I discovered in 2007 that I have celiac disease — a totally different era in terms of public awareness about gluten intolerance. Back then, it was much more difficult to find gluten-free ingredients or, especially, pre-made items. Nowadays, bakeries and grocery stores offer gluten-free foods with FDA-approved labels. Things seem a little more legit now.
But that hasn’t stopped celiacs from being the butt of jokes or fielding inappropriate comments or questions from family, friends and even strangers. In the past nine years I’ve heard most of them. In honor of celiac awareness month, here’s a list of things not to say to people with intolerance to gluten (the protein in wheat, rye and barley) or celiac disease:.
1. “I read that gluten sensitivity isn’t real.”
Yeah, we all read that. A small study based at Australia’s Monash University appeared to show that non-celiac gluten sensitivity didn’t exist. Except that it didn’t; in fact, it showed that people with certain gastrointestinal problems should avoid gluten as well as several other foods because they all caused digestive problems for the group. Although many media articles declared gluten sensitivity bogus, they misinterpreted the study. Even one of the researchers said he wasn’t attempting to debunk gluten sensitivity, agreeing that the condition is real.
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I’m not sure why people enjoy telling others they think they’re faking an illness. Next time you find yourself thinking that someone is faking, ask yourself why you think so — and see what happens if you just believe them instead.
2. “Isn’t that a fad diet?”
A couple of years after the general public started becoming aware of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, it seemed like everyone was going gluten free. Maybe they figured that if it helped sensitive folks feel better (and possibly lose weight, which some did), it would make anyone feel better. But that’s like saying that because shrimp makes your friend Jillian swell up like a balloon, you should avoid shrimp, too.
However, for people who get genuinely sick when they eat gluten, it’s not a fad — it’s a way of staying functional. Unfortunately, when people who have no medical reason to avoid gluten do so, they’re not all that picky or careful, particularly at restaurants. That gives cooks and waitstaff the idea that they don’t have to be careful, either. I’ve gotten sick from more than one “gluten-free” meal that turned out to have been cooked in the same frying pan or oven with gluten-based foods. That’s enough to make celiacs or gluten-sensitive people really sick. But because we’re more careful than the fad people, we get the side-eye for being “picky.”
3. “What happens when you eat gluten?”
This is a question I sometimes don’t mind answering, even if it comes from someone I don’t know that well. But seriously — you are asking someone to describe something really personal and potentially TMI. If you find yourself tempted to ask this question, first decide whether you actually need to know. And if you do ask, give your gluten-sensitive friend plenty of opportunity to tell you it’s none of your business.
4. “Are you doing that to lose weight?”
It’s true, lots of people are skipping gluten, believing it will help them lose weight. But for celiacs and gluten-sensitive folks, skipping gluten is about not getting sick. It has nothing to do with trying to achieve a smaller waistline. Asking this question is not only ignorant, it’s also bordering on fat-shaming.
In general, it’s rude to comment on what someone’s eating in the context of their weight, body size or health, but that’s a whole other article.
5. Can I dip this piece of bread in your hummus?
Uh, no. Be mindful when you’re sharing food with someone who’s sensitive to gluten (or any other potential allergen). Try not to get something that will make them sick into their food. For example: if you toast their gluten-free bread in the toaster where you normally cook your bagel, the crumbs stuck to the toaster are likely to get on your friend’s food. If you dip something gluten-based in a shared bowl of hummus, guacamole or whatever, those crumbs contaminate the whole bowl. If you’re serving food buffet-style, make sure everything is in its own dish, so gluten-containing foods don’t touch gluten-free ones.
Yes, a few crumbs can make your friend sick for days. Don’t make them feel bad or overly sensitive, just be careful and make sure they have safe, separate food they can eat while they’re with you.
6. But you don’t look sick!
One of the few blessings of celiac disease or gluten intolerance is that people who are sensitive to these proteins can heal their symptoms entirely through eating. No special medicines or treatments are required. But when we’ve been “glutened,” we may have headaches, stomachaches, itchy skin, bloating or we just plain feel crappy — and those symptoms aren’t always obvious. You can’t assume that someone who looks well isn’t sick. You also can’t assume it means they’re faking an illness.
There are some helpful things you can say instead. For instance, if you’re going out to dinner with a celiac friend, ask them where they’d like to eat. They already know which restaurants are safest and which ones are prone to cross-contamination. Or, if you’re inviting them over to your house for dinner, ask them what you can cook for them. (One time, a Korean friend of mine made an entire spread of gluten-free bibimbap for when my family came over for dinner; the thought of being able to eat so many small, carefully prepared things safely still makes me misty-eyed).
Your gluten-sensitive friend isn’t being picky. They’re trying to navigate a culinary world that often isn’t safe and can leave them feeling sick for days. If you follow these tips, you can make that navigation a little easier.