Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mamamia, food restrictions and me: A reflection

On Monday, the popular Australian website Mamamia ran a story by site founder, Mia Freedman, called Does Anyone Eat Anything Any More?

In this article, Mia takes issue with what she describes as a trend of people not eating certain food types or groups - the two she particularly highlights are gluten and sugar, although she touches on others. According to the vast majority of Mia's article, food group avoidance is often based on bad (or no) science, misconceptions about nutrition, or people just being painful to make her life harder. (Yes, the last is my own words, not Mia's, but it's certainly the general feeling I got from the article).

Mia does throw a bone to those with food allergies and diseases in one paragraph:

Not to make light of the kids – and adults – who do have serious food allergies. Life threatening ones. But as most waiters will attest, when someone claims to be ‘allergic’ to coriander, it often just means they don’t like it. Which must peeve the truly allergic (and their parents) something fierce because it leads to an air of cynicism around food allergies.

I suppose, as a Coeliac, diagnosed by a doctor via blood tests and biopsy, that this was the part that was meant to make me feel all warm and righteous that I clearly wasn't one of the difficult, dreary, boring food pests that Mia's targeting. (Mia went on, in a comment on my friend Nellbe's blog, to clarify that it wasn't people with actual allergies she was critiquing in this piece).

Despite my free pass, however, and my recognition that Mia does acknowledge the struggle that people with food allergies experience daily, I still find the article problematic, and there are a number of reasons why.

Firstly, I would point out that the reality of food allergies, intolerances and autoimmune diseases (like Coeliac) is that they are invisible disabilities. It is impossible for anyone to tell by looking at us that I am a Coeliac, my mother fructose intolerant, or my neighbour's kid has peanut anaphylaxis. Articles like this one, with the bantering, exasperated tone it employs, validate the already strong tendency of people to not take it seriously when certain food groups are requested to be excluded from dishes. I do not want a waiter, bolstered by a "backlash" against "food fussiness", looking at me and deciding that it really doesn't matter too much if I get a little gluten in my dish. I want people who are serving food to others to treat others respectfully and honestly enough to take their words seriously. In reality, because you can't tell, you shouldn't ever second-guess.

Secondly, I would also point out that the absence of a diagnosis doesn't make people's real, lived experience of how their bodies work, and react to certain foods, invalid. Many people with gluten intolerance are not diagnosed Coeliacs - that's true. That doesn't mean their discomfort and digestive upsets after eating gluten aren't real, and should be dismissed as meaningless or imagined. If a person feels healthy, more energetic, happier after eating a particular way, is it up to any third party to tell them that they are deluded and annoying in their dietary choices just because they lack a doctor's seal of approval?

Thirdly, I really have to say that I take issue with the whole meta-notion that it's appropriate to police what other people put into their mouths. (This objection is much, much broader than the scope of Mia's article, in fact). It seems to me to be pretty simple - bodily autonomy means my body is mine, and your body is yours. I have a vital interest in my body, and the right to determine what goes into it. You could argue that others who are closely connected to me - my children, for example - also have a strong interest in my making good choices for my body which support my ability to stay healthy and active in my caregiving role. But I repudiate utterly the idea that strangers have any role whatsoever to play in determining what decisions I make about what I eat (and don't eat). I don't think it's appropriate to shame or embarass me - or anyone else - about those decisions, and I don't think it's terribly kind, either.

At the end of the day, I do understand the frustration that people can experience when serving food to others who have food restrictions, whatever the reason for those restrictions. No one knows better than a Coeliac just how annoying it is to avoid gluten all-the-fricking-time, and I do appreciate the confusion and dismay that people can feel if trying to make gluten free food for the first time to accommodate someone else. Like most Coeliacs, I obviate this as much as I can by bringing my own food or eating before I go to parties and so forth.

But really - is social irritation a good enough reason to disrepect someone else's body and the choices they've made for it (or indeed had thrust upon them)? Am I to hang my head in shame as I mumble my dietary restrictions? Indeed, am I only a "good" Coeliac if I never cause anyone else the slightest trouble in feeding me? (This, right here, is why Coeliac disease is often classed - rightly - as a social disability as well as a digestive one).

I reject that concept of the sociability of eating. I am worthy of being fed safely, even if it involves a little more effort. And so is everybody else - whether they eat gluten, sugar, dairy, meat, or not.


  1. I am so with you on that last point... what business is it of mine what anyone else chooses to eat or not eat?

    I know it can be tricky to feed someone who is gluten free, especially if you are also trying to feed someone who is nut free! But I ask questions, seek help and find a way because the person I am cooking for is someone I care about. They deserve to eat and be well, and they deserve to have their private choices respected, just like we all do. The reason why they don't eat gluten, or pork, or nuts, or meat... that's irrelevant.

    1. Hear, hear, Kate. Part of caring for people is taking the trouble.

  2. Great article! My thoughts exactly Mia was quick to retract the common view point but the message was already out there. I'm a coeliac too and have had many horrible experiences eating out n have had gluten accudently, not to mention functions where the only thing u can eat is what you bake n bring! Are you up for a joint article in response to the original one?

  3. I always ask people what they can and can't eat. As a host who wants people to enjoy my food, why would I invest time and energy serving something they can't eat or don't like. As a reasonably able cook, I see dietary restrictions as an interesting challenge.

    1. You are rather better than "reasonably able", Jus :-) And you are one of the few friends I have without allergies of their own who is always thoughtful and responsive in this way. It is greatly appreciated, I assure you!

  4. I'm so glad you wrote this. Mia was not entirely honest in her defence - she tried to claim she just didn't like hearing about people's supposed self-imposed food restrictions, but there was another in the article to make it quite clear what she though.

    I did mention on Twitter than I felt 'fakers' were akin to 'dole bludgers' and 'illegal boat people', all groups of people whom others are so up in arms about, but who I doubt exist in any great numbers to warrant such a reaction. Who is going to fake an intolerance? It is bloody inconvenient! And this idea it must be medically diagnosed? Apart from the fact your local gp may or may not know anything about food intolerances, even the pediatric allergist said eliminate the suspect, then re-introduce and you will have your answer - there are no foolproof tests for some of these intolerances, oh apart from one's own body of course!!

    When do we look around and say, wow, these food issues are becoming much more prevalant maybe it's time we start demanding food with less gluten/additives etc?

    I shake my head.

  5. Thanks so much for linking to me, this is such a great reply. I always have to remind myself not to mumble my coeliac disease. Shocking isn't it? I have said many times that food is overrated. (just like sleep - but thats another issue!)

  6. Love your blog....always do...keep up the great work

  7. awesome. I love this post!
    Thank you from this Coeliac.