What Does Gluten-Free Craze Tell About Human Behavior?

“We have undergone what amounts to an attack of evil spirits: gluten will destroy your brain, it will give you cancer, it will kill you. We are the same people who talk to shamans.”
– Nathan Myhrvold (from New Yorker article “Against The Grain”)

It seems that everyone is currently at gluten-free diet.

By no means I am immune to participate in different fads, but this has been bandwagon I am not intending to hop in. Mainly because I cannot think anything I love more than having pizza, drinking beer and finishing it off with big fat donut. I worship gluten in every size and shape. Also there is not currently any compelling research for non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Why still so many advocate the gluten-free diet and even feel it works for them?

Answer lies in the following three behaviors that are common to all of us:

1.The law of least effort
“Laziness is built deep into our nature”
– Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow)

If there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will select the least demanding (whether cognitive or physical) route. Being gluten-free is a shortcut compared to having balanced diet and moderate exercise. People attribute gluten-free to healthy which is not necessarily the case.
According to the latest research, the problems related to gluten might actually be attributed to FODMAPS. For those who have not heard about them, here is short explanation (courtesy of Wikipedia):

FODMAPs are short chain carbohydrates (oligosaccharides), disaccharides, monosaccharides and related alcohols that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine. These include short chain (oligo-) saccharide polymers of fructose (fructans) and galactose (galactans), disaccharides (lactose), monosaccharides (fructose), and sugar alcohols (polyols) such as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol and maltitol.

My head started throbbing when I was just reading this. Everything is branding and gluten-free is helluva catchier title than FODMAP (in capitals). No wonder that Gluten-free (not FODMAP-free, mind you) is expected to be more than 15 billion business in 2016. That is not necessarily such a bad thing as it increases the choices for those with celiac disease. Unfortunately many of the gluten-free products are basically just unhealthy junk food.

2. Placebo effect
“The physician’s belief in the treatment and the patient’s faith in the physician exert a mutually reinforcing effect; the result is a powerful remedy that is almost guaranteed to produce an improvement and sometimes a cure.
-Petr Skrabanek and James McCormick, Follies and Fallacies in Medicine

Just because something works for you does not mean it´s true.
I am firm advocate of positive thinking (although this cynical blog might suggest the opposite). I truly believe that positive attitude has an effect in your life. I also truly believe that my new weightlifting shoes make me a better athlete.
However I would not attribute anything scientific to these beliefs.

3. Cognitive dissonance
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Lots of religions have predicted doomsday and luckily all of them have been wrong. For example Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted end of the world already three times (1914, 1925, 1976). Despite these failed predictions the amount of their members has been on steady increase. It appears (and also is studied) that contradictory evidence just strengthens the belief.
It is funny how gluten-free believers are so fast to debunk the more recent study that there is no such thing as gluten intolerance (celiac disease being totally different thing). Gluten-free advocates did not have any problem to embrace the previous study though, which was done by the same author (Peter Gibson). It is a human trait to put more emphasis on views that strengthen our existing point-of-views and neglect all the opposite evidence.

It is great to believe in something. I applaud that. Everyone should have right to believe in what they will, whether it is gluten intolerance or impending doomsday (as long as you do not hurt other people).
Believing becomes problematic because it is quite often connected to converting. It is not enough for people with crazy beliefs to praise them solitary; they want to get others behind their insanity as well. The crazier beliefs the more forceful are the tactics of converting.
Gluten-free craze is relatively harmless phenomenon. Still when you try to advocate gluten-free diet for me, don’t be offended by me ordering the cronut.
I just happen to hate converting.

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