Why are Women the Gluten-Free Gladiators?

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Why are Women the Gluten-Free Gladiators?

This is a question I’ve asked myself many times while researching or calling in products, or scanning a list of ingredients at my grocer’s.

I interview high-profile chefs weekly for my Serious Eats column, and there I have to conscientiously focus on bringing more women into the mix; there are plenty of incredible female chefs out there, but the majority of the chefs owning and running high-end kitchens in New York are still men.

Yet when I scan my mental list of bloggers, writers, editors, developers, PR representatives and producers in the gluten-free field, the steep majority of them are women: editors Silvana Nardone and Alice Woodward at Easy Eats and Living Without; writers/bloggers/developers Amy Green, Nicole Hunn, Shauna James Ahern, and Karina Allrich; producers Pamela’s Products, Jules Gluten-Free, Better Batter… I could show you my address book and guarantee that at least 85% of those in the gluten-free world are women.

Alex Thomopoulos has an incredible blog and a web show on Hungry - Gluten-Free With Alex T - that I'm addicted to

Alex Thomopoulos has a beautiful blog and an insanely amusing web show on Hungry – Gluten-Free With Alex T – that I’m addicted to.

As someone who hasn’t eaten gluten-containing products in almost 20 years (minus an incredibly unhealthy and disastrous period in college), I’m mesmerized by how grandly the food world has changed, and the gluten-free food world has developed from a few ingredients and progressive health food stores to the insane trend – yes, trend – that it is now. This community basically made me a food writer, as other ambitions melted away when people around me wanted to know more about how to eat on an adapted diet.

I, personally, am probably not the best advocate for this way of eating.

When someone mentions to me that they’re cutting out out gluten and expects me to be excited and supportive, my response is always, “why?” I have a very specific illness that makes gluten dangerous to my health when eaten with any sort of regularity. It doesn’t stop with gluten, and two-thirds of my life I’ve spent having the same conversation with waiters, relatives and new friends about what I can’t and why I can’t eat certain things. Those with Celiac Disease have it even worse than I, and in support of them (and for many other reasons) I think those who can digest gluten should digest gluten. Yes, eating less simple carbohydrates and more healthy vegetables and proteins in general is better for everyone, and even more so for those with health conditions. But if I could enjoy the crackle of a crusty piece of bread or a slice of pizza, you can be damned sure I would.

Silvana Nardone is a cookbook author, the editor in chief of Easy Eats magazine, a freelance writer and blogger at Silvana's Kitchen.

Silvana Nardone is a cookbook author, the editor in chief of Easy Eats magazine, a freelance writer and blogger at Silvana’s Kitchen.

I also don’t expect any special treatment because of what I cannot eat. A cousin of mine, who has a very dangerous allergy to milk, expressed the same understanding recently when we were at a family wedding and both just assumed we wouldn’t be able to eat. When I go to a restaurant, my question is always “what can I have on this menu that takes no or very little substitution?” If there’s nothing, then I just don’t eat. It’s not the end of the world. We eat out for entertainment, not necessity.

While out to lunch with a gluten-free comrade I asked simply for “no bread” to go along with my soup and she followed with, We can’t eat gluten”. “What is the purpose in this?” I wondered then and still do now*. Why vocalize an allergy, intolerance or preference if it’s not needed?

So, no, I am not the best spokesperson for this way of eating.

So I’m curious about those women who really do speak out about gluten, and why they’ve chosen to take it so far. Literally, about those who are so much better at it than me.

Here are some thoughts that come to mind:

Pamela's Products has been making top-notch gluten-free products since 1988. Her mixes are some of my favorite products out there.

Pamela’s Products has been making top-notch gluten-free products since 1988. Her mixes are some of my favorite products out there.

