Are Food Allergies the New Eating Disorders? Cosmo tells all.

Yesterday, I bought my first (and quite possibly last) copy of Cosmopolitan ever. The February 2014 issue boasts a flashy pink cover, “85 ways to get your dream hair,” and a 4-step “bikini body plan.” Good stuff.

But what really interested me was this:

I’d heard about the article the night before (thanks to Anna Luke, @Gfreegimme3), and I opened to page 182 ready to hate it. 

I wasn’t totally disappointed.

The piece, by freelance health writer Jessica Girdwain, makes the case that some people use allergies as an excuse to eat less, and so control their weight. It urges readers to determine whether they’re truly allergic or intolerant to a food, or in fact struggling with disordered eating.

[Edit: You can now read the entire story online here, so you don’t have to spend the four bucks. No, I don’t know why it’s categorized under “Party Ideas & Tips.”]

The story bugs me in several ways. It:

  1. Features a truly repulsive visual of a lipsticked, nail-painted hottie sensuously devouring what looks like an entire naked pizza crust. It also prints the phrase “eating disorders” in the title with a backwards S and a couple misaligned letters. Like, get it? It’s disordered. Cute!
  2. Muddies the waters about celiac disease: Girdwain calls celiac “an extreme form of gluten intolerance,” then states that “with an intolerance, you may be able to eat dairy, gluten, sugar, or eggs in limited amounts . . . And you may be able to reintroduce the food into your diet in the future.”
        Girdwain and her editors might know that people with celiac can’t eat even small amounts of gluten ever again, but Cosmo’s 78 million readers worldwide may not. The way this article is worded, they still won’t.
        Note: The world’s leading experts on celiac disease now agree that the umbrella term gluten intolerance “carries inherent weaknesses and contradictions” and should be ditched in favor of gluten-related disorders. So let’s start. (I’ll abbreviate it to GRDs for the rest of this post.)
  3. Completely ignores the existence of male eating disorders. Then again, it is a women’s magazine. In its pages, men are merely gods who demand satisfaction by the ritual sacrifice of female dignity.
  4. Appears opposite an ad for Hydroxycut: Really, Cosmo? You’re going to lecture us to avoid restrictive diets, then sell us a weight loss supplement? That’s . . . well, that’s exactly what I’d expect.

Still, the article gets some things right. Girdwain recognizes that food allergies and intolerances are real and are serious. Her primary example is a woman who gets her doctor’s approval to go gluten-free, then spirals into orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with eating only “healthy” foods).

It’s a realistic story, but the argument it illustrates is guaranteed to get eyerolls from the food allergy and gluten-free community. Many of us struggle to have our needs taken seriously, precisely because we’re perceived as fad dieters or disordered eaters.

There is a connection, though.

Looking into it, I found there are many links between eating disorders and food allergies, intolerances, and GRDs. For example:

  • Celiac disease can be misdiagnosed as an eating disorder.
  • Made-up or perceived allergies can mask or exacerbate an eating disorder.
  • A person with celiac disease can develop an eating disorder.
  • A person with an eating disorder can develop food intolerances.

About 1% of the population has celiac disease, and up to 1 in 13 kids has one or more food allergy. Similarly, data from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) suggests that about 8% of Americans have an eating disorder. With so many people affected by these conditions, there’s bound to be some crossover.

But there’s more than just coincidental crossover.

Run a Google Scholar search on, say, “celiac disease and anorexia,” and you’ll find that the two often go hand in hand. The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center even includes the disorder on its list of celiac disease symptoms.

The association may be because:

  • Sticking to “food rules” or diets can lead to obsessing over food, restricting intake, and/or binge eating.
  • Associating food with suffering can encourage eating less.
  • Social and familial issues related to health issues can spur an eating disorder.

If you think about it, a gluten-free (or dairy-free, nut-free, soy-free, and so on) diet is disordered eating. It’s highly restrictive; it encourages religious avoidance of minute quantities of certain foods; it brings fear and anxiety to the dinner table; it drives a wedge between you and those with whom you dine. Sure, for us, it’s the healthiest option, but that doesn’t make it entirely healthy.

