What God Has Called Clean, The Gluten Lie, and Why There are Still Foods I Will Never Eat Again

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.  He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance.  He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.  In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.  Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”  But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  The voice said to him again, for a second time, “What god has made clean, you must not call profane.”  (Acts 10:9-15, NRSV)

A few weeks ago, my social media feeds were full of advance press for a new book called The Gluten Lie by Alan Levinovitz, Ph.D.  The two articles that kept popping up were both intriguing and disturbing.

I decided to be fair, and asked to be put on the reserve list for The Gluten Lie for when the copy ordered by the very excellent Buffalo and Erie County Library arrived. (Pardon me–I love our public library system here so much I can hardly help myself from giving it a plug at every opportunity.) It got here almost two weeks before the Amazon release date, so I’ve finished reading it.  It isn’t a difficult read, because it is not at a particularly high level of scholarship, but I did find it (as expected) both intriguing and disturbing.

Intriguing because, even though I do avoid gluten and dairy, I try to be fair-minded–and because I have (in conversation, not in any scholarly setting) thrown out the idea that gluten, salt, fat, meat, grains, or whatever may be the 21st secular replacement for religious purity laws (some of which actually do focus on food).  Purity laws basically tell who is better than whom (and it almost always runs to the favor of the people who claim the laws as their own), and by extension, with whom one may or may not associate.  Because some of the earliest definitions of “family” were based on people with whom one could eat, this used to be very much more important than it currently is. Everyone eating the same things at the same time was a much more important social marker when food availability is unreliable or carries a high cost (in money or work), and when food preparation is a laborious exercise.  It’s much less important in 21st century North America, where an alarming number of what passes for meal preparation involves rolling down a car window, yelling into a metal box, driving fifty feet, handing over some money, and receiving a bag of “food” to set on the passenger seat and carry home.  Or eat in the car.

Disturbing, because Levinovitz writes authoritatively about the science behind why most people who follow restrictive diets have no need to do so–but he has no real credentials to do so.  He holds a doctorate from University of Chicago’s Divinity School, and specializes in the food rituals of various religious groups.  His practice is in the philosophy and religion department of James Madison University.  I was expecting, from the first article which came to my attention, that there would be some serious religious scholarship in the book (his mention of Mary Douglas’s important book Purity and Danger raised my hopes.) I was disappointed in the lack of scholarly depth in terms of religious exploration of dietary laws and meal rituals.  More so, I was alarmed at the sneering tone The Gluten Lie takes toward religious scruples concerning food–from “magical” thinking of proto-Daoist monks who supposedly believed a grain free diet would make you immortal and able to teleport and fly (p. 13), to ethical concerns around whether the immoral origins of sugar would  compromise the morality of the consumer of sweet things (p. 103).

For the record, I don’t believe this is true, I don’t think most people in the developed world really believe this–although they may have done at various points in the past. Levinovitz also harps on the “you are what you eat” theory to the point of absurdity:  Most of us do not take this adage as literally as he indicates, or we’d all think people who indulge in the sugars, lipids and nuts of a banana spilt are in danger of becoming sweet, fat, and crazy

But a little more thoughtful exploration of the religious scruples which underlie the ethical objections to certain foods, or certain methods of food productions, might have improved the book significantly.  Sugar may not make me immoral as a result of its historic links to the slave trade, but there are good reasons rooted in the Christian social theology tradition why I might choose a fair-trade product as an ingredient in my alarmingly good (gluten- and dairy-free) chocolate chip cookies.  Peter’s vision in which God declares all animals clean to eat may allow me to eat bacon, but I may still wish to choose a brand which is produced through better animal welfare and land/water conservation practices than one which ignores those considerations.  And my spiritual commitments may lead me to encourage others to do so. Such more nuanced considerations of moral suasion in terms of diet seem to escape Dr. Levinovitz’s attention.  (And these are not particularly nuanced considerations.)

Disturbing, also, because Dr. Levinovitz seems to have a particular problem with people who follow a gluten-free eating pattern.  Although only the first (longest) chapter of The Gluten Lie is dedicated to that particular dietary challenge, he seems capable of finding an underhanded way to ridicule it in every chapter.  He has a particular problem with people (like myself) who do not have a medical diagnosis of celiac, asserting that our problems with gluten (or, I guess, any other allergen that we react to but hasn’t shown up on in blood tests) are really just psychological.  But he doesn’t have a lot more sympathy with those who have a definite diagnosis of celiac disease.  He seems unreasonably excited by the idea that the millions of dollars spent by people who bought Wheat Belly could have funded “at least a hundred studies at Monash University, the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment, or James Cook University, where researchers recently found that infecting celiac patients with hookworm dramatically increased their ability to tolerate gluten. (p. 33)

I’ll let my friends with more knowledge and experience in medical ethics speak to that one.  But I can hardly imagine that there are a lot of reasons to prefer infecting people with a potentially unpleasant parasite to relieve symptoms of a disease that can be treated fairly simply through dietary measures that have no adverse side effects.  I’m also somewhat alarmed that anyone would volunteer for the trial, as you have to have already been off gluten for a while, and showing no symptoms as a result of being gluten-free.  If we want to talk about a study that looks badly conceived, this would be it.