  • Moms are still the majority of caregivers in many homes, and as allergies start in childhood and are very hard to monitor, it’s often parents who have to be extremely vigilant.
  • Blogging became an easily-savy way to get on the web, and so “stay-at-home” moms have an outlet to express themselves and connect with others to share information and opinions. Blog servers also became visually fun rather quickly, and as it’s easy to make a page look nice with a little creativity, which is obviously fun!
  • Telecommuting became popular with the recession, and many are out of work. In a time when we’re ever-reliant on the internet, more sites can get traffic and blogging can be a lucrative way to make money from home.
  • Our interest in food in general has risen dramatically with food television and celebrity chefs, and the word “foodie” now welcomes people to take what they eat and how they cook/bake at home more seriously.
  • We’re turning away (I hope) from manufactured food and towards local, sustainable, organic foods, which generally brings attention to what what we put in our bodies in general.
  • Women still retain most of the purchasing power in the home.
  • Celiac Disease is a real thing, and dangerous, and should be taken seriously. For those with serious problems, why not make more delicious things accessible?
  • Women continue to make the climb in business equality, and small businesses are creating more jobs in this country (percentage-wise) than corporations (as far as I hear on NPR and read in the Times). Starting a business about something rather domestic that someone is passionate about and is a lucrative field right now may seem more feasible and exciting to women than the hard bottom line of income that many men seek (I know that reads as extremely sexist – please remember I’m throwing out questions here, not answers).

I could keep going, but I’m more curious as why are women so forcefully making their careers and social circles about eating without gluten? Why has this gluten-free world we live been so ardently created in such a short time? What has motivated the women who have taken this to the next level?

*This next part has been added in after the initial post.

One thing I love about the vocal gluten-free community is that we have many reasons for eating the way we do, and the majority of them are focused on living healthier, more fulfilling lives. I like to be honest about my own personal journey with food allergies and encourage others to do the same, as no one gets to determine the “right way” to eat or express themselves to another.

What I’d love your opinion on is why is the gluten-free way of eating such a passionate arena that people change their careers, go back to school to learn more about it, start blogs and magazines, open bakeries or flour-blend companies, and spend much time at social events to share information? Why a shift not only in diet, but in business?

Thanks for who you are and what you do.

- Jacqueline

* I had been told exactly what was in the soup by just saying “I have some serious allergies, can you tell me what is in it?” So the bread was what came with it and an added thing.

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28 Comments

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28 responses to “Why are Women the Gluten-Free Gladiators?

  1. Debbie Smith

    Hi I am eating gluten free due to allergies and other health concerns. I choose to be a vegetarian. Both our daughters have milk and gluten allergies. They were the first to tell me I gave up gluten I would feel better if I gave up gluten as they both had
    done. If I could I would love to eat sourdough bread again or order a regular pizza or a piece of pie at a restaurant. But like
    you Jackqueline I choose to order my food and not share why I
    am ordering certain items or why I choose to order a drink only. Gluten free is not a weight loss life style so I’m not sure why so many people are following up. But it sure makes it simpler for those of us who need to eat with out gluten. I hope others will share there thoughts too.

    • Thank you Debbie! And tell me about missing a piece of pizza… a greasy slice with mozzarella is the one thing that CAN’T be replaced!

      • Just to throw another thought in there, I rarely eat out, and I really don’t like calling attention to my dietary needs, but I will always mention being gluten intolerant because I’m very sensitive to cross-contamination and want to make sure they understand that. More often that not, there is cross contamination and I just go back to cooking my own meals and inviting friends over for dinner. :)

        • I think even you just explaining “gluten intolerant” is a smart thing. I find once I get into a discussion with a server it’s one thing, but when I hear people throw out quips or speak with entitlement, that’s where I think the conflict comes in with the guest/restaurant relationship. Thanks for sharing, Iris, and being one of my favorite gladiators :)

  2. Miukat

    Hi! I work with the autism population, and many parents believe that gluten, among other things found in food, can affect behavior. More people get diagnosed with autism as the criteria changes. I went gluten and casein free in September to see if it had any affect on my fibromyalgia symptoms. Many times, doctors recommend going casein/gluten free as an experiment to see if that has any effect on symptoms. I know that being casein free made me immediately feel better (no more tummy issues) and recently I’ve incorporated goat milk products back in my diet, so now I’m just cow dairy free. As for gluten, I feel so much better since I changed my diet, it’s not worth it for me to see if going back will make me feel worse.