Someone already “on the spectrum” of restricting and binging could easily slip, once allergies and GRDs (real or fictional) get involved. And (according to the ANAD) 7 to 9% of people who go on any kind of diet eventually develop a partial or full-blown eating disorder. Small wonder, then, that embarking on an ultra-restrictive diet for health reasons might point people down that path.

Getting personal . . .

In my experience, disordered eating and celiac disease are intimately linked. Though I don’t have an eating disorder (and don’t want to co-opt the term), I’ve got my own share of food issues. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease myself, one of my first and nastiest thoughts was, “Yes! A new, valid excuse to refuse food when it’s offered to me. Maybe I’ll lose weight!”

Sure, I didn’t actually need to lose weight, I knew that more people who go gluten-free gain weight than lose it, and I had more important things to think about—like my health, and what to do about my kitchen. But still, I thought it.

I wrote about this more when the topic came up at Gluten Dude almost a year ago (the firebombs thing was a joke), and I’m sure I’ll write about it again. For now, I’ll conclude, with some surprise, that . . .

I agree. With Cosmo. Do you?

Some women (and men) do rely on excuses to avoid food, consciously or unconsciously; and the actual rise in food allergies and GRDs lends the “fakers” more credence. And people with legitimate reasons to avoid foods sometimes take it too far.

Cosmopolitan February 2014 issue

Oh, Cosmo.

To be honest, I find it refreshing that a magazine like Cosmo would include an article warning against restricting foods to lose weight. Of course, the very next spread is an “I Dream of Bikini” workout, and the women pictured in the issue are the very Photoshopped, personally trained waifs we’re all killing ourselves to imitate. But what’s a little hypocrisy among friends?

The article, with all its flaws, spotlights a real issue, albeit an uncomfortable one. I’m interested to see how others in the community respond, and I’d especially love to hear YOUR thoughts.

Have you read the article? What did you think? Do you have thoughts or personal experience you’re comfortable sharing about the GRD/allergy and eating disorder connection, or the blurry lines between them?

Sources (I accessed the full texts through my alumni network, so you may just have to trust me):Anorexia Nervosa and Celiac Disease: Two Case Reports,” “Eating disorders and celiac disease: a case report,” “Coeliac disease and eating disorders – forgotten comorbidities?

Other reading on this topic: “Eating Disorder or Celiac Disease?…Or Both?” on About.com, Carrots and (Candy) Stick‘s response to the Cosmo articleLiving Without‘s 2012 article, “Celiac Disease and Eating Disorders”

Thanks for reading! If you stuck through to the end, double thanks! When me and my dream hair and bikini bod are lounging on the beach this summer, I’ll think of you.

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21 thoughts on “Are Food Allergies the New Eating Disorders? Cosmo tells all.

  1. lisamims says:

    I think you have to be a little bit eating-disordered to successfully stay gluten-free. Having said that, I know a bunch of paleo gluten-intolerant people who use their gluten-intolerance as a reason to not ever eat carbs. (And I’m pretty sure that particular diet is keeping them sick–meat can cause intestinal inflammation in a huge swath of the celiac/gluten-intolerant population.) If you’re Paleo and the list of things you can tolerate each year dwindles, you might consider that there is an additional problem, like, meat.

    As for Cosmo’s take on gluten-intolerance: I’m lucky–my father and his side of the family are gluten-intolerant, and my mother’s side of the family is celiac, so I’ve studied both; I probably have both. Cosmo is spreading dangerous information about gluten-intolerance. If my family is any example, it is lifelong. Also, there is a fair amount of evidence that if you are gluten-intolerant and you’re not careful about being gluten-free, you have many of the same health risks as someone who has celiac and does not follow the diet. (Like an increased cancer risk.)

    Nice post!

    • mollycav@gmail.com says:

      You have a funny definition of luck, Lisa! 😉 Thanks for pointing this out about gluten intolerance. I know many people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity are just as sensitive as those with “official” celiac disease, and that it’s often lifelong. (I’m trying to use NCGS rather than gluten intolerance, again because the Oslo experts now recommend against the “intolerance” word, but I know old habits die hard for all of us.)

      This isn’t meant to put you on the spot, but I’m really interested in the research you mentioned about cancer risk, etc., for folks with NCGS. Can you share links?

