Actress Jennifer Lawrence calls it “the new cool eating disorder, the ‘basically I just don’t eat carbs.’” Yet, many students at Harvard-Westlake and across the country still eat gluten-free and say they feel much better because of it.
“Some people think it’s a fad, like Jennifer Lawrence,” said Tess Kemper ’15, who has been gluten-free since April 2013. “But for me it’s been life changing, and in the end I feel better.”
Kemper went gluten-free because she heard it was a big health trend and wanted to try it for herself.
“I felt like I sort of cleansed my body, I started watching what I was eating, I felt healthier, and I lost weight,” Kemper said. “It changed my whole lifestyle. I also started working out more and felt better about myself.”
And soon after, her friend Arin Schwimmer ’15 followed.
“After [Kemper] started, I tried it and felt a lot better,” Schwimmer said. “And also since we both were doing it, it’s sort of a bonding experience.”
The gluten-free diet trend started when a study from Peter Gibson, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, found that people without celiac disease who had stomach ailments lost their symptoms by not eating gluten.
While this was a small study, and later Gibson himself found it to be inconclusive, people found a concrete “scapegoat” in gluten on which to blame their stomach problems. The gluten-free trend caught on, and started growing in popularity.
As a result, the cafeteria started posting signs indicating foods that are gluten-free.
“Both the national trend and requests made us put up the gluten-free signs,” cafeteria manager Nipa Sritanoothamakul said. “We saw more kids that needed it, and we actually had most of the [gluten-free] foods there before. We just wanted to make it clearer and easier.”
Nutritionists believe that skipping gluten should only be done by people who are legitimately sensitive to it, and have had a blood test or endoscope done by a doctor. Doctors say that there are negative effects to avoiding gluten.
“Gluten-free products, such as gluten free-breads and baked goods are usually lower in fiber, iron, folic acid and other B vitamins than wheat products, so a person’s diet can be lacking important nutrients if they choose to avoid gluten,” said founder of Helping Hand Nutrition Jana Greene Hand, who specializes in Pediatric, Teen and Adult Nutrition and also teaches at California State University, Los Angeles. “Accidentally missing important nutrients can lead to nutritional deficiencies and other health problems.”
In addition to missing out on important vitamins, the lower carb diet can be harmful, especially to children.
“Sometimes people will go gluten-free as a way of eating low carb or avoiding carbs altogether in the hopes they will lose weight,” Hand said. “This can be dangerous for teenagers especially and can affect a young person’s growth pattern, normal development and metabolism.”
However, Kemper believes eating fewer carbs is one of the benefits of a gluten-free diet.
“It forces you to cut out everything bad for you, like cake, cookies and bread,” Kemper said. “There are no cheat days. When I learned the hard way that soy sauce had gluten in it, my stomach hurt.”
While Hand does not encourage going gluten-free without a doctor’s opinion, she said that if people do go gluten free that, “it is important that you still include gluten-free whole grains, such as quinoa and brown rice, into your diet, as well as plenty of fruits, veggies, beans, nuts and lean proteins.”
Both Kemper and Schwimmer have few issues sticking to their diet whether at home, at school or abroad.
“At first it was harder to stay gluten-free. My first summer [I was gluten-free], [my family and I] went to Europe, and I didn’t have one piece of bread or any pasta or pizza in Italy,” Kemper said. “Now, it is slightly harder eating out, since I always have to ask about it, but there’s always something.”
Schwimmer has been bringing lunch to school even before she went gluten-free, and Kemper often brings fruits and snacks, so it has been easy for them to stick to the diet. Schwimmer’s dad even followed her, going gluten-free, and Kemper’s family often tries to do it, though they never stick with it.
As far as taste goes, Kemper and Schwimmer are both happy with their diets. They can both still eat their favorite foods, fruit and frozen yogurt, and Schwimmer prefers the taste of corn-based flour to wheat-based flour.
Schwimmer prides herself on baking gluten-free sweets and seeing if tasters can notice a difference.
“I like to challenge myself like that, since some people see gluten-free foods as a turn off,” Schwimmer said. “So I bake sweets without telling people that they’re gluten-free, and after they try it I tell them as an added bonus it’s gluten-free.”
While many consider going gluten-free to be just a fad diet, Kemper and Schwimmer cannot imagine going back.
“If I was somewhere where I had to and couldn’t get necessary nutrients, it’d be stupid to continue it,” Schwimmer said. “But as long as it can be as convenient as it is now, I plan on eating gluten-free for life.”
Click here to read about one student’s gluten-free blog