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Stop the Free From fad

Beth Carr on why going ‘free from’ should be a permanent choice, not a diet fad.

Have you ever looked at the ‘Free From’ aisle at the supermarket? Do you even know where it is, or if your chosen supermarket has one? Wherever you shop, it’s likely that this section has become far more noticeable in the last few years, as more and more people seek a ‘free from’ lifestyle. Whether its gluten, dairy, soya or a combination of the many food types people cut out of their diet, there are now options to cut these out without having to resort to just eating salad for every meal.

However, has this change sprung out of a medical need, the fact that more people are being diagnosed as intolerant to these things or from conditions such as Coeliac Disease? Or is it more because people are seeing this lifestyle as a way to lose weight, get healthy, or fit in with the latest fad? Take gluten, for example. Humans are actually not designed to digest gluten, yet bread and other wheat based products permeate what we see as a normal diet. Add to that the other cereals that contain gluten, such as barley, rye and processed oats, and those who cannot tolerate gluten face a limited diet when relying on normal foods. It’s not just the obvious bread and cakes either, many sauces and ready meals contain gluten, as does beer.

But isn’t the expansion of the ‘free from’ market a good thing for those suffering from these health conditions? In theory yes. With more people choosing to take on a gluten-free lifestyle, Coeliacs are benefitting from a wider range of food in supermarkets, takeaways and restaurants as companies look to cash in on the latest diet craze. However, there’s no guarantee that those who cut out food groups by choice will stick with their decision, unlike those who have a lifelong condition for which there is no cure. With there being no evidence that a gluten-free diet will help with weight loss and the high cost of free from products making it an expensive habit, it can be easy for those without health implications to simply go back to their ordinary lifestyle, taking away custom from the market. This has the potential to shrink the market considerably, removing choice from those who truly need it.

However, putting economic issues aside, it’s also deeply aggravating for those who cannot so much as touch a breadcrumb hearing their friends empathise with them about a gluten-free diet and then dig into a huge bowl of pasta. In the case of Coeliac Disease, the immune system of sufferers attacks healthy tissue, causing severe symptoms, including bloating, tiredness and malnutrition. To get a diagnosis means months of enforced eating of gluten, multiple blood tests and a biopsy, and the only treatment is to completely cut gluten out of your diet. Of course, it is possible to be gluten intolerant and therefore have a mild degree of choice over how much gluten to consume on special occasions, but to compare Coeliac with a lifestyle choice is unacceptable. Gluten free food remains far more expensive than the ordinary alternatives too, and sufferers can’t simply revert back to the ‘normal’ range to save money.

Please don’t misunderstand me, restricting or removing certain food groups from your diet for non-medical reasons is not a bad choice if that is what you feel is best for you, but don’t follow the crowd and choose ‘free from’ as your latest diet fad. Most importantly, don’t create fake empathy for those who are medically forced to remove key food groups they used to enjoy. And, if you have cut out foods and felt better for it, consider seeking medical advice over whether you have an intolerance as with a diagnosis you will be able to access far more support.

Photo: Moira Clunie, Flickr

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