As a Woman with Uneasy Relationships to Food, let me tell you: the easiest way to restrict your diet is to take out a whole group of foods. And nothing cuts food pushers off at the knees like a moralistic food resistor. Sure you can always decline that burger by saying, "I'm trying to eat healthy" but how much better -- and less arguable -- is it to say, "I'm a vegetarian. Don't you know that cows are the number one polluter of groundwater? And besides, red meat consumption is linked to a 30-50% increase in colon cancer." Not only do you not have to eat the burger -- probably they will never offer you meat again -- but you put the focus back on the person by making them answer the lose/lose: Which do you hate more -- me or the planet?
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that all vegetarians have eating disorders (nor am I saying all vegetarians are militant jerks). But I am saying that vegetarianism has long been used by anorexics the world over as a way to hide and distract from their disordered eating. This is a point that my family and I still talk about, a decade after my sister and I "went veg" as a way of not eating. Me, I eventually went back to being (mostly) a vegetarian for a host of health, moral and spiritual reasons without being disordered about it. My sister, on the other hand, while she sympathizes with vegetarianism has said that she fears returning to it will cause a resurgence of her long-overcome eating disorder. Then there's my brother: current vegetarian, never eating disordered, and happy about both.
But in the ever-evolving world of "not dieting" food restricting, things are always changing as people come up with new ways to perpetuate the old behaviors. The current fad? Food allergies. As with many trends, these things seem to start with celebrities. Everyone from Elizabeth Hasselbeck to Rachel Weisz to Geri Halliwell claim to be gluten intolerant. Victoria Beckham and Orlando Bloom, among others claim to be allergic to dairy. And then there is Gwyneth Paltrow who pretty much avoids everything except water (we call that a "cleanse" these days in case you missed the memo).
A 2006 study of general practitioners found that almost all had seen a rise in patients saying they had a food allergy after watching a celebrity interview on the subject. The doctors said that 94% of those patients had no idea of the difference between an allergy and an intolerance. "Food allergies and intolerances can be serious for individuals who are affected. Whilst it's encouraging that awareness is improving, it's crucial that people don't jump to conclusions based on what they've heard or read. Excluding particular food groups can upset a balanced and healthy diet."
A 2009 study reported in the LA Times states, "Only about 25% of people who think they have a food allergy will actually have one." Adding, "And the twice-as-high rates of peanut allergies and four hundred percent increase in those who suffer from celiac disease has got to have more to do than just increased awareness and more frequent testing."
To add to the psychosomatic aspect of self-diagnosing food allergies, it turns out that the blood tests that many (most?) doctors rely on to diagnose them often aren't correct either. Apparently the only true way to test for a food allergy is to have the person - under close doctor's supervision - gradually eat more and more of the suspicious food. I can't see anyone, patients or doctors, thinking that is a fun idea. (Is that an EpiPen in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)
So now the question becomes why would anyone who is not a clinical hypochondriac want to have a food allergy or intolerance? Any person who is deathly allergic to nuts will tell you how miserable it is just trying to buy food at the grocery store, much less eat out. It severely restricts what, where and how you can eat. And that, I think is the key to their meteoric rise. It's one more way to give yourself a reason to not eat something or more likely an entire group of somethings.
Do all people with food allergies or intolerances have an eating disorder? Absolutely not. But are some people using the allergy/intolerance umbrella as a reason to restrict food? I'm betting yes. And it's not just celebrities.
So, do you think I'm nuts? Or have you seen someone who suddenly became gluten intolerant overnight, treating it as the newest diet fad?
P.S. Want to see vegetarianism from "the other side"? Check out this hilarious video! Seriously, even I laughed and I'm a vegetarian (when I'm not pregnant):
Note: If you are reading this via e-mail or a reader, click thru to see the video blah, blah, blah.