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The Great Gluten Panic, Part 1

| 1/30/2014 9:25:00 AM

wheatIn the February-March issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, I discuss the health benefits of eating whole-wheat foods. But I also stress that wheat isn't good for everyone. Just under one percent of people in the United States suffer from an autoimmune condition called celiac disease, in which certain peptides — protein fragments produced during digestion of wheat's gluten proteins — severely damage the walls of the intestines. In addition, an estimated one-half percent are allergic to wheat, while a still-unknown number of Americans have a less well-defined condition often characterized as wheat sensitivity or gluten intolerance. It is universally recommended that people who have celiac disease, allergies, or a definitive diagnosis of gluten intolerance refrain from eating foods that contain grain from any type of wheat or from related species such as barley or rye.

As often happens with widely publicized medical conditions that affect a very small segment of the population, millions of additional people have become convinced in recent years that they also are gluten-intolerant when they are not. During the past two and a half years, a cloud of confusion has enveloped the issue of wheat's impact on the human body. Much of the fog has been created by cardiologist William Davis and his bestselling 2011 book Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. In the book and elsewhere, Davis recommends that everyone, including those who are free of any wheat-related medical condition, should adopt a wheat-free diet. He blames wheat consumption for causing a host of medical problems: gastrointestinal disruption, obesity, diabetes, autism, hyperactivity disorders, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia, coronary artery disease and even erectile dysfunction.

There has been other anti-wheat writing coming out — for example David Perlmutter's more recent Grain Brain — but the wheat-free frenzy, which show no signs of ebbing (yet), was largely triggered by Wheat Belly. To support his claims, Davis cites evidence from his own practice, noting that patients whom he has put on wheat-free diets have lost weight while experiencing other health improvements. However, such anecdotal observations do not implicate wheat as the sole or even primary cause of those conditions.

Experts have pointed out that the symptoms that lead many people to a self-diagnosis of gluten intolerance can be caused by a wide range of factors unrelated to wheat, and that excluding wheat or any major ingredient or class of food from the diet usually does lead to lower total calorie consumption and weight loss. On the other hand, a 2010 report from the long-running Framingham [Massachusetts] Heart Study showed that subjects who adhered most closely to dietary guidelines that included five servings of grains per day—with whole wheat products prominent—achieved greater loss of belly fat than any other group.

In point-by-point reviews of Davis's claims published by the Journal of Cereal Science and the American Association of Cereal Chemists' journal Cereal Foods World, very little in Wheat Belly has stood up to scientific scrutiny; in particular, thorough examination of published research (some of it published in the years since Wheat Belly came out) has turned up little or no solid experimental evidence to support the notion that wheat is a top culprit in modern health problems.

Multiple Sensitivities

Nevertheless, growing numbers of Americans have become convinced that their health improves when they abstain from wheat. How much of that improvement is the result of a placebo effect similar to that associated with many medical treatments — a phenomenon “common in adults,” according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center? A placebo-controlled experiment published by the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2012 provides some clues. The study, conducted in Italy, drew its subjects from a pool of 926 non-celiac patients who displayed the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and had received a diagnosis of wheat sensitivity. After four weeks of a diet that excluded wheat, cow's milk, eggs, tomato, and chocolate, subjects embarked on a double-blind, placebo-controlled “crossover”-style experiment in which half of patients consumed a daily “dose” of wheat for two weeks and then for another two weeks consumed a placebo; meanwhile, the other group of subjects consumed the placebo for the first two weeks and wheat for the second. At the end of the trial, analysis of symptoms showed that only 30 percent of patients in either group had had a negative reaction to wheat; the other 70 percent, despite their previous diagnosis, were not actually wheat-sensitive.

2/12/2014 1:56:41 PM

In response to Kevin's observation- as a wife of, and cook for, a coeliac (Australian spelling) husband I am often amused about companies labelling naturally gluten free food as - gluten free. But it certainly helps our friends who invite us to share dinner with them.

2/11/2014 12:12:30 PM

It always amuses me when the lemmings come out in droves headed for the nearest cliff because someone starts yet another allergy panic. The food manufacturers are all too happy to cash in on this frenzy of paranoia, as evidenced by the sheer volume of "gluten free" foods on the store shelves, even labeling foods that have never and