Monday, November 13, 2017

The cost of maintaining our illusions

An institution I do volunteer work for made provision for the needs of people who were "gluten-intolerant" some five years ago now. Today, we get virtually nobody. We might see one person a week. That's .06 percent of our clientele. We'd made provision for 3 percent on the assumption that need would eventually grow beyond that. Instead, the opposite happened.

Something similar happened with nut allergies. We never see anyone with a nut allergy anymore. Of course, nut allergies became a big concern many years ago. Give it another decade and I would not be surprised if we have not a single person with gluten intolerance.

There are of course, some people who really can't eat gluten and there are others who really can't eat nuts but they make up a very tiny percentage of the population. Most of the people who decided just 3 to 5 years ago that they were gluten intolerant were just imagining things.

It fascinate me to watch people shift. One woman just up and admitted that she realized she'd been fooling herself. Others, however, are obviously counting on the rest of us not remembering how emphatically they'd insisted that their gluten intolerance was real.

There may be some people who genuinely have non-Celiac gluten intolerance but it's always been clear that many of the self-diagnosed cases were nonsense. I suspect that there was more than placebo affect, which is the usual cause of false self-diagnosis, at work here. I suspect many people genuinely improved their health by cutting out gluten for the simple reason that this forced them to cut their carbohydrate consumption way back. But that's not all. I think the other thing at work was the need to feel special.

There is a power trip that goes with making other people accommodate your "needs". It feels good to see the person who has invited you to a dinner party prepare a special menu. It even feels good to spend extra money to by special, gluten-free products or to refuse meals and treats. There is a price for all this too. In the case of gluten-free products it's a literal price. But there are other kinds of costs as well. People don't want to exclude you but the extra trouble involved in feeding you leads them to sometimes just leave you off the list. Even something as simple as passing up those chocolate chip cookies someone brought into the office has a certain cost.

On the other side of the ledger, the feeling of being special also declines. When gluten intolerance was new and exciting, there was a certain kick that came with being able to declare that you had it. Eventually it gets to be old news though and there is a point where people start meaning it when they say they feel sorry for you. Once upon a time they were keen to hang onto your every word as you explained what it was like. Now they just act as if you have some sort of defect.

Meanwhile, you're still paying for those expensive gluten-free products. Worse, there are fewer options than there were when gluten intolerance was new and exciting. You're also going to fewer dinner parties. Finally, there is a lot of great food you just don't get to eat anymore.

The deeper problem is that you most people genuinely believe they have a problem. These are illusions not fantasies. But once the cash value of maintaining an illusion exceeds the gains it brings, things start to shift around. Now the psychological need is on the other side pushing against this illusion. One day you're going to just go ahead and eat something you've been telling yourself and others is bad for you. And nothing horrible is going to happen when you do. And then you'll gradually slide away from your gluten-free diet. If you're lucky, none of your friends will say anything about it.

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