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    The Media Encourages Negative Social Behavior Towards Gluten-Free Dieters

    Jean Duane
    • Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Winter 2018 Issue

    The Media Encourages Negative Social Behavior Towards Gluten-Free Dieters
    Caption: Image: CC--Jimmy G

    Celiac.com 01/11/2018 - Gluten-free, food allergies and celiac disease have reached the media in the form of jokes and ridicule. This is a serious development because the media influences viewer's day-today reactions to various social situations. In many ways, TV becomes a role model for social interactions. DeVault (1991) says that "an enormous body of science, literature and even humor tells us how a middle-class man and woman might 'do' family life" (p. 16). This is the fundamental reason why the media jabs about gluten-free and food allergies are so impactful. What we see on TV, we emulate in life. If 'doing gluten free' is something to be ridiculed, as with the examples below, then those of us with food allergies need to unite our voices to be heard in public forums to change this practice.

    An example of food-allergy ridicule is found in a scene in The Smurfs 2 when the unctuous "Corndog King" presents every child at a birthday party with a corn-dog. A concerned parent asks if the corn-dogs contain peanuts, and he says, "No, I would never use peanuts." Meanwhile, a little boy is shown eating the corn-dog just as the Corndog King recalls that they are fried in peanut oil. The parents rush to the little boy urging him to spit it out. Here is the snippet:

    . I think the producers thought this incident was funny. Newsflash: It isn't. This scene has been criticized on various blog sites as making light of allergies, but one criticism from a parent of a child who recently died from inadvertently eating peanuts is especially poignant. The parent said scenes like this are not funny, nor entertaining. Scenes of this nature on TV undermine the consequences of food allergies.

    As much as I love Frankie and Grace, the game that the siblings played in Season 3, Episode 1, called "Bud's Super Needy Girlfriend Game" is offensive. It shows them eavesdropping as Allison, Bud's girlfriend, talks about her allergies to a stranger at the art show. With each statement Allison makes, such as, "it is easier to tell you what I am not allergic to," the group takes a shot of liquor. Allison says, "and that's when I realized I have celiac disease" and the siblings laugh and take another shot. This goes on for several rounds. The siblings ridicule Allison's allergies and maladies in a very uncompassionate way, setting an example for viewers on how to respond when there is a person in the crowd who has allergies. In another episode, when Allison faints, the reaction from the siblings is, "…she always has to be the center of attention. She conjures up some kind of illness. But there's a name for it, 'Fictitious disorder.'" (For a transcript of this and similar scenes, please check out: http://thewalkingallergy.com/2017/08/grace-and-frankie-i-bet-allison-has-mcas/). These responses to Allison's physical malaise are callous and may encourage copycat behavior in real life situations.

    Humans are easily influenced, starting from infancy when they imitate their parents (McCall, Parke & Kavanaugh, 1977) and continue to be guided by what they view in the media, especially on TV. Ramasubramanian (2010) conducted a study to discover how stereotypes of laziness and criminality changed as a result of reflecting on TV depictions of racial/ethnic groups by white viewers (p. 109) and concludes that the ways these scenes influence opinions and attitudes is worrisome (p. 106), perpetuating stereotypes and prejudice. A study conducted by Tan and Kinner (1982) found that interracial children who watched a TV program showing cooperative, positive behavior, yielded "pro-social" (p. 654) social interactions, when compared with a control group. The impact of what is viewed on TV and how it translates to social (or anti-social behavior) has been validated. Humans imitate what they see. Similar to how racial stereotyping is reinforced by the media, so are people with food allergies who become the butt of jokes. The media is teaching unacceptable social norms disguised as humor.

    Disney's episode of Quitting Cold Koala (edited out after parents complained, but still on YouTube in a home-video snippet) shows the character named Stuart (who has a "five page list of dietary problems" according to his nanny) sitting at the breakfast table with other children. He is a cute little boy who wears glasses cocked awkwardly on his nose. He told the cook that he couldn't eat pancakes that contained gluten only to be attacked by other children throwing gluten-containing pancakes in his face! Here it is on:

    . Stuart reacts the way anyone would who has celiac disease. He says, "That's gluten!" and frantically tries to wipe it off his face. I agree with the person who put the video of it on YouTube. This is not "remotely funny. Depending on how sensitive Stuart is, he may have had to suffer through a reaction because of those mean kids. And though this segment was deleted from the final cut of the episode, several people captured videos of it so it remains on the Internet for anyone to see. It sets a sad, and arguably violent standard for how to treat the child that has special dietary needs. Huesmann and Taylor (2006) found that violent behavior on TV poses "a threat to public health inasmuch as it leads to an increase in real-world violence and aggression" (p. 393). Violence toward someone with food allergies, such as throwing pancakes at the person who has just declared they are sensitive to gluten is an example of how behavior seen on TV could be re-enacted in real-life.