      And finally, YES to your observation about paleo diet. I’ve felt the same way. I think a lot of people go “grain-free” because they aren’t feeling better as fast as they think they should, when really they might just need to stay gluten-free for longer and wait for their intestines to heal. And I also think some people should look into FODMAPs, which although initially tough to adapt to eventually is less restrictive than, say, cutting out all fruit, which some people do. (I work on FODMAPs cookbooks, so I’m a bit of a fangirl.)

      And very good point about meat as a possible culprit as well. I’m a vegetarian and, like many, not feeling as well as I think I ought to, and I’ve considered whether I ought to add meat back to my diet as a trial. But I really don’t want to, especially because of all the other research I’ve seen on meat’s detrimental health effects, so I’m holding out for now.

      Boy, this response got out of hand!

  2. “In its pages, men are merely gods who demand satisfaction by the ritual sacrifice of female dignity.”

    Why do you think I’m a long-time subscriber?

    I thought the article, for Cosmo anyway (which naturally has ungodly low standards attached to it), hit on some truths and wasn’t a total hatchet job. For today’s media, that seems to be all we can ask.

    And as usual, your post was amazingly awesome!

  3. Jess says:

    Molly, Thanks so much for sharing this. I don’t think I’ve opened Cosmo since the mid 1990s, but it sounds like they did a better job of covering the issue than Redbook magazine did last year. However, I agree with Lisa that they should not be spreading info that it is okay for those with gluten intolerance to eat gluten from time to time, as so many with gluten intolerance are either undiagnosed celiacs or have NCGS which can lead to serious neurological complications if gluten is not restricted.

    Now I am going to go off on a tangent and vent about dietary fads. A bunch of women in one of my fitness classes are doing a 30d Paleo type diet for the month of July. None of them have celiac disease, gluten intolerance or serious food allergies. They are doing it for fun and to try and lose weight. They are one week in and all I keep hearing are complaints about how “hard” it is to eat this way. They’ve decided that they are going to modify the diet to include two “cheat” meals a week so they can get their gluten/grain/dairy fixes in. Not sure why but I am very irritated hearing about all of it and I want to just scream at them all just go back to their crappy, normal diets or to try to live as a celiac for a week.

    Not sure why I had to share this right now and here, but thanks for listening and letting me vent. I am glad that your posts are back b/c I love reading your blog!

    • Jess says:

      January, not July!

    • mollycav@gmail.com says:

      “Not sure why but I am very irritated hearing about all of it”…I can see immediately why you’re irritated! There’s, like, nothing NON-irritating about that situation. They’re doing this diet they don’t even need to do that probably isn’t going to do them any good, and going on and on about how hard it is, while you’re right there standing by and NEED to do the diet. None of us needs to hear all the time how hard it is to do what we’re doing. That just makes it harder.

      I hope they go back to their crappy, normal diets soon, too. 😉

      Thanks so much for your input and for reading. I’m excited to read your posts again too now that the holidays are behind us.

      P.S. If only it were July!

  4. Mary Kate says:

    Haven’t read the article; probably won’t; Cosmo, etc.

    BUT. I frequently feel, with my list, like a disordered eater. I get a bit (non-clinically) neurotic about things like needing to eat out while away from home (rather than choosing to go out to eat), and food can be a source of anxiety as much as a source of pleasure, and I kind of hate that.

    So I made it in to one simple, easy to remember and follow rule: If I *can* eat it and I want to eat it, I eat it. Sometimes that helps. But all it takes is one misstep, one instance of feeling even minorly ill after eating out, and I get all tense again.

    And then again, every vegetarian I knew in high school was a girl doing it to lose weight and hide the fact that she didn’t eat, hardly at all. So it is worrisome to think that the type of restrictive eating that some of us do to stay well is serving a very unhealthy purpose for others. Pretty sure Cosmo just gave a few extreme dieters a cover story, though.

    • mollycav@gmail.com says:

      That’s a great rule. Of course, people prone to restrictive eating could easily convince themselves that they don’t want foods or for some reason can’t eat them, so I can see how it’s twistable. I get very anxious about eating out, too, and I’ve only just started getting back into the swing of going out (somewhat) regularly.