Levinovitz’s research is thorough, but unbalanced.  As expected with any research (my own included), you cite what supports your argument.  But, in a book that is not any more scholarly than those he condemns, he only cites the crazies, like Mark Hyman’s Blood Sugar Solution (I’ll get to my own view of this in a moment), the aforementioned Wheat Belly, and the accompanying Grain Brain.  There is some legitimacy in his disdain for pure celebrity promotion of limited dietary programs, such as those of Elisabeth Hasselbeck, even if his own credentials as a dietary specialist are no better than a former talk-show hostess.

Dr. Oz may or may not be a different story.  He does have some medical credentials, although people are beginning to think less of him than they did perhaps 15 years or so ago.  Nonetheless, I watched a lot of bad daytime television while I was confined to an existence on the sofa-bed in the living room after breaking my patella in January of 2013.  I was pretty looped out on oxycodone, and that fantasy of downloading some dictionaries to my Kindle and learning enough Russian to read Tolstoy in the original language kind of went out the window into the Western New York snow. And occasionally, I took a break from the Weather Channel (I could watch for hours and not know whether we were supposed to have more snow the next day), or the Law and Order SVU-a-thon that runs several days a week.  Sometimes I landed on Dr. Oz, and one day I saw Mark Hyman promoting the companion cookbook to Blood Sugar Solution.  I love to cook, and it promised that every recipe catered to my dietary restrictions of gluten- and dairy-free.  So, I ordered it.  The big problem wasn’t that promises of improved health and a cure for the diabesity from which I do not suffer went unfulfilled.  My complaint is that the recipes were poorly written and for the most part just sucked.

But Levinovitz has a significant problem with people like me, who have not got a diagnosis from a doctor  but still choose to be gluten free. We are, according to him, experiencing a “nocebo” effect–we expect bad things to happen when we eat certain things, and so, (according to him) without medical cause, they happen.  If we didn’t expect them to happen, they wouldn’t. And unless we have a doctor’s diagnosis, we can’t possibly really experience a true benefit from changing our diets.  If you don’t have a doctor telling you to be gluten-free, and a lab test or biopsy to back it up, you can’t possibly feel better for having eliminated something that most of the world finds harmless.

Except, yes, you can.  For most people, penicillin is a miracle drug. And I took it safely until I was a junior in high school.  Early one week, I was sick with a very bad sinus infection, and my doctor prescribed the drug as he had always done. By Saturday, I was well enough to go into New York City for a day with my parents, and I took my tablet at dinner.  A few hours later, I had to leave the concert which was the reason we went into the city, because I was having a severe reaction–difficulty breathing, hives, swelling throat.  I got epinephrine (before self-administered pens were common), oxygen, and was sent to the hospital.  When I was my own doctor the next day, he ordered allergy tests.  I did not test positive to penicillin.  But his response was, “Let’s not risk it again, okay?”  Because, sometimes the tests are wrong.

Maybe I wasn’t truly having a reaction to gluten early last September, when I “cheated” and had a tiny handful of Rold Gold mini-pretzel twists.  But not much later, I had a headache which I was convinced could only be cured by decapitation.  I spent the next 48 hours camped on the bathroom floor (no small trick after you’ve broken your kneecap) to minimize the travel time for each instance of vomiting. The only sustenance I could keep down (which sat beside me next to the crapper, which is always a lovely place for a picnic) was rice crackers and ginger ale. I missed a total of three days of family gatherings because even after I failed to obtain a prescription for a guillotine, I did not feel well enough to ride in the car.

All in my head? Perhaps. The family member who tended to me did notice that there were some obvious physical manifestations of whatever troubled my mind.

Do I have a proper celiac diagnosis? No. Is non-celiac gluten sensitivity real? Some people doubt it. Does anyone think I’m doing this again?

As they say, hell to the no.

But has gluten-free “ruined” my “relationship with food” (a silly linguistic construction if one ever existed), as Dr. Levinovitz claims the “movement” is doing (and, again, as someone whose expertise is very different, he has no qualifications to make such an assertion)?

Again, hell to the no.

It might have done if, prior to eliminating foods from my diet (after tracking my consumption, activities, and wellness in a journal for months), I had no knowledge of food or skill in the kitchen.  If my idea of “food” was limited to something along the lines of picking up a McDonald’s family “meal”, I would have really wondered what the heck was left to eat that I might enjoy.  But, fortunately, that crap isn’t “food”.  It has never been more than an emergency source of calories when I’ve been on long road trips–never daily sustenance.

