern technology.
So it’s this national sort of “tent revival” situation when it comes to gluten.
I want to emphasize that this attitude makes it impossible for people who actually suffer from physiological intolerance to be distinguished from people who are just scared of gluten because they’ve read some quack’s book who says it causes Alzheimer’s Disease. The nutty fearmongers are the enemies. It’s not the skeptics who are the enemies, it’s the people who are getting in the way of good science and creating a fad bandwagon.
How has technology played a role in this?
The Balanced Blonde had this really popular vegan Instagram. She was a really beautiful young woman and had all these photos of herself doing yoga and bowls of quinoa. Then she came out and said that she had an eating disorder. It really rocked the community. The problem with all this information is that you can see thousands of photos of beautiful people being what you want to be just by eating the right food…and it’s fake. The Facebook feed you’ve created doesn’t include all of the shitty times in your life. It’s dangerous with food because there’s this illusion that hundreds of thousands of people are becoming demi-gods by eating the right way. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve talked with disordered eaters who say the hardest thing is to unsubscribe from these paleo-vegan e-mail lists. It’s hard to escape.
Do these fad diets—driven by technology—increase instances of disordered eating?
I would definitely not want to say anything about numbers, and it’s really important not to get ahead of the science.
I’ve actually talked to a lot of people who say that sometimes with the paleo [diet] that they use it as a gateway out of a more serious eating disorder. So, for someone who is obsessed with eating clean, to the point they don’t eat anything, paleo provides a sort of new religion that says, “No, you can still be clean and eat food.” Disordered eaters say, “Oh, maybe I can start eating calories again!”
Ultimately, the goal is not to have to distinguish between “clean” and “unclean” food and that superior-inferior diet mindset. It’s a step in the right direction for some disordered eaters but it’s still disordered eating.
I’ve talked with eating disorder specialists who have been very careful to say they don’t want to indicate there’s a causation between gluten-free or restrictive dieting and eating disorders, but if you try cutting something like gluten out of your diet on your own and restricting yourself and are already prone to disordered eating, it can get you in serious trouble.
Years ago, they would see people coming into the office who had eating disorders triggered by restricting fat. Now, they’re seeing people with them triggered by people restricting gluten or processed foods.
What about sugar and processed foods?
Ultimately, we need to move away from the false dichotomy that “taboo-ing” processed food creates. This mindset makes it too easy to slide into a kind of religious zealotry about what you should and shouldn’t eat.
I subscribed to this documentary Fed Up about sugar, and the e-mails I got were like I had subscribed to some Orthodox, kosher mailing list that was trying to tell me how to make my kitchen holy. I got this e-mail and it was like, “Go through your kitchen and throw out everything with sugar in it! Throw out the ketchup! Throw out the jam!” I’m not joking. I was reading it and I was like, “How are you supposed to fucking cook?” I’m looking at Alice Waters’ cookbook—she’s no processed food goon—and she has sugar in her pantry because, guess what? You need sugar to cook.
What we really want is people to enjoy food responsibly and savor food and cook. There’s no way you’re going to be able to cook a dinner for your kid that tastes better than fast food if you’ve eliminated sugar and salt from your pantry. There’s no better way to get your kid to hate home cooked food than that.
What are some of the most notable fab diets you find remarkable throughout history? Do you think the way they moved in and out of favor will also happen with the current gluten trend?
People always say about gluten, “The wisdom of the crowds! Why would so many people be doing it if it didn’t work?” Well, we’ve seen diets that have lasted 20 years or more that are totally insane.
Let’s look at the rice diet, which was a really popular weight loss diet in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. In the rice diet, all you drank was fruit juice and sometimes a little sugar added to your white rice. That’s all you ate. People would be shocked by it today, but it was followed with the intensity of religious zealots. Duke University made millions and millions of dollars off of it. Dieters flocked there. Durham, North Carolina was nicknamed “Fat City.” It fell out of favor when we learned how to treat kidney failure, which the rice diet was originally intended to treat.
Once we actually figure out what’s going on with people who aren’t Celiac but still benefit from going gluten free, the diet will fade.
It’s the same thing that happened with the banana diet. People thought you could cure Celiac with bananas. It worked, because people would only eat bananas and were eliminating gluten accidentally. The nation got really into bananas. When it was discovered Celiac was caused by gluten, the banana diet mostly faded from the scene. It’s still kind of around, though, because these diets have insane staying power.
There’s still a section on the Livestrong website that references the banana diet. I couldn’t believe it. They do say that bananas may make you constipated, which I think is a reasonable note.