Tag Archives: body image

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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Bloated

Do you get “the celiac bloat”?

Spend enough time in the gluten-free blogosphere, and you’re sure to find posts about bloating. Many consider it the first sure sign that they’ve consumed gluten. Some even share photos, as though to prove they aren’t imagining things (which, no doubt, many of them have been told).

Though I won’t be posting a photo, I wanted to share a bloating story of my own. This one’s from the archives: an email I sent to my dad back in 2010.

The only context you need is this: my junior year of college, I lost a third of my body weight. (On purpose, although I kept it going a bit longer than I should have.) Just weeks after hitting my “target” weight, I became very ill.

By the time I wrote this email, I’d started to experiment with what I now see as Band-Aid management strategies. They were helping, but not entirely—and not at all with what seemed to me the worst part.


. . . the thing that’s most upsetting is that my belly is constantly swollen and bloated, and gets progressively worse throughout the day. After I worked so hard to get in shape, now I can’t wear my new clothes because they’re too tight. I haven’t had any days for a while where the pain got as bad as it did those few days, so I’m really only dealing with mild discomfort most of the time (although sometimes pretty bad discomfort by the end of the day). But I just feel depressed and embarrassed all the time about the way I look.

I guess you’ll probably think that I’m noticing it more than other people are, and that’s probably true, but if I wore my fitted shirts people definitely would notice. By the end of the day my stomach is often so distended that I literally look several months pregnant. . . .

I’m afraid this will never go away no matter what I try and I’ll never be happy with the way I look or feel ever again. And I’m trying to gain some perspective because I know I could have far worse troubles, but it just seems so devastatingly unfair that at the time in my life when I should be my most healthy and look my best, instead I get this.

Note: This was originally all one very long paragraph. I’ve made cuts and added paragraph breaks because it was utterly unreadable. Sorry, Dad.


When I wrote this, I was strength training several days a week, “doing abs,” and running almost daily. To have this uncontrollable bloat “ruin” those efforts was frustrating, especially since I was more image-obsessed then than I’ve been before or since.

Back then, I felt I would rather deal with mild and increasingly worse discomfort every day possibly forever than be bloated. It was more important to me to look good than to feel good. Sad, right?

Since then, some of my other symptoms have improved. My weight has gone slightly up and down; I’ve worked out more or less consistently; and I’ve eaten more or less cleanly, on a few different diet plans (omnivorous, vegetarian, low-FODMAP, and now gluten-free). But the bloating has continued. I both feel bloated—that awesome “please just pop me now” balloonlike feeling—and look bloated—just a little, usually, but sometimes a lot.

sad mime holding onto balloons

See? Balloons make him sad, too.
Photo © Jorn Idzerda | Flickr

I’m in a healthier place now than I was then, body-image-wise. But you know what? I still find the bloating unfair (if not devastatingly), and I still find it depressing. Some days, I still want to just stay in bed.

Bloating is one of the symptoms that consistently pops up in descriptions of celiac disease, perhaps because it’s less graphic than the alternatives. But it also affects 10 to 30 percent of the general population, often for unclear causes.

Some people don’t think of bloating as a big deal. “Oh, everyone has that from time to time,” they might say (as a friend did to me back when I first got sick). Protesting that it’s different when it’s every day may or may not penetrate, but it’s true: it is different. Sure, in comparison to other symptoms—including my own!—bloating is mostly just a nuisance. But when it happens every day, it gets to you.

These days, I think of bloating as just one more frustrating aspect of a frustrating illness. One more daily bit of proof from my body that I’m not the boss of it.

One day, maybe, I’ll prove it wrong.

What’s your least favorite symptom of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity? Any good “bloat begone” tips to share?

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