    How do scenes like the three examples above translate into our everyday social interactions? Does the waiter who watches a scene on a sit-com ridiculing someone with food allergies doubt the customer the next day as she orders a gluten-free meal? Does the waiter play a derivation of the "Needy Game" seen on Frankie and Grace and have a shot of liquor in the back room with his waiter-buddies for every customer that orders a special meal? Ridicule in the media completely undermines the severity of celiac disease, and other food-related illnesses.

    I experienced a situation the may have been influenced by commercial programming recently while ordering at a restaurant. I special-ordered my salad, deliberately sitting on the end of the table and explaining to the waiter that I needed to ensure it was gluten and dairy free. I spoke quietly, but since there were only two others at the table, unfortunately the conversation stopped during ordering and the others heard me. The waiter rolled his eyes when I gave him my order, and moved on to the next person who said, "I'll take the salad 'regular' with all the fixings" in a kind of a sarcastic way that belittled my order. My dinner was spoiled because I was irked with my dinner companion, and because I was skeptical of the food I was served. This kind of slight happens all the time, and is likely because of the role models depicted on TV and other media that portrays that it is it socially acceptable to mock the person with special needs.

    It is hard to understand why food sensitivities trigger so much negativity. If someone says they have heart disease, they are taken seriously. Other autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Hashimotos, and diabetes are met with seriousness, but gluten-sensitivities seem to be a charged 'trigger' reaction, that I believe has been perpetuated by the media. People ordering in a restaurant seem to be challenged by the waiter – scrutinized whether it is an 'allergy,' 'autoimmune response' or 'fad diet.' When did waiters have the prerogative to make that kind of decision? Where did this 'right' come from? I believe the media has perpetuated these attitudes.

    Nobody with special needs should endure scrutiny or ridicule. I'm frankly glad for the publicity gluten has received because it has enhanced awareness, but I am discouraged about how the media seems to think celiac disease, gluten intolerance and food allergies are a joke. Here is our call to action: When we see something offensive in the media ridiculing food allergies, we need to say something in a public forum to bring attention to this unacceptable portrayal of people with food sensitivities. Please post on social media, or on Celiac.com to create a buzz that this type of ridicule/humor is unacceptable. Perhaps by doing this, we can influence positive changes.

    And on another subject… the winners from the survey.
    A couple of months ago, a survey studying the impact of food sensitivities on adults living together offered a $25 gift card to Amazon to four lucky winners. Those are: Morgan, Angela, David and Tricia. (Winners have been notified and gift cards were sent via email.) Congratulations! And thank you for your participation in the study.

    References

    • DeVault, M. L. (1991). Feeding the family: The social organization of caring as gendered work. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
    • Huesmann, L. R., & Taylor, L. D. (2006). The role of media violence in violent behavior. Annual Rev. of Public Health (27), 393-415.
    • McCall, R. B., Parke, R. D., Kavanaugh, R. D., Engstrom, R., Russell, J, and Wycoff, E. (1977). Imitation of live and televised models by children one to three years of age. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 42(5), 1-94.
    • Tan, A. S., Kinner, D. (1982). TV role models and anticipated social interaction. Journalism Quarterly 59(4), 654-656.

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    Guest Kiya

    Posted

    Thank you for raising this issue. I thought perhaps I was being overly sensitive. A related issue is the proliferation of media articles claiming that most people who are on a gluten free diet do not need to be and do not even know what gluten is (based on unscientific survey someone claims to have done somewhere!), and giving dire warnings about the hazards of a gluten free diet. And that only people with doctor diagnosed celiac disease should ever avoid gluten. And that the problem is very rare. The media has the public convinced that we are just following a fad diet they know nothing about. I am getting sick of having acquaintances and relatives warn me about these things, as if they are concerned I am killing myself by not eating enough enriched flour. I used to politely give people a little education about the broader spectrum of gluten related disorders, including DH, and the difficulty of diagnosis. But lately have started to get a bit testy with them. As for waiters, I have even had them ask me if I was diagnosed by a physician and what happens if I eat gluten. I have resorted to just telling every waiter: "This is a medical issue not a lifestyle choice."

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    Guest Michelle Pease

    Posted

    Thank you for a wonderful article. Unfortunately it's not just the media. I have doctors "roll their eyes" when I say I can't digest gluten and experience rather severe reactions. It so happens that neither could my father and neither can my oldest son, it's not just me. I don't even discuss these issues with doctors any more, my son won't even go to a doctor about it. My insurance will cover a dietitian if I have diabetes but not for a food allergy/ sensitivity. If doctors won't acknowledge food sensitivities and allergy why would the media?

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    Guest Trish

    Posted

    Great article! That is shameful how some shows are portraying people with food allergies. I wish I did not have them, but I do, and to feel my best I have to avoid certain foods. Food allergies and/or sensitivities are serious business! So many people are unaware that their health issues are tied to the food they eat.

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    Guest CJ Russell

    Posted

    I had a similar experience with a waitress a few months ago. I made it clear when ordering that I needed my food gluten free. When my food was delivered the steak had a breaded and fried onion ring on top of it! When I told her that I couldn't eat the steak because of possible contamination she told me that I should have made it clear that it was a health issue so she could have been more vigilant. I have to take a doctor's order to a restaurant in order to not be served something hazardous to my health?

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    Guest Barbara

    Posted

    Thank you for this great article. It seems a lot of comedians find it necessary to poke fun at gluten free sufferers. They should walk in the shoes of someone that has this disease. Or care for a child that cries because they can't have a cupcake at a party. Or go to dinner with their wife and opt out of the movie after because they will not know whether the meal was truly safe. It is not an easy life to live. It is not a peanut allergy where your life could hang in the balance, but their are many consequences to bear. I'm sure most people who suffer from autoimmune diseases, or allergies hear most of the comments you state above. If I were to hear them 15 years ago when I was first diagnosed I would have been devastated. Over the years I have come accustomed to people's behavior and attitudes. I didn't chose this disease, it chose me.

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    Guest Joe E.

    Posted

    Here's the problem--for all of us with actual medical issues, there are likely 2 or 3 times as many following gluten-free as a fad diet. I see so many people supporting going gluten-free for non-medical, woo-based reasons, that I'm not surprised we aren't always taken seriously. Those articles telling people to not eat gluten-free if it's not a medical necessity? I'm all for them if they bring us to the a point where our needs are taken seriously. It isn't a nutritionally balanced diet--especially when chosen by someone with no thought given beyond the woo of "we aren't evolved to digest gluten." They're the ones most likely to be harmed by it, because they're likely cutting out a lot of other perfectly healthful foods. I have no problem with a server asking if my diet is a choice or a medical necessity if it gets me food that I know I can eat.

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    Guest Scott Adams

    Posted

    Here's the problem--for all of us with actual medical issues, there are likely 2 or 3 times as many following gluten-free as a fad diet. I see so many people supporting going gluten-free for non-medical, woo-based reasons, that I'm not surprised we aren't always taken seriously. Those articles telling people to not eat gluten-free if it's not a medical necessity? I'm all for them if they bring us to the a point where our needs are taken seriously. It isn't a nutritionally balanced diet--especially when chosen by someone with no thought given beyond the woo of "we aren't evolved to digest gluten." They're the ones most likely to be harmed by it, because they're likely cutting out a lot of other perfectly healthful foods. I have no problem with a server asking if my diet is a choice or a medical necessity if it gets me food that I know I can eat.

    What about people who eat a low-sugar diet but don't have diabetes? There is some evidence that gluten is harmful to everyone, not just celiacs. What evidence is there that it isn't taken seriously due to more people eating gluten-free? For me, more people seem to know about it than every before.

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    Guest D Glynn

    Posted

    I have experienced scrutiny as well at restaurants. I expect it to some extent - not everyone is educated in this area. I try to be as nice as I can and explain that it is Celiac and gluten will hurt me. If I do not feel comfortable then I will never eat there again. Money drives most things in this society so I would hope that restaurants that bother to have a gluten free menu see the value in the gluten free customer. When I go out it is with family and friends. It's not just one customer that you lose, it is many - over and over. And to the person who said that their DOCTOR rolls their eyes - please, please find yourself a new COMPETENT doctor. They are supposed to be educated, trained professionals. If this person doesn't recognized this as the legitimate disease it is, I don't see how you can trust or respect them.

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    Guest WendyKat

    Posted

    What about people who eat a low-sugar diet but don't have diabetes? There is some evidence that gluten is harmful to everyone, not just celiacs. What evidence is there that it isn't taken seriously due to more people eating gluten-free? For me, more people seem to know about it than every before.

    I agree. I've been diagnosed Celiac since 2003 and back then people had NO idea what you were talking about. I had waitresses, chefs and restaurant managers look me straight in the eye and say, "I've never heard of such a thing," as if medical degrees come with a food service job. Nowadays, even if there´s some eye rolling, people KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN and don't give you that blank stare. I much prefer that. Obviously, knowledge and NO eye rolling would be the best case scenario, but we can work towards that. In the meantime, I just make it clear that it's a medical issue right up front, and that seems to help.

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  • About Me

    Jean Duane, Alternative Cook, LLC produces instructional DVDs (Chocolate, Mexican, Italian and Kids' Meals), video streams (alternativecook.com) Bake Deliciously! Gluten and Dairy Free Cookbook and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Gluten Free Cooking Cookbook. She shows how to cook without gluten, dairy and other food-allergens. Ms. Duane has produced several spots for Comcast's Video on Demand, made television appearances on PBS and has been a featured speaker at two International Association for Culinary Professionals' Conferences and at the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America's International Conference. She has developed recipes for Betty Crocker Gluten Free Cooking Cookbook, for Beautiful Sweets bakery and was featured in Better Homes and Gardens special Christmas Cookies. Jean Duane is a certified chef, has an MBA and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Denver focusing on the social aspects of food. A regular cooking instructor, speaker and magazine writer, she won Kiplinger's "Dream in You" contest in 2006.

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