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Gluten Free? The Narcissism of Diet Shaming

By Christopher Clark
October 27, 2015
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In October 2019, The New York Times published an op-ed by Roger Cohen, its International Affairs and Diplomacy correspondent, regarding...wait for it – gluten!1 Has gluten become the nefarious “sticking point” that underlies our most critical diplomatic issues? Or was this just another of Cohen’s haughty rants against people who purchase organic food, implement health-optimizing diets, and keep abreast of nutrition science research? Spoiler alert – it’s the latter.

The gist of Cohen’s latest article, "This Column is Gluten-Free," is that wheat has gotten a bad rap, despite graciously feeding the world for the past 12,000 years. Cohen acknowledges that gluten is harmful for the roughly 1% of the population that has celiac disease, but what about the remainder of the estimated 30% of Americans who are cutting back on gluten or going gluten-free?2

Does non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) exist? Is there evidence that gluten can be harmful for the general population? According to Cohen, people who eschew gluten (celiac patients excluded) are "self-indulgent" narcissists with imaginary food intolerances. "Having a special dietary requirement," Cohen asserts, "is one way to feel special in the prevailing ‘me’ culture."

Narcissism seems to be Cohen’s favorite buzzword when describing nutrition-motivated people, particularly those who buy organic food and avoid gluten. In this capacity, he uses the word "narcissism" no less than three times in his latest article, and in a previous article, he scolds the "affluent narcissism" of the upper middle class, people who purchase organic food while the poor “get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.”3

This gets to the crux of Cohen’s ethos. He takes issue with individualism and self-determination, preferring a social structure whereby the balance of power is significantly tilted toward the state. In yet another recent article, he comments on a Pew Global Attitudes survey for which Americans and Europeans were asked which is more important,

  1. "freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference," or
  2. "state guarantees that nobody is in need."

Much to Cohen’s dismay, 58% of Americans say the former is more important (compared to 62% of Europeans who prefer the latter).4 He then suggests the government should be more empowered to dictate how people eat, starting with a "coordinated policy action" designed to reduce sugar consumption, but where would it end?

What if the government decided that gluten is only dangerous for those with celiac disease? Could it outlaw a generalized form of "gluten-free" labeling? After all, because the US government supports GMO foods and deems them absolutely safe, it has repeatedly thwarted legislative attempts to implement mandatory GMO labeling. Not surprisingly, Cohen also strongly supports GMO foods:

"To feed a planet of 9 billion people," he insists, “we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history.”5

Feeding the poor is a noble goal, even with subsistence-level nutrition, but so is health optimization for individuals, which is a primary goal of nutrition science research. These goals, however, are not incompatible; they are complementary. Nevertheless, Cohen’s steadfast resolve to restore wheat’s "amber waves" reputation prevents him from critically assessing and/or acknowledging the scientific research on gluten, the dangers of which extend far beyond just celiac patients.

Just last month, for example, researchers at the National Institutes of Health published a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial on people who don’t have celiac disease but believe themselves to be gluten sensitive. The results? "The severity of overall symptoms increased significantly during 1 week of intake of small amounts of gluten, compared with placebo."6

For further reading on the science behind how gluten can damage the gut and compromise health, check out Trevor Connor's excellent 5-article review, “The Wheat Series.” Nutrition is always vulnerable to politicization, but rather than choosing sides, why not seek mutually beneficial solutions to complex, interdependent challenges? Being kind and respectful also helps immensely (leave the diet-shaming for the narcissists).

References

1. Cohen, R. (October 19, 2015). This Column is Gluten-Free. The New York Times. Retrieved from //www.nytimes.com/2015/10/20/opinion/this-column-is-gluten-free.html?_r=0

2. Strom, S. (February 17, 2014). A Big Bet on Gluten-Free. The New York Times. Retrieved from //www.nytimes.com/2014/02/18/business/food-industry-wagers-big-on-gluten-free.html

3. Cohen, R. (September 6, 2012). The Organic Fable. The New York Times. Retrieved from //www.nytimes.com/2012/09/07/opinion/roger-cohen-the-organic-fable.html

4. Cohen, R. (August 5, 2015). Incurable American Excess. The New York Times. Retrieved from //www.nytimes.com/2015/08/07/opinion/roger-cohen-incurable-american-excess.html

5. Cohen, R. (August 5, 2015). Incurable American Excess. The New York Times. Retrieved from //www.nytimes.com/2015/08/07/opinion/roger-cohen-incurable-american-excess.html

6. Di Sabatino, A., et al. (September 2015). Small Amounts of Gluten in Subjects With Suspected Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Cross-Over Trial. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol, 13(9). Retrieved from //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25701700

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