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How Sensitive Do We Need to Be to Gluten-Sensitivity?

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Gluten-free foods have become more common and popular -- and include tasty treats now. Photo: Mark H. Anbinder/Flickr
Gluten-free foods have become more common and popular -- and include tasty treats now. Photo: Mark H. Anbinder/Flickr

Once there was a time when it was considered normal to mock people for their obesity or diabetes. For a long time, TV shows made fun of peanut allergies. And now, the butt of the joke seems to be people on gluten-free diets.

Even as the gluten-free diets and food grow in popularity, those who struggle with Celiac disease or have to eat gluten-free because of medical health issues are feeling increasingly marginalized, they say.

Dr. Dara Thompson, who practices naturopathic medicine in Mill Valley, puts many of her clients on a gluten-free diet, but she hesitates to recommend it for kids -- unless it's really medically necessary -- because she worries they'll be made fun of or feel ostracized.

"I'm not willing to recommend that in a lot of situations," she said, "even if I think they'd do better and I try to have my kids eat gluten-free at home, I don't want to cause social awkwardness."

Earlier this year, The Disney Channel was forced to pull an episode of its show Jessie after concerns were raised by parents about how a character's gluten-free dietary restrictions were portrayed. Part of the show depicts a character, Stuart, being mocked for not eating gluten and having a "five-page list of dietary restrictions." Stuart also yells, "Oh no, gluten!" as another kid throws pancakes at him. It can be seen here:

In another part of the show, one character says to Stuart, "You call me sweetie again, and you'll be eating some gluten-free knuckles."


Disney responded by pulling the episode, which had only aired On Demand at that point, and posting this apology on its facebook page:

We are removing this particular episode from our regular programming schedule and will re-evaluate its references to gluten restrictions in the character's diet. Please accept our apologies for the upset this episode caused you and your family. We value your feedback and thank you for watching Disney Channel.

That, however, wasn't the last instance of a gluten-free diet being mocked. Now, a petition has been started over a new Hallmark card that makes fun of gluten-free foods.

The Hallmark card is supposed to be humorous, but many feel offended. Photo: Jacqueline Fogarty
The Hallmark card is supposed to be humorous, but many feel offended. Photo: Jacqueline Fogarty

In the petition, Jacqueline Fogarty writes, "Surely, Hallmark as a company does not condone bullying individuals who require medically necessary diets."

Certainly most people want to be able to laugh at themselves a little, but the concern is that the popular image of someone eating gluten-free is either the one Disney portrayed -- "annoying, sniveling, and demanding, repeatedly teased and excluded by the other children," wrote the original petitioner about the show -- or as a trendy diet.

While gluten-free diets have grown in popularity recently, with reportedly 1.6 million people eating exclusively gluten-free foods, there are medical reasons to abstain from gluten. Celiac disease causes the small intestine to become inflamed and damaged by gluten.

Modern hybridized wheat can also be difficult for some people to digest, said Thompson, and immune systems can so often be assaulted by different environmental toxins that the large gluten molecule is just one more thing the body has to deal with.

Certainly as gluten-free diets and foods become more common, they will be seen as less of an oddity. And, here in the Bay Area there's more tolerance of a gluten-free lifestyle.

"It's easier to be gluten-free here than a lot of places," said Thompson.

Adults also may be able to deal with being different from their peers or eating different foods. But it can be harder for kids, said Thompson.

At Thompson's son's private school in San Rafael the hot lunch is provided by a local organic market, which offers the kids a gluten-free option. But, still, Thompson didn't opt for the gluten-free meal for her kids because she didn't want them to feel different or awkward.

While she does believe it's important to be able to laugh at ourselves -- and it's easier to laugh when individuals are talking as opposed to corporations, because intentions can be more easily understood -- still she can't help but think of the struggles one of her son's friends has to go through. The five-year-old girl was diagnosed with celiac disease. She has to bring in different foods to class parties and use different things from the other kids.

"Really, do we need to put more of a burden on her?" says Thompson.

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