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Self-diagnosing is one thing. Dieting is another. The tabloids drive Amy Leger crazy. She shudders when she sees stories about celebrities suggesting that a gluten-free diet is Hollywood’s newest get-thin secret.
“People see that and think, ‘Maybe that’s the diet I should be on,’ ” said the Blaine mother of two. “It creates confusion about how serious this is for people with celiac disease.”
Leger got a crash course in the devastating effects of gluten intolerance when her daughter Emma, now 14, developed extensive health problems around her first birthday.
“She was inconsolable: gassy, vomiting all the time, losing weight,” Leger said. “She had a bloated belly, like the famine babies.”
After a series of false starts, celiac disease was diagnosed.
“She was gluten-free within the week. The crying stopped and we had our baby back,” Leger said. In the intervening years, Leger started The Savvy Celiac, a website devoted to the challenges of living with the disorder.
For those with celiac disease, even a speck of gluten can lead to inflammation and intestinal damage (such as chronic diarrhea, osteoporosis, infertility and, rarely, cancer of the small bowel).
It’s not enough for them to eat gluten-free toast; they must also make sure it pops out of a toaster not used for bread containing wheat. To avoid cross-contamination, they must eat food cooked in alternate pots and pans, stirred with different utensils.
That’s where the celebrity endorsements of the slimming powers of a gluten-free diet can create confusion.
“It gets my goat when I hear about stars who give up gluten to lose weight,” said Cassie Weness, licensed nutritionist at Nutritional Weight and Wellness. Her two children have celiac disease. “These celebrities drop pounds because they’ve gone low-carb. They’re ruining it for the rest of us. It leaves people in food service thinking gluten-free is no big deal, but it’s serious for my kids and my clients [with celiac disease].”
Gluten-free or not?
Warhol, the Stillwater resident, made an appointment to see her physician shortly after she ate those last two pieces of toast. The doctor gave her a blood test, which came back negative.
“Together we decided that since this was working, I should stick with it,” she said. “What I know for a fact is that when I eat gluten, my body doesn’t feel good.”
There is no shortage of information for consumers seeking information about food allergies and sensitivities. “Wheat Belly,” a book that promotes eliminating gluten, is a fixture on the New York Times Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous bestseller list.
Nutritional Weight and Wellness, a St. Paul-based nutrition education company, began offering a class called “Going Gluten Free the Healthy Way” last year; it quickly became the most popular course of the dozen classes on the roster.
“Everyone knows someone who feels better because they’ve taken gluten out,” said Denton. “People will do this on their own. They might feel better, but they don’t always know what they are doing.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.