Diet Culture and Celiac Disease

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…

Table of Contents

Celiac Disease and Diet Culture Why Celiacs Get Stuck in Diet Culture - tayler silfverduk, RD

So What is Diet Culture?

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.

Identifying Diet Culture with Celiac

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.

Impact of Diet Culture on Celiac Disease - Tayler Silfverduk, RD

Diet Culture is Harmful to the Celiac Community and Beyond…

Diet culture harms the celiac disease community. Period. Full stop.

Diet Culture Made a Joke of the Only Treatment for Celiac

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”.

Diet Culture Blames Autoimmune Conditions on the Individual

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.

Diet Culture Sensationalized the Pathophysiology of Celiac

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!

Celiac Disease and Diet Culture Diet Culture Harms Celiacs - tayler silfverduk, RD

How The Harms of Diet Culture Show up in Celiac Life

So diet culture has done the celiac disease community DIRTY. But how does this directly impact us? I’m so glad you asked.

  • Celiacs are afraid of eating gluten-free alternative foods because they’ve been dubbed “bad” for us. Thus, adding a new level of difficulty to an already overwhelming lifestyle change.
  • Celiacs shame other celiacs for eating gluten-free alternatives because again, they are seen as bad.
  • Celiac bodies are judged by health care professionals, other celiacs, and beyond as “not sick enough” because they don’t represent the typical underweight body. This can even show up as doctors discrediting official celiac diagnoses because the person is too “big”.
  • Celiacs in larger bodies are told they are fat because they must be eating processed gluten-free foods, etc. when in reality celiac weight gain is much more complex than that.
  • The general public does not take celiac gluten-free needs seriously as the gluten-free fad diet trend has caused distrust and disbelief in service workers.
  • The general public doesn’t understand the gravity of a celiac diagnosis or of the gluten-free life because it’s been promoted by diet culture as a choice rather than a medical necessity. 
  • Celiacs who are in larger bodies are often told by diagnosing providers to lose weight at diagnosis, despite the literal diagnosis of celiac implies malnutrition and requires anything but additional restriction. 
  • Celiacs who are in larger bodies feel pressure to pursue weight-loss instead of renourishment and healing of their body and nutrient stores.
  • Disordered eating in the form of unnecessary avoidance of foods and food groups, meal-timing, meal-size, meal-type, and beyond occurs under the false promises of health, healing, symptom management, and control by diet culture.
  • The ability to listen to body cues like hunger, fullness, satisfaction, etc. are further blunted through diet cultures demonization of them.
  • The culture of diet culture invites unwanted discussion, comments, and judgements on what we are eating. Further perpetuating the idea that it’s even someone’s business to determine if your need should be taken seriously or not, yet alone if your boundaries should be respected.

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.

Diet Culture and Celiac Disease: How to Leave Diet Culture at the Door - Tayler Silfverduk, RD

Opting out of Diet Culture With Celiac Disease

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:

  • Unpack the guilt or shame you feel with celiac disease. It’s a motivation tactic used by diet culture to keep you “on the wagon” and is actually harmful to overall health and healing.
  • Unpack the way dieting and diet culture has been serving you. Often it’s a coping mechanism for something. As I said, the promises of diet culture can be soothing, even if they never end up being fulfilled. Additionally, the “control” diet culture offers you can also be comforting. However, diet culture can also be damaging. Influencing you to ignore body cues, hate your body, disrespect your body, undereat, etc.
  • Identify the different ways gluten-free foods nourish you (remember, food is more than just fuel. It’s comfort, culture, community, connection, tradition and so much more).
  • Remind yourself of what your body does for you. You might not love or like your body, and you can still respect everything that it does for you!
  • Remember that your plate is your business. What you choose to eat is a very intimate decision between you and your body. Nobody else needs to weigh in on it.
  • Give yourself permission to end the overeating/restrict cycle and enjoy gluten-free alternatives and convenience foods. (Pro-tip, start one food type at a time so you’re not overwhelmed by the feeling of loss of control).
  • Address your body image with celiac disease. Body image can be a painful topic and it also can be essential to healing.
  • Meet with a Celiac Specialized Dietitian to make sure your current celiac lifestyle restrictions are actually necessary. 
  • Meet with an Intuitive Eating Celiac Specialized Dietitian to help guide you through the tricky process of removing yourself from diet culture and improving your body image. 
  • Sign up for my Intuitive Eating with Celiac Self-Pace Course to jump-start the process of letting go of diet culture.

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.

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