Have you ever felt gluten rage? It’s a phenomenon people who have to eat gluten-free may experience. And it’s a feeling that I, as a dietitian who’s had celiac for over 10 years, know well. It might also be described as gluten envy.
So let’s get into it. What is gluten rage and how can people living gluten-free manage it?
Before we get into what gluten rage is, we first need to know what gluten is. Gluten is a protein found in barley, rye, contaminated oats, and wheat. It may be helpful to remember the acronym “BROW” when trying to remember what foods have gluten.
In baked goods, gluten holds things together working as a binding agent. It gives texture and chew to foods.
Most people can safely eat gluten. However, some people have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease which means they need to avoid gluten. It can cause digestive issues such as diarrhea and nausea as well as nonintestinal symptoms such as rashes, headaches, or joint pain.
Gluten rage is when you feel intense emotions around gluten. Diet culture likes to tell us food is just fuel, but as many people with celiac quickly realize, food is so much more than that. Food is culture, community, connection, comfort, celebration in more.
In the case of gluten rage, food is quite emotional. In this case, gluten-filled foods can trigger intense feelings of anger or jealousy.
Some people might explain it as gluten envy. Use whatever term feels like it fits best. Often, this phenomenon is usually an expression of grief.
Don’t confuse gluten rage with emotional dysregulation after gluten exposure. (By the way, if you’ve been glutened, check out this blog post for what to do). Gluten rage is not something that happens after getting glutened, rather is what happens when someone who can’t have gluten is made painfully aware of the restriction via someone else eating delicious gluten in front of them.
While exposure to gluten for those with gluten-related disorders, can make it hard to manage emotions, such as increased agitation, it’s not the same as gluten rage.
As I mentioned earlier, gluten rage can be an expression of grief. If you have a gluten-related disorder that is lifelong, like celiac, grieving gluten-filled foods can occur in many ways.
There’s a lot to grieving a gluten-free diet, but in summary, there are 5 stages of grief that you might experience. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In this case of gluten rage, you may be experiencing the anger stage of grief.
There are also other explanations for gluten rage. Overlapping with grief are trauma responses to living gluten-free in a gluten-centered culture. There are a few different trauma response categories, including fight, flight, fawn, and freeze. In the case of experiencing gluten rage, it might be a “fight” trauma response.
But that’s not the only potential cause of this rage. The restriction of gluten itself could trigger it. That’s because avoiding all sources of gluten is a major restriction of many carb sources. When we restrict, it can cause our brain to obsess over what we’re restricting. It can even draw our brain to release hormones that draw us to eat foods that tend to restrict them.
In the case of avoiding gluten, we often are avoiding many carb-filled foods like pastries, donuts, and bread. Avoiding these foods can cause a build-up of hormones, like neuropeptide y, that drives us to want to eat these foods. Causing intense frustration or anger when someone dares enjoy the foods our body so desperately wants. This is also known as the binge-restrict-cycle, learn more about it with celiac here.
When talking about gluten rage, I think it can be helpful to see examples of how people have experienced it. I made an Instagram post about this topic in Fall of 2022 and many people shared their own experiences with this phenomenon. Below are some of them.
The first example given was “when Italian restaurants only have regular bread and apps and everyone gets to eat those meanwhile I’m hungry and have to wait for my entree like 30 min later”.
Someone else has something similar to say “They constantly have food catered at work I can never eat. Today it was Olive Garden. The smell, the BREADSTICKS, and the cheesecake. Even after 8 years, it still hurts. It’s isolating and most people never realize how emotionally difficult it is to live with.” Speaking from personal experience, not getting to eat the gluten-free rolls on the table with everyone else can be surprisingly emotional.
Someone else said “I feel like crying every time I see someone eat a croissant”. What I would do to be able to easily access fresh baked gluten-free goods like croissants.
Jen from the Nomadic Fitzpatricks wrote that she felt gluten rage during her “Study abroad semester in Spain, just 9 months after my diagnosis, and watching all of my classmates eat the classic “chocolate con churros” delicious fried churros dipped in thick chocolate sauce and having to sit there and watch. It sucked”. Fried food in general can be triggering for me.
Speaking of fried food, I most often experience this rage when Kyle eats crunch fresh French fries from fast food restaurants in front of me. Yes, I know I can get gluten-free French fries at certain restaurants and from the store – but it’s not the same as carelessly stopping anywhere and just ordering fries.
So now that we know what gluten rage is, why it happens and what it can look like, let’s talk about how to manage it. It can be hard to manage such intense emotions. After all, no one wants to explode with envy or anger at people who are innocently eating gluten. And sharing your feelings with the people around you can be helpful.
For example, when my partner eats a delicious gluten-filled chocolate cupcake in front of me, as much as I want to be unphased, sometimes I have to tell him I’m so jealous that I need him to come back to me when he’s done eating it.
Additionally, if you think the binge-restrict cycle might be at play, making sure you have delicious gluten-free alternatives to satisfy you can help too. At least with managing the hormones that might be building up and making it harder to manage.
For me, this looks like making sure I have a variety of desserts always on hand. So if I want something cold, I can have GF ice cream. If I want something warm, I can have fresh baked gluten-free cookies, and if I want something quick I can have candy or shelf-stable treats.
And because another trigger of mine is crunch french fries, it means keeping a list of places I can gluten-free french fries from at the ready. PLUS having gluten-free french fries stocked in my freezer should my boyfriend crunch on his Steak and Shake Fries trigger me (and no, Steak and Shake fries aren’t gluten-free for celiac because they’re fried in the same fryer as gluten).
Gluten rage can be a normal part of the grieving experience of a lifelong gluten-free disorder like celiac. While it can feel intense (especially in the early stages of living gluten-free), it can be managed. If you feel like you need more help with this, a GI psychologist might be helpful.
If there’s anything you get from this post, I hope that it’s validation for your gluten-free experience. I’m holding space for anyone struggling with these strong emotions right now. And know that you’re not alone. Celiacs like me are right there with you.