I love this book like intellectual liberal lefties love The Guardian. There’s something comforting about reading something you already agree with, nodding ‘so true, so true’ with a wry smile at its proclamations; inwardly congratulating yourself for your insights when you see what you already thought in print; and chuckling smugly at the Daily Mail readers and their misguided beliefs. In fact, I was pretty sure I was going to love it before I’d even started – it was a book written for a B (a student of the classics, turned sceptic, diagnosed Coeliac). But of course the danger of that is you fail to read it with a critical eye, but here’s my try.
It’s fascinating that a professor of religion should turn their attention to the biggest diet fad of our time, but the parallels he draws between the craze for gluten free (or low fat, or MSG syndrome) and religious (or even cult) beliefs are right on the money in my opinion. The book is at it’s best when it’s making these analogies: the same talk of ‘miracles’ from proponents of gluten free for all, the same loyal (to the extreme) followers, the same preachers with books, tests & cures to sell; plus the celebrity ‘prophets’ (Paltrow et al.) you might see employed by the likes of the Scientology cult. The gluten free diet even has it’s own Eden myth in the Paleo diet – that perfect and pure time before we were tempted by the evil fruits (grains) of modernity and brought shame and illness to the earth…
The book is also an interesting exposé of the history of the gluten free movement for people new to the world of gluten; and the motivations of some of the key players and science behind the gluten free diet for coeliac disease – including its precursor, the banana diet (!). This is worth knowing, especially for those that find themselves convinced by Wheat Belly, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and others, that a gluten or grain free diet is the appropriate cure for their ills.
The Gluten Lie tells a common tale: of those people who fail to get a coeliac diagnosis (or get one too late), feel let down by the medical and scientific community; and clutch at gluten free myths dressed up in scientific language to explain every malady, real or imagined; and then become gluten free zealots. It’s going to cut some people deep – myself included. I recognised my own post-diagnosis tendency to explain ever last stomach grumble by phantom glutenings; my insistence when faced with the confusion and panic of an unwell newborn baby that I could bring order and control by controlling diet, regardless of the evidence (or rather because of the lack of). “How can it just ‘be’?” I’d ask. “There must be a reason that’s in my control”. Even I don’t react kindly to the accusation of it ‘all being in my head’; even though I’m usually well versed against stigmatising mental health problems.
In fact the most interesting parts of The Gluten Lie for me are where it touches on the psychological component of those who decide to follow a gluten free diet without a coeliac diagnosis; and for me this warrants considerably more exploration. The (anecdotally) growing trend towards ‘orthorexia’ (an eating disorder based on the need to eat the ‘right’ or ‘clean’ ingredients as a masque for calorie restriction) is a concerning side effect of the growing gluten free behemoth. The book also touches on the placebo/nocebo effect of going gluten free – that it might work in many people because they expect it to; and the psychological attachment to the diet among its followers (and resultant anger when science is quoted as ‘proving’ for example that ‘NCGS doesn’t exist’) are real phenomena that I’ve observed on this blog (link), but seem to be going unstudied.
The challenge with this book being a study rooted in the humanities, rather than the science, is that whilst it does a good job of discrediting “sensationalists” like the authors of Wheat Belly and Grain Brain based on their motivations, I find it a little lacking in commentary on the scientific arguments against the theories those quacks present. There are briefly quoted interviews with the likes of Prof. Peter Gibson and Dr. Alessio Fasano (leading coeliac researchers), but as Levinovitz says himself, “most people don’t have the time to read hundreds of peer-reviewed studies” (or much less understand what they are saying), I had rather hoped that this book would be a summary for those of us without the scientific vocabulary to follow and trawl through the scientific reports; then it would be a really robust critique that could argue against the growing fad.
I do feel the book suffers a little from the very problems it identifies – It’s opinion is a little all or nothing – “your fear of gluten is just the latest in a long line of groundless dietary paranoia” concludes chapter one. There is limited concession given to the view that it might not just be coeliacs that medically need a gluten free diet (something it in fact praises leading researchers like Dr. Fassano for continuing to study and be rightfully uncertain on). The provocative title itself is perhaps designed to leap on the very fad it admonishes; especially when it’s only the first chapter that deals with gluten (the others go on to talk about low fat, sugar, salt). It feels a little like something got souped up in editing and marketing the book?
All in all though, a fascinating and insightful read for anyone with an interest in gluten, nutrition, or indeed, human behaviour; but perhaps one that raises as many questions for me as it answers.
I bought this book with my own shiny pennies.