Diet culture and celiac disease might sound like completely different topics but unfortunately, the two are heavily intertwined. Specifically, diet culture has involved itself with celiac, as it does with many other health conditions.
In this post, I want to talk about diet culture and celiac disease, what diet culture is, how it impacts the celiac community (as well as other diseases), how it directly harms celiacs, and what to do about it.
Buckle up, because this is a long one…
While not officially defined, diet culture, in general, is a set of beliefs around weight, body size and shape, and the pursuit of health.
It’s the societal pressure on women to take up the least amount of space physically, emotionally, and socially. It’s the pressure to keep our bodies pure and above all, it’s the moralization of health, the body, and food.
To sum it up: diet culture adds good or bad values in the name of health to body sizes, eating habits, foods, etc. Praising those who are in the “good” body sizes, eating the “good” foods, and overall supporting the quest for “optimal” health.
And then shaming those who are in the “bad” body sizes or shape, eating the “bad” foods, and not supporting the quest for the societal standards of health.
This good or bad rhetoric around our health, bodies, and foods, disrupts our ability to care for ourselves on a basic level. It can also enmesh you into the belief that if you eat bad foods, you are now bad. Or if your body isn’t a certain shape or size, you’re bad.
When teaching clients to identify diet culture in their life, one of the activities I offer is to pay attention to where your “good” and “bad” talk come about. Because the most obvious form of diet culture comes in the form of putting things into the body of good or bad. For example, it’s bad to be fat and it’s good to be thin. Or it’s bad to eat processed foods but good to eat smoothies.
You can also start to notice diet culture by paying attention to your justifications. For instance, are you justifying your body size? This might look like telling someone you’re bigger because of x medical condition but you’re still healthy.
Alternatively, are you justifying the food you eat? This could look like telling yourself you haven’t eaten all day so it’s okay to eat a pizza. Or telling yourself you have a fruit and vegetable at every meal so it’s okay if you miss out on them at dinner.
Diet culture harms the celiac disease community. Period. Full stop.
Not only did diet culture take the only treatment for our disease, a gluten-free diet, and repurposed it to offer all of these magical health benefits to the general public.
BUT when they realized that gluten-free foods were only healthy for people who medically needed to be gluten-free, they then told us that gluten-free alternatives were bad. Thus creating this movement in the celiac community of avoiding gluten-free alternatives or else you’re a “bad” celiac or “that’s the reason you’re fat”.
And of course… diet culture didn’t stop there. Diet culture infiltrated the autoimmune space and has promoted unproven elimination diets and restrictive eating patterns to those with autoimmune diseases with the promise of a cure or prevention of another autoimmune disease.
This perpetuates the harmful beliefs that 1. Autoimmune diseases are the fault of those diagnosed with them, and 2. You can prevent more autoimmune diseases through perfect eating, and if you DO get another autoimmune disease well… you simply weren’t taking your diet seriously. And even if you don’t believe that, many do and that further stigmatizes those living with autoimmune conditions.
If that sounds bad enough, not only did diet culture make a joke of the only treatment for celiac, and blame celiacs for their conditions, BUT it also took the literal pathophysiology of celiac disease and sensationalized it as the new problem plaguing the general public.
Oh, what’s that? Don’t know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about diet culture convincing everyone and their mother that they have leaky gut.
Leaky gut, medically known as increased intestinal permeability, a very serious condition with underlying causes like celiac disease, has be touted as the new problem plaguing people.
The only way to cure it? Insert literally any clean diet here. When in reality, only a small percent of the population actually has increased interstitial permeability, and if they do, it’s likely due to an actual disease that needs more treatment than some diet an influencer sold you on social media.
Exhibit A: celiac disease causes leaky gut due to intestinal damage occurring when a celiac eats gluten. The only way to prevent that damage and heal leaky gut? EAT GLUTEN-FREE!
So diet culture has done the celiac disease community DIRTY. But how does this directly impact us? I’m so glad you asked.
I could go on for days. And here’s the thing, I understand why diet culture is so enticing.
It gives you promises of control when you feel like it’s been ripped from you. It offers you control of your body, control of your food, control of your symptoms. All things that arguably can feel quite out of control when someone tells you “yeah your body is attacking itself, you have no choice but to eat gluten-free to prevent it, and even then… you might have symptoms”.
Not to mention, with the majority of society subscribing to diet culture, it’s hard to opt-out. It can make you feel like an outsider, which feels all too familiar with celiac.
And for the sake of your health, your wellbeing, and for justice for our community, and for the justice for other medical communities whose medically necessary dietary treatments have been sensationalized and damaged by diet culture (hello keto diet): it’s time to opt-out.
You deserve better. Our community deserves better. Society deserves better.
Opting out of diet culture with celiac disease is hard and it’s important to healing. It’s hard because it is a lifetime of beliefs and rhetorics you’ve been socialized into. And it’s important because dieting not only distracts you from your life but it distracts you from doing the true work of healing.
Some ways to start untangling diet culture from your celiac life include:
Diet culture has harmed the celiac community. It’s time to start separating celiac disease from diet culture and we do that one celiac at a time.