Gluten Free Tribes – a diet, or an identity?

During my time as a gluten free blogger (approaching 3 years!) it’s always struck me how it’s funny that people don’t just eat different bread when they become gluten free, but increasingly people seem to define themselves by what they (don’t) eat.

This recent blog by Alex about the outraged response by some of the gluten free community to recent scientific research suggesting that gluten may not be the central cause for what has previously been termed ‘Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity’ began me thinking on this. Why are people reacting so angrily to this?

Why should a diet be anything more than just that? Food? And why should it matter so much to anyone?

Of course, food is central to most cultures – so I suppose it’s little wonder that it becomes such a significant part of who we are when we can’t eat, for example, the traditional foods of a religious celebration, or your national dish. People perhaps swing one of two ways when faced with this – to ‘fitting in’ as much as possible by recreating equivalent gluten free foods, or sometimes, to build themselves a new identity based on the diet.

Either way, when you spend a lot of time reading labels and have re-learnt about the central cultural tenet of food and cooking, when you have had to tell many people within moments of meeting them what you can and can’t eat to keep yourself safe; when you have sought out other people in the same situation and formed friendships based on common experience – it’s not surprising that it becomes part of your identity. Comparable with the role that things like religion, nationality, sexuality, or disability play for other people. Diet is something that marks you as unique.

Perhaps people reacted as they did because they have spent years being ill, found a solution that works for them (often in absence of any scientific or medical support) and finally formed an identity in this way. Imagine being told your identity is in fact based on a false premise. The prospect of rebuilding your understanding of how to live, and telling all of your friends and family you were wrong is a scary prospect. Of course we shouldn’t vilify the scientists trying to help us find the answers and help, but it is perhaps understandable that passions are raised – people feel threatened.

Anyway, as a little aside, I got thinking about the different types of gluten free ‘identities’ there might be, based on my friends and fellow coeliacs in the blogosphere. So here I present The Gluten Free Tribes. Please take this as it is intended – a bit of fun. Personally I flit between all of these camps – let me know if you find yourself here!

The Gluten Free Tribes

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Normalisers – I’m sticking to my sliced white, the closer to how I remember it, the better. And how dare it cost more than my Kingsmill used to?! These folks prefer their food to stay how they know it, not to stick out, and are perennially on the hunt for a gluten free McDonald’s. Least likely to tell you they have a gluten free identity.

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Purists (aka quinoa munchers) – not for these, the sliced Genius loaf. These gluten-freers delight in eating naturally gluten free and largely unprocessed food. Expect whole grains, organic vegetables and glowing, slightly smug complexions aplenty. Often to be found on the way to a yoga class or shopping for kale in Borough Market.

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Anti-Grain Evangelists – most likely to have given up gluten based on the advice of an alternative practitioner (or their Cross Fit ‘box’), our often ‘paleo’ friends eschew grains and sugar in all their forms (but maple syrup doesn’t count, right?) and like to tell you just ‘how like the real thing’ their latest nut and date-based concoction is. You can’t help but wonder if they secretly tuck into a whole packet of chocolate hobnobs at the weekend.

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Coeliactivists – these people have been WRONGED  by the gluten eating world and they want you to know it! You and the NHS, and the STUPID airlines, and above all PIZZA EXPRESS! Expect CAPS LOCK, angry tweets to Tesco and a hefty Boots bag of prescription bread once a month.

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Gastronomes – So, so desperate to show that gluten free has not inhibited their love of food, because I just love food, I’m not one of those fussy people you know! To be found at Michelin star restaurants, Instagramming their dinner, reinforcing the recipe-book shelf, or ordering Sorghum flour to be shipped from abroad.

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Free From-preneurs – a little like ‘mumpreneurs’ these folks have spent so much time learning about, cooking for and becoming experts in gluten free, they aspire to make a living from it. Find them selling homemade cupcakes at the local craft fayre or ‘consulting’ for restaurants.

11 responses to “Gluten Free Tribes – a diet, or an identity?

  1. The more I think of your theory, the more I agree that it accounts for at least a part of the phenomenon we witness online. I say ‘part’ because I still see indignation from those with e.g. anaphylaxis – who are never slighted in the press. I wonder whether there’s a strong communal sense of identity between many free from folk that causes them to leap to the defence of any perceived criticism of members of their ‘tribe’. What I still struggle with is the science-scepticism. Nathan (@ideologylite on Twitter) said today that people should read science papers before going on the offensive. I liked the point, but perhaps it’s too much to expect lay public to understand papers (I struggle regularly). Some of those who rage at the journalism or studies haven’t read a paragraph of it. It’s rage in response to others’ rage. Sometimes, it almost seems like a mass online hysteria – and I can’t believe these reactions are representative of the silent majority in the free from community…

    • I find the science scepticism odd too, but I suppose not everyone feels that science is the best/most correct when it comes to these matters, especially if they have been let down by those in the scientific/medical community in the past. I agree about looking for the data behind the story, but as a classics graduate dabbling in the medical world I also struggle! I love the plain language summaries you see on the like of the Cochrane reviews – it would be great to see more of those to help Joe Public cut through the sensationalist headlines in the tabloids.

      It seems that the scientific community is still catching up with the fact that the consumers of their data are no longer just their peers reading paper-copy journals. This of course works to the advantage of the likes of test-peddling quacks who can bamboozle with scientific-sounding language.

      I think the outrage is in fact symptomatic of a number of phenomena – a common mistrust of the medical community, a willingness to believe ‘conspiracy theories’ or trust hearsay/intuition over scientific evidence (especially when you spy big pharma/corporates funding it),When it comes to some of the (frankly appalling) bile that people leave in facebook comments I’m reminded of the worst trolls – everyone feels anonymous online, and it’s easy to type things you wouldn’t dream of saying in real life…

  2. Great piece Carly! What I think you miss is that ‘normal’ people also have a good tribe! Not just coeliacs! I was always an organic, home cooking, rustic, foodie! And like Alex says how representative of the coeliac community is twitter! Aren’t we just the vocal ones with strong identities! Great pics! I’m between a gastronome, purist, And of course free-from-preneurs!

    • Yes this is true – for every one of us stroking our own egos with silly blogs and enthusiastic streams of conciousness on twitter, there are probably 20 just happily getting on with their lives and not letting themselves be defined by their diagnosis! (or diet)

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