      I think you’re right that vegetarianism can be a cover story, though it’s too bad because of course for many it isn’t (just like allergies, etc.). The Cosmo story did a nicer job than I’d have expected of warning against using food restrictions as a cover story for extreme dieting (it even had a super-reductive but well-meaning chart that laid out the different symptoms of food allergies, intolerances, and eating disorders).

  5. Laurie C says:

    Saying “I have diabetes” or “I have celiac” or “I have a peanut allergy” shuts down the conversation much faster than saying “I’m trying to lose/maintain my weight” when people are trying to get you to eat/drink something you don’t want. Trying to explain that you’re on a reducing diet or just watching your weight starts up another whole conversation about how much you weigh, whether you need to be on a diet, what kind of diet are you on, etc.
    So I can understand how ANY dieter or careful eater, disordered or not, might take to giving a false or exaggerated reason as to why they are on a restricted diet, just as a shortcut, after the tenth explanation about why you’re not having dessert, or whatever! I can also see how irritating this would be to people whose bodies give them no option about being on a restrictive diet!

    • mollycav@gmail.com says:

      I agree, it’s very difficult to talk about dieting at all because it’s such a sensitive topic. I think a lot of times people feel pressure to diet themselves when they know others around them are dieting, and they don’t like that feeling. The whole topic is a minefield, no matter which way you look at it!

  6. I think this article is more insightful than just about everything else Cosmo does. But I don’t agree that women tend to go gluten free for kicks. I think that it becomes truly disordered eating when the person fears food as a poison. And why not? Their body thinks it is poison, and get just as damaged as from many ‘true’ poisons. An eating disorder is in a way an unreasonable phobia of food that manifests in different unhealthy behaviors. But when you have a perfect reason to be scared of food, it only makes sense that you would be! I think that’s why gluten free or allergen free eaten isn’t even technically an eating disorder in any way, because food really is out to get you in that case.

    • Molly says:

      I think you’re right that most people don’t do it “for kicks”; the majority of people I’ve met who are trying the diet are people who have digestive issues they’re trying to sort through. I do think that disordered eating can make people lie to themselves about their motivations, though. It’s possible some people start the diet, realize it isn’t doing anything for them digestive-wise, but keep it up because it helps them to restrict foods. Don’t want to speak too much for others, but I can see it.

      Really good points about gluten-free/allergy-free diets. They might on the surface look (and feel!) “disordered,” but they stem from a different place.

  7. Vik says:

    Good post Molly. And, Jess, your vent made me smile. The thought of you wanting to go off on the nuts at the fitness class.

    I know someone who thinks being vegan, which I have been over over half my life, is an eating disorder. And I get gaggy at some of the Paleo stuff. So, whatever. I do think that the celiac-based GF eating makes for some weird mind trips on my part though. I do not at all enjoy going out to eat anymore and avoid it whenever possible since the diagnosis, scared of cross contamination. And I even wonder stuff like…you know how you bring home groceries, and they have been on a checkout conveyor belt at the grocery store, the same surfaces with bags of flour that puff out contents. So then that flour dust is on your groceries, and then does it contaminate the surfaces in your kitchen? Or your hands if you touch the items? That’s when I feel like my thoughts get disorderly. What do you all think about this? Is it cwazy? 🙂

    • Molly says:

      Thanks, Vik! (As a vegetarian, I get gaggy at paleo stuff sometimes, too, though I try not to judge.)

      You are NOT cwazy! I think about the conveyor belts all the time, too! I’ve also done things like walk into a non-gluten-free donut shop to buy treats for an office celebration (it’s just too expensive to always bring GF stuff, if you aren’t making it yourself), see a sign saying “fresh baked on premises,” and turn around and leave without buying anything…because what if there’s flour in the air?

      In the above case, I actually do think I was being silly, but I think it’s better to exercise general caution than to slip into sloppiness.

      • Vik says:

        I think you are really nice to even think of getting glutenous treats for your coworkers. I myself wouldn’t do that, there is enough of that stuff around and people leave the crumbs all over the place. I also sometimes avoid bakery type places…like in the grocery stores with bakeries, I steer as clear as I can of that section.

  8. […] Are food allergies the new eating disorders? — from Sprue Story […]

  9. […] Are food allergies the new eating disorders? — from Sprue Story […]

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