Even Teens are Paying Attention to Gluten, Nowadays

For the last three weeks, I lived in a college dorm with other teenage girls, and for a building where the main source of trash was massive numbers of snack food wrappers, there was certainly a good deal of discussion about dieting and nutrition. Which was rather concerning. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to fad diets and eating disorders – 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25, which is an alarmingly high statistic.
In addition, gluten’s been a hot topic lately, with the FDA recently defining the term “gluten-free” on packaging. The thing is, though, it’s just a protein. It’s harmless unless you have celiac disease or gluten insensitivity, and even beneficial if you’re vegetarian/vegan and need extra protein in your diet. However, gluten has recently become vilified in the media and online, to the extent that 30 percent of adults claimed to cut down on gluten or avoid gluten completely.
A diet, such as a gluten-free one, often veers on the side of “fad” if it cuts out an entire food group. And teenage girls tend to be drawn towards fad diets. Can you see where this is going?
I saw the trickle-down effect of the vilification of gluten during my summer program. One of my roommate’s friends had come into the room, and somehow the topic had come to gluten-free diets. The friend said that she was going to stop eating gluten, which raised my suspicions somewhat. She claimed that gluten gave her horrible headaches, and besides, modern wheat is really bad for you! Apparently, it’s been “scientifically proven – like, there are books written about it. Have you heard of ‘Wheat Belly’?”. I sighed, and told her that that fine, maybe she did have a gluten insensitivity (who am I to judge?), but that didn’t mean that wheat or gluten were inherently bad for you. I tried to pull up some pages on the Internet to support my claim, but the two of them had already lost interest.
A couple minutes later, as I walked down the hall to the bathroom, I heard some people talking behind a door. I paused when I heard the word “gluten”. Then I realized that they were talking about me. I gathered that to them, I appeared totally wrong, kind of uptight, and also kind of a loser, as usual.
Several days after that, I found some whole-wheat bread in the mini fridge in our room and offered it to my roommate. She said, “thanks, but I think I’m going to cut down on gluten.”

I guess this wasn’t just about gluten-free diets among teenagers, but also about the question: as a budding skeptic, how do you go about promoting scientific literacy amongst your peers in a discriminating and socially acceptable manner? I still haven’t found the answer myself, but perhaps there is a way. Leave your ideas in the comments!

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Zhanpei is virtually unpronounceable by most of the English-speaking world (as substitute teachers can attest), so you can call her PeiPei (pronounced like "pay") or just Pei. She's a 16-year-old high school junior and is way into science, cooking, art, and high fantasy literature.

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