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Are some people using 'gluten-free' etc to mask an eating disorder?

Gluten-free or eating disorder?

Everywhere you turn, it seems like someone is cutting something out. Sugar, wheat, dairy, alcohol, red meat – they’re all up for elimination and for a thousand different reasons.

Some people are embracing New Year’s Resolutions, some are taking part in Febfast, some want to lose weight and others are acting upon actual medical advice.

NOTE: Before anyone gets their ranty pants on, there’s no question that some restricted diets are necessary for health reasons. When you have a food allergy or an intolerance, avoiding certain food items can literally be the difference between life and death. Fact: gluten-free diets are used to ensure that sufferers of coeliac disease do not encounter problems such as infertility, osteoporosis and even certain cancers.

But there is concern in some circles that some people are using restricted diets (gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan) to mask an eating disorder.

Mamamia asked eating disorders counsellor, Paula Kotowicz, for her opinion. Paula was the Manager of Education (Early Intervention) at The Butterfly Foundation for three years, and was also in Support Services for the Eating Disorders Foundation for another three years. She now runs a private practice for eating disorder patients and had this to say about the relatively sudden surge in people embarking on restricted diets:

There’s probably never been an easier time to have an eating disorder and have it be totally validated – and for everyone to turn a blind eye. Because people can see what’s happening to a family member or friend, but they feel that they can’t do anything – because it’s all very community and society sanctioned, or because it’s assumed that the diet is being supervised by a medical practitioner.

People with eating disorders will very commonly start out as vegetarians, then become vegans, then go to gluten-free. It’s not at all uncommon and often has no medical basis – and gives them the ability to go largely unquestioned.

“What really happens is people tend to cut out a lot of junk food when they eliminate gluten.”

Other experts have also weighed in on the issue. Dr Mark Borigini, a rheumatologist, told The Daily Beast: “People read these articles on gluten and think this might be the answers to the problems they may have. If you’re using this gluten fear as just another channel for a bigger problem—like an eating disorder—then that’s of real concern.”

Tricia Thompson, a dietician and author of Gluten Free Watchdog, also said that she is driven “bonkers” by the growing reputation of the gluten-free diet as a “trendy weight-loss routine”. “What really happens is people tend to cut out a lot of junk food when they eliminate gluten—that’s what results in the weight loss,” she said.

In an article for XOJane entitled “My Gluten Allergy Was A Veil For An Easting Disorder”, 25-year-old Annakeara Stinson confessed to going gluten-free without an actual diagnosis for coeliac disease. In a month she lost 15lbs (nearly 7kg), but soon became obsessed with what she was eating.

She told The Daily Beast:

People noticed that I lost weight, and commented that I was such a ‘healthy’ eater, and that was positive reinforcement. Ultimately, my gluten-free diet became a weird space I put emotional baggage into. From the outside, people just thought I had allergy issues, but really, it veiled all these other things that were going on.

Unlike eating disorders, restrictive diets are socially acceptable. In an article for This Model Life, author Cassie Tithof writes about her experience of going to a party and meeting a woman who says she is gluten-free. The woman avoids all food on the table, restricting herself to only the corn chips and salsa:

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A few cocktails later I was informed that this same woman has suffered from an eating disorder her whole life. People would hound this gaunt-looking woman if she claimed to be on a diet, but if she claimed to have a legitimate autoimmune disorder, surely they would encourage her to snub the food at the table.  It got me to wondering, how many people are using the term gluten-free to mask an eating disorder?

Interestingly, there are some compelling statistics that show the increasing popularity of restrictive diets – more specifically, the gluten-free diet.

According to Coeliac Australia, coeliac disease affects approximately 1 in 100 Australians, and about 75% of Aussies currently remain undiagnosed. This means that approximately 160,000 people in Australia have coeliac disease but don’t yet know it; about 60,000 do have it and know it.

In 2009, a Melbourne dietician, Dr Sue Shepherd, was quoting as saying: “It’s been estimated that for every person with a diagnosis of coeliac disease, there are 20 others who are eating gluten -free foods.”

Coeliac Australia does warn people against deciding to take up a gluten-free diet without a proper medical diagnosis (which, according to their website, does involve a blood test and a small bowel biopsy). As coeliax diseases is a serious medical condition, they believe ‘definitive diagnosis is essential’, saying that the ‘gluten free diet is not a trivial undertaking’.

 ** Disclaimer: Mamamia firmly believes that gluten-free diets, and all restrictive diets undertaken for medical reasons, should be taken very seriously. This is a post about the broader implications of restrictive diets undertaken for non-medical reasons.

Do you think that some restrictive diets could really be a veil for eating disorders?