I’ve been cooking fairly seriously since I got my Girl Scout badge when I was nine.  That’s a long time.  I had significant responsibilities in preparing meals for a family of five by the time I entered high school.  I’ve cooked for people with a range of allergies and other medical  needs–diabetes, colostomy, pre-transplant kidney patients. Their limitations are far more severe than mine.  Yet nobody is going to tell a cancer survivor that the “colostomy movement is ruining our relationship with food.”

My reaction was never, “there’s nothing to eat.”  Certainly not “there’s nothing good to eat.”  My response was, “what else is there?”

Rather than limiting my food horizons to the pizza and bread and Chips Ahoy! (who prefers those to an awesome homemade cookie, anyway?) which make gluten such a universally “beloved” ingredient according to Dr. Levinovitz, I cut loose and experimented–with different ethnicities, different flavors.

Since about 80% of the food we eat is (gasp) naturally gluten-free anyway (and all fresh ingredients except gluten-bearing grains are), a gluten-free diet is not limiting.  If I circle the perimeter of a standard supermarket, where the fresh foods are, there is a feast waiting.  The first thing is the produce:  I pick up an avocado, it’s gluten-free.  I pick up a bag of apples, no need to read a label.  Broccoli, onions, sweet potatoes?  All safe.  Exotic things like dragon fruit?  Safe.

Same thing in meats and seafood–if it came off the hoof or the boat, and nothing’s been done to it but cut the animal apart, it’s safe.  Even much processed meat is gluten-free.

So is the dairy aisle (even though I don’t eat dairy), and eggs.  Most canned fruits and vegetables are gluten-free.  So are many cereals and grains, such as quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, millet.  Legumes? Again, safe on the gluten-free diet.

Most of the things we could do with less of in our diets–cookies, pies, cakes (more because they’re a lot of calories without much in the way of nutrition)–are where the gluten is. And if I need the occasional chocolate chip cookie (and I do), I  blend up a batch of gluten free starches into an all purpose flour, and bake a better one than I can buy.

By the way, those starches usually come cheapest from the Chinese and Indian markets, because those cuisines use them extensively. And a trip into those markets is enough to broaden anyone’s food horizons.

What, then, is Levinovitz’s problem with people who don’t eat a very small percentage of the available foods–especially when the foods they don’t eat are not essential to health, and do not pose serious limitations?

Sure, Levinovitz focuses on the crazies to make his point; he’s the trick the attention-whores are trying to hook, and the attention-whores have succeeded.  Sure, there’s some reputable science, but that too will be refuted in a year or two. But his point is destroyed by his failure to  listen to the larger body of people, most of them sane and non-proselytizing, who have decided to eliminate certain foods that simply don’t agree with them.

Along with Levinovitz’s book, I have on my desk three gluten (and other allergen-free) cookbooks, and the latest issue of Simply Gluten Free magazine.  All of the books– Silvana Nardone’s Cooking for Isaiah; Alice Sherwood’s Allergy Free Cookbook; and Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne’s How to Cook for Food Allergies-share a similar motivation.  It isn’t to get rich, to get publicity, or bolster a declining public presence. It’s one of the most fundamental human impulses: feed my kids food that is appealing and doesn’t make them sick. Nardone’s introduction starts off :

I am not a doctor.  I am not a nutritionist.  I am not a trained chef.  I am not a food scientist.  I am just a mom who wants to feed her kids. . . . I just wanted my family to be happy.  I was desperate to blur the lines between gluten-free and gluten-full. . . I wanted Isaiah to experience firsthand that removing gluten from a recipe could mean that food could taste and look just as good, if not better, than its conventional counterpart. . . .Gradually I developed new [recipes] that would deliver on taste and texture.  It took some time, but eventually it all came together.  I figured out how to make food that everyone can sit down and enjoy together.

A parent whose child is obviously unwell because of what s/he eats is going to do this.  And other parents–and some of us non-parents–are going to encourage each other by sharing tips, stories, recipes, sources for ingredients. Sometimes, it means getting creative. Sometimes, that creativity is rewarded by a publisher offering a contract for a book of beautiful foods that are safe for just about everyone gathered at the table.

How does this ruin anybody’s “relationship with food”? Where is the harm in finding work-arounds for those who need them?  Where is the harm in feeding people without limitations perfectly good food so that only one meal needs to be prepared?

Levinovitz hasn’t listened to the people who are trying to make our food limitations less of a social liability than other people want to make them, like today’s letter to the Gluten Dude.

The best advice comes from Dr. Stephen Wangen, the Medical Director of the Irritable Bowel Syndrome Treatment Center, because it is so simple and so sane:

If you feel better when you avoid gluten, then you feel better when you avoid gluten. That may sound repetitive, but it never ceases to amaze me how many people I meet who don’t trust their experience of their own health. (Simply Gluten Free magazine, May-June 2015, p. 31)

In other words, trust your gut.

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