    To be fair, I’m not 100% gluten free. If a product has trace amounts (like Rice Krispies or soy sauce) I will eat it. Mostly going gluten free for me means eating less processed foods and a move to more nutritious whole seeds/grains. I keep gluten free products like bread and pasta in the house, but try to eat a variety of fresh produce everyday, while keeping fats and sugar to a minimum. I lost 20 pounds from September to January, but I stress to people who ask that it wasn’t from going gf. It was from cutting back calories, doing light exercise, and focusing on fresh fruits and veggies while avoiding overly-processed foods. Because I wasn’t eating meat, only fish, and not eating cheese and butter, it was easy to cut back on calories. I didn’t even count. You’d have to eat a lot of kale and sweet potatoes and other veggies to overeat on my diet.

    As for communicating with food service professionals about my dietary needs, I believe it’s necessary, especially those who experience violent symptoms when eating off-diet foods. I was in food service for 14 years. During that time I was taught that it’s my job to accommodate guests to my best ability. Long before I suffered my own health issues, I was making gluten and casein free desserts, vegan desserts, things without nuts or seeds for people with diverticulitis, whatever anyone needed. I expect the same treatment as a paying customer and know that on the average, waitstaff are not that educated on the foods that comprise the menu. You may order soup, but maybe it’s made with a roux and you didn’t disclose your allergy to the kitchen, so they don’t know they should tell you to avoid it. Hopefully, scenarios like this can be avoided through education. I’m a teacher anyways, lol. Thank you, as always, for your wonderful blog!

    • Thank you, Miukat! I’m so glad you’re feeling better and high five for having spearheaded this kind of education in the kitchen. I totally am with you that when you cut out certain things it opens up new roads for health – I dropped weight quickly after my splurge / Lyme flare / treatment / new diet in college for exactly that reason: when you have less bad stuff you’re able to eat, you eat more good stuff, and your body thanks you for it. I want to have lunch with you!

      I amended the soup thing up there because I didn’t specify that I had known exactly what was in it and the bread thing was an extra thing on the plate. Similar to when I order a hamburger and after asking if it’s only meat / no breadcrumbs asking to have it on salad instead of a bun.

      This isn’t one of the things I was trying to focus on and will most likely come in a separate post, but my problem is I live in NYC where trends are picked up like bagels: so many people “have problems with gluten” now. I’ve had so many acquaintances and friends come and go with it. And been told by countless waiters / chefs that unless you say “I have Celiac Disease” they don’t take it completely seriously. I don’t blame them. Obviously the better you are at communicating and the better the waitstaff the less of a problem this is. But while it’s great that more people are aware of this allergy now I find myself needing to explain and apologize much more than I did five or ten years ago. But, like I said, focus for different post :)

  3. Lilnda

    Hi Dusty,
    In my experience, women are the caretakers. Whether or not you work, if the woman of the household is not on board it will be very difficult to make drastic changes in lifestyle. My husband in particular does not like to make changes and he wants things to be easy and straightforward. Going GF for 3 people in a family of 6 is a huge undertaking. The timing had to be right for me personally and for the changes in GF products. We have been casein minimal, GF, oat and nitrate free for over 6 months. I keep asking my husband to try going GF. He just asks why? He doesn’t connect any of his symptoms with what he is eating. He has always been healthy and likes salad and doesn’t eat sweets, including fruit. Slowly, i have been able to get him to take antioxidants, start exercising and in general take care of himself. I still have to hound him to go to the doctor for an annual and get his eyes checked. The inflammatory symptoms he has is apparently not enough to convince him to take what he considers “drastic” changes to his diet. I’m working on him as I have gotten through the hard part of finding acceptable alternatives to our favorite foods and recipes thanks in part to your blog! Love the pie crust and flour blend!

    Thank you for your persistence, dedication and wit!

    Linda S. in CT

    • Thank you Linda, for this lovely comment and for being so dedicated to helping your husband feel the best he can! Have you taken him off / limiting his intake of nightshades? These to me are just as affective (so white potatoes, green peppers, tomatoes, eggplant…).

  4. Sis

    I posted this in the Udis Gluten Fee Community where I’m a community leader so perhaps there will be a response there. Are you a member? Free to join. Might be of interest to you. Great piece!

    Xo. Toni (boulder Locavore)

    Sent from my iPad

  5. Eva @ Pastel Bakery

    I am eating gluten free due to an intolerance. I suppose some (who do not follow a GF diet), may think it’s ok for me to slip up and ‘indulge’ once in a while (since I am not diagnosed celiac), but I do take my diet seriously and have stuck with it for over 5 yrs now. Had it been my husband who was diagnosed, I’m not so sure he would have been as committed as I am. I do know some men who should be on a GF diet yet they choose not to change their ways – for some reason they would rather deal with the pain and the health risks. Do these men feel that if they don’t give in to the pain and switch to a GF diet, they won’t be seen as a ‘real’ man? Even after explaining to them the risks involved with not following a GF diet, they still prefer not to change. Yes I do miss an awesome sandwich or a greasy pizza every once in a while, but I feel it is important to do whatever you can to lend a helping hand to your body to stay healthy and feel good.

    • What an interesting question! Have you talked to your husband about this? I’m gonna start talking about the men in my life, but would love his input as well.

      • Anonymous

        My husband confirmed my suspicions. He would still consume gluten filled products if he craved something even if he were advised not to by a doctor. He says it has nothing to do w/ feeling less of a man if he goes 100% GF – its just about giving into a craving. Personally, I would not gamble with my health. If my doctor advised to follow a specific diet I would. You never know what years & years of overloading your body w/ food it rejects, will do to you down the road.

  6. Deb

    Hi, I have been gluten free for about 6 months, at first when my doctor suggested it I did not think it would make a difference with my fibromyalgia. I have always been able to take care of my family if they needed it but not me. Until my best friend asked why I would jump thru hoops for my family then not myself? Well she had a point, it is much easier for women to take care of our families before ourselves. Anyway, our children are grown so with the 2 of us I tried cooking, at least pasta separate. My husband did not want to eat the special stuff because he felt I needed it. But it became crazy as I have a lot of other medical issues & I could not keep up with all the pans!!! Besides after I had been GF for about a month I realized my arms did not hurt & I thought I was feeling better.
    I got really serious & noticed Paul was tired all the time so we both have been gluten free for a few months, I think it is helping him too.
    I also like to make my own flour mixes because when I bake for our grandchildren who have serious allergies to soy, egg, dairy, nuts then I do not have to rework my brain all the time & it doesn’t hurt us to cut down on some things.

    I appreciate you and all the GF Gladiators before me for all of the work you have done. I still spend a lot of time researching, baking but you have given more of a voice for those who follow you.

    One interesting point-none of our children or grandchildren have noticed a difference anything I have made. Also, we have 2 avid runners (they alternate days of getting up @ 4am) who were guinea pigs when I tried Amaranth & Quinoa flours in muffins they loved them, and so did our grandboys!! If I had not had to change my eating I would have never learned all I have about what we have been ingesting all these years!!
    Again I thank you all for your hard work and perseverance!!

    • Thank YOU for this lovely comment! I love that you pointed out how fun it is to mix your own flours – this is something I LOVE about not being able to eat glutenous flours… to the point that it gives me a tinge of smug satisfaction (internally of course) when I interview famous / incredible pastry chefs and they only use three or four flours in their kitchens. They’re missing out!

      You’re doing a lovely thing for yourself, your husband and your family. Thank you for being so good to yourself!! Hugs!

  7. Chris

    It’s wonderful to read that I am not the only one who gains a certain amount of satisfaction from mixing my flours to suit individual recipes! Sometimes, a general “formula” will do but when you can improve upon it, why wouldn’t you?!?

    About missing pizza…this was driving me CRAZY for so long. My final solution came about after I managed to successfully conquer a GOOD gluten-free wrap! Now, I can make g-free QUESADILLAS whenever I want! I don’t usually miss bread but the pizza absence was just so sad!!

    And, yes, there are things like quinoa crepes that are REALLY GOOD! I would never have known 5 years ago! I am much more intrigued by the conversion of recipes now that I’ve had many successes…but, in the beginning, I was so so hesitant. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

    I am not Celiac but I don’t have to be TOLD that I shouldn’t eat gluten. I can FEEL that I shouldn’t eat it. Men who shouldn’t eat it but do make me crazy. They use the excuse that “it’s too hard” to avoid when not at home. HOGWASH! I can do it. They can do it.

    In coaching another new to g-free, I say keep plastic spoons in your car so you can always get yogurt. Any local grocery store can get you out of jam fairly fast…..some g-free deli meat, baby carrots and a banana, the list isn’t short…..but you have to WANT to bother. That’s the issue with the men I know. It takes some multi-tasking to think about it BEFORE you’re starving. They almost always won’t. Women just do it all the time anyway so it must just be easier because it’s already habit.

    Just FYI…I have a cookie recipe that has been dubbed “Those Bakery Cookies”. The gluten-eater prefers them over ANY OTHER COOKIE I make. So, sometimes we can ease them into change. Unfortunately, I still can’t completely conquer the pizza and bread issues. But I will take my successes where I can get them!

  8. Katie

    Hi Jacqueline,

    I’ve also noticed the predominance of women in this area – I always assumed it was because the vast majority of people who avoid gluten, are diagnosed w/ celiac or gluten intolerance, are women. Why this is I have no idea.

    Anyway – your point about telling the waiter that you can’t have gluten. I have celiac disease, and it is imperative that I tell the waiter, because that means that they will take extra care with my food – meaning they will change their gloves, won’t accidentally put a piece of bread on it just to remove it, etc. Any one of these can make me very, very sick. So, it’s easier to tell the waiter, have an allergen alert put on the bill, and get it out in the open. I have nothing to hide, and I don’t find it shameful – so why wouldn’t I tell people?

    • Hi Katie, thanks for the comment! Please note that I do specify that I take Celiac Disease VERY seriously… it’s definitely not something to be ashamed about and something I know waiters / chefs to take very seriously. But as I don’t have Celiac Disease and try to be just as accommodating to the restaurants that are accommodating me, to me it has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with making the experience as friendly and easy for all involved as possible.

      • Oh I know you take it seriously, I definitely wasn’t questioning that! :)

        • Thanks! I may be a bit sensitive about confirming that because I was once the focus of a really scathing blog piece that had completely taken out the section of a piece I wrote where I specify my full support for those who have Celiac Disease, so I wanted to make sure you knew I have your back and YES, definitely be specific! One of the great things I do hear from chefs and servers is that they DO take Celiac Disease and their part in hospitality very seriously, which is comforting to know. So specifying Celiac is also important.

  9. Great article, Jacqueline! In response to your if al question, I can answer from my experiences: because so much of socialization these days revolves around food, and because there is such a sense of nostalgia based on the foods of our past, it’s a huge part of our lives. This becomes even more so the case when one is diagnosed with a food allergy/intolerance. Suddenly you have to be ever more vigilant and careful and going out to eat isn’t (necessarily) the relaxing, fun experience it used to be. Now you have to navigate the menu and find out what is safe to eat. And when I first found out that I had to be gluten-free, I cried for a week. No cake? No pizza? No pasta? WAH! But then I decided to learn how to make it, and not just make an “adequate” substitute, but something that was seductively delicious. It was 2006 and there was NOTHING on the market that tasted good. At all. The limited number of gf options all tasted like overly sweetened sawdust and definitely weren’t a treat for the taste buds. In my case, I had been such a foodie and wasn’t willing to settle for “acceptable.” I wanted thrilling! I used to bring homemade cakes and brownies to parties and watch as the guests oohed and ahhed over them and I wanted that again. So for me, it made sense to go to Le Cordon Bleu and learn the fundamentals of baking. What role each ingredient plays in the final composition. Why gluten contributes to the structure of baked goods. And then I could use this knowledge to make Cupcake Wars winning gluten free pastries.

    I never set out to become a gfree bakery owner: I thought I might just be content working as a pastry chef in local restaurants but people kept hiring me to make glutenfree cakes or cinnamon rolls or pies for them and opening the brick and mortar store a few years later was a natural progression!

  10. When I went away to college, my diet was awful. I ended up with a whole host of Candida related issues. I had no idea it was Candida at the time and my doctor never suggested it. After 10 years of battling chronic yeast issues, I did some research and altered my diet.

    I ended up attending the Institute for Integrative Nutrition to become a health coach and started my own pastry business, Sterling Sweets, to create sweets that better suit my lifestyle and diet. My business is my way of sharing my knowledge with others and helping release the shame that sometimes comes with having dietary restrictions.

    This is such a great post! Thanks for taking the time to spotlight the amazing women making a difference in the GF community!

  11. Great Article! I can tell you why I got into the ‘gluten free business’ and started Better Batter. I was an educated, middle income woman with children who had the double battle of celiac disease and autism in the home (and this is key)…. THERE WERE NO ALTERNATIVES at the time! It made getting in very easy. I also refused to accept that the traditional way of doing business (how you treat your employees and customers and how you source your ingredients) was the only way.

    If you look at the gluten free world – the blogs, the companies – we all came into being at just about the same time. It was a time when internet sales were *just* becoming established and accepted (people finally used paypal and trusted it), the internet and blogging tools like digital photography were *just* sophisticated enough that it wasn’t painful to try and read something of value or see what the finished product looked like. Combine that with a legitimate need that wasn’t being met, and good old western culture capitalism…. and you’ve got a recipe for success.

    It seems odd now, when there are SO many contenders in the gf world, but you’ve got to remember, at the time, there was NOTHING. Why was it life altering? Because I had no choice. I needed to create a better world for my family, and I needed to eat real food, dangit! LOL I think that’s true of all of the female ‘pioneers’…..

    I’ll add one more thing that comes up in conversations with other women bloggers, writers and entrepreneurs – a lot of us also realized that gluten free was a viable laboratory for us to show what business *should* be like. And being the educated, enterprising gals we are…. we took the chance.Took control. Took our place ‘at the table’ and used our businesses to make the world a better place. We’re still doing that. And I believe that’s the underlying passion that keeps most of us going.

    Naomi

  12. ttt01

    One thing that seems missing from your list of issues is the different relationship women and men have to food in our society because of weight perceptions. To pop-psycologize, it wouldn’t surprise me if the dynamics over weight perception that girls face lead them to relationships with food that connect taking power over food with taking power over other aspects of life, in a way that doesn’t happen with men. This could lead to more initial fascination with gluten free cooking/diet than happens with men, which would lead to more women gladiators, as you call them. Anyhow, just a theory, but I do find it interesting how men and women react differently to hearing about my wife’s gluten free diet. (She’s celiac.)

  13. Pingback: My Life with Lyme: Gluten, Blogging, and Fresh Starts | The Dusty Baker

  14. Great article and questions! I think all of your observations and thoughts are dead on. The driving force behind my gluten-free activism was my daughter’s Celiac Disease. Once I realized the necessity of transforming our home kitchen, the professional kitchen just followed. I’m a bit biased of course, but I realized how important arming yourself with the knowledge and proper tools for cooking and living gluten-free was and if you can get that down the rest becomes second nature. I then realized it was my mission to teach others our tricks – this I think is definitely a trait you find in woman. The need to help, teach, and enlighten others. And so though it began as a “mommy mission”, it soon turned into a “culinary mission” and one of things I am most proud of to date!