When Gluten-Free Turns Into an Eating Disorder

Posted on May 17th, 2013

You hear it everywhere these days – gluten-free. There are entire shelves at the grocery store devoted to gluten-free products. Since the market share for gluten-free specialty foods is growing by nearly 30 percent every year, the number of shelves given over to those products will likely continue to grow as well.

It could be that more of us are discovering that we have an autoimmune condition (celiac disease) which causes us to seek out these foods, but some worry that the trend offers many people a new way to hide their habit of severe food restriction. Celiac disease may often be a mask for an eating disorder.

Celiac disease is an allergic-type reaction to gluten which keeps nutrients from being properly absorbed in the small intestine. People with celiac disease often experience stomach pain and cramping along with diarrhea after eating foods containing gluten. Gluten is found in products made with wheat, rye or barley. That encompasses a significant portion of all items found in most shopping markets.

The person with celiac disease therefore has a limited number of products (even beyond foodstuffs) available that contain zero amounts of gluten. This makes claiming to have celiac disease an entirely plausible mask for hiding an eating disorder. When celiac disease is blamed on the basis of self-diagnosis, there can be reason to suspect that a desire to severely restrict food intake is more likely at work than any true physical condition.

When a person decides on their own that they have celiac disease and begins to eliminate an entire food group from their diet, they may initially find reinforcement from others. The resultant weight loss and plates absent of starches but instead occupied by nuts, plain-cooked meats and vegetables may garner the praise and admiration of others for healthy eating. In actuality, when a person eliminates wide swaths of food, this is normally a red flag signaling the potential presence of an eating disorder.

Experts suggest that 80 percent of Americans who claim to have celiac disease do not, in fact, have the illness. That astounding number suggests that many people with eating disorders are finding safe haven behind the label of celiac disease. Claiming to have an autoimmune disease can ward off criticism and closer examination. The tag of celiac can become a veritable suitcase into which a person stuffs their disordered eating and the mental health struggles which go along with that behavior.

Several tests are available to check for celiac disease. Gastroenterologists can identify genetic markers or take small intestine biopsies to establish celiac disease. There are several other screenings which can be performed as well. What warrants investigation is a person’s claim of self-diagnosed celiac disease. In many cases, the claim may simply be shielding a much more serious condition.

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