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Gluten-Free Ignorance: Reject the Rachels & Vanessas

Ready to seethe? If you've not yet picked up Rachel Johnson's 'Endless dietary requirements are a symbol of our decline as a society' then you've saved yourself the bother of hurling your mobile across the room in fury. In short, the article tells us gluten-free is a fad, we should eat gluten and shut up, and basically doesn't believe a gluten-free diet it necessary.

Ali Walsh is fed up with Rachel Johnson denouncing the gluten-free diet

The former Prime Minister's sister is fed up with all the fuss around dietary preferences—vegan this, gluten-free that. Can't we just eat without a fuss? She's not keen on "specify your dietary needs". Bring back the good old days when you were just grateful to be fed. She admits food allergies are serious but wonders if restaurants should really be babysitting our diets. She thinks the onus should be on the person with the allergy. Basically, she's dreaming of a world where we eat whatever's on the table without making a big deal about it. Old-school. Just like the Tories. Keep the rich, rich and the poor...oh all right, maybe I'm going too far here.

And then, to add insult to injury, a recent phone-in on ITV's This Morning showed one of my favourite presenters, Vanessa Feltz, judging a woman for wanting her entire Xmas to be gluten-free because of a coeliac guest. Vanessa slammed this as "absolutely ridiculous" and "completely unreasonable".

Seriously? It makes me so sad (and not just because it came from a presenter I've always liked).

It goes without saying that both Rachel and Vanessa have ignorant reasons for being anti-gluten-free. My thoughts on this are obvious. But before we come to those, there is one point Rachel has that's important to go over and that's this: did they have dietaries in the 1950s?

If she means allergens, then it's clear allergic reactions to food are on the rise and I'm keen to know the answer to this. A quick check of some trusted websites suggests the factors are environmental, like having better hygiene and fewer parasites.

In other words, it seems as though the world man has invented has become a world that is beginning to kill people. But that's not the fault of the individual. And that's what people are really suggesting when they say, "we never used to have these problems". No, we never used to have a hole in the ozone layer, either. But don't blame the world's problems on the kid with a severe reaction to peanuts.

As for coeliac disease, it was definitely around in the fifties. In fact, it's been around for centuries. The ancient Greeks used to refer to it as "suffering of the bowels". In the 1920s experiments were done by a man called Dr Haas with diets high in bananas to try and combat painful bloating in children. And one of the most educational times for coeliacs was actually during the war (not far from those thrifty fifties Rachel mentions). People often subsisted off food they could grow in their back gardens. Since the carbs were mainly potatoes and not a sheaf of wheat, experts began to realise for those with tummy problems, a gluten-free diet could be the answer.

The trouble with the Rachel Johnsons of the world is they think if it doesn't happen to them, it shouldn't be happening to anyone else. She says:

I have one dietary requirement: food.

Lucky you, Rachel! Thirty years ago so did I! I was trained to eat anything. I'd happily have what was put in front of me. Then chronic pain, bouts of diarrhoea, hideous bloating and my small intestine disintegrating put paid to that. I was told without doubt that I now absolutely, definitely had to be

on a strict gluten-free diet, just like 1% of the world that has coeliac disease.

Rachel thinks we should speak up if we have an allergy but is fed up of restaurants now asking the question themselves. Yet this ignores the fact that a vast proportion of 15-25 year olds with dietary requirements say they're too nervous to speak up. It's been reported as the case for Georgina Mansergh, a young woman who allegedly hated saying she had an allergy but recently had a terrible reaction to her food after not speaking up when eating at a restaurant and then, devastatingly, died.

The self-conscious side of speaking up really resonates. When I was first diagnosed, I loathed being different. I suffered from blushing at the time and would feel my cheeks going crimson as soon as I mentioned gluten. Once, I arrived at a restaurant an hour early so I could discuss my gluten-free dietary needs with the waiter alone. It meant wouldn't have the whole table watching me when I placed my order (nobody wants to look at a table of meerkats).

Rachel argues "preventable accidents can and do happen" but doesn't offer a proper solution. Instead, she laments,

If you have a violent allergy to shellfish, don’t choose it if it’s on the menu.

Oh, Rachel. This is NOT the answer. Those of us with allergies, intolerances and/or coeliac disease know all too well that allergens don't legally have to be specified on a menu. You have to ASK if the food contains the allergen you're avoiding. She goes on to say Natasha Leperouse's death from unspecified sesame in a Pret sandwich was preventable. How? How does she think it could have been avoided? Not from her tactics.

Rachel rounds off her article by saying if Christmas isn't perfect she "feels like crying". Really, Rachel? So you're allowed to be upset if food isn't perfect? Let me tell you something. Those of us with coeliac disease have no choice with our gluten-free substitutes that often taste inferior and aren't what we want. We don't get to choose. This is it: this is our diet. Like the frugal fifties you mention, we have to go without all year round. The cost of living crisis affects so many of us because freefrom food is more expensive. So we know all about the "thrifty store-cupboard suppers" you endorse. Yet clearly you have no idea what that's like yourself because you're too busy with the "127 dishes" you're having.

Whatever happened to the inclusive society we've struggled so hard to build? It's certainly not apparent in the Johnson household. Vanessa Feltz did manage to say it's not worth ruining a Xmas by making a fuss about someone's diet, but it hardly makes up for the earlier comments.

Thankfully, not everyone feels as they do. But until the world properly listens, I won't stop campaigning for better allergen information, better awareness and better food all round.

So if you've got a Rachel Johnson or Vanessa Feltz in your midst, send them this article. Maybe, just maybe, they'll learn a thing or two.


Hi! Great to have you here...

My name's Ali and I help people on gluten-free diets have a better, easier and healthier lifestyle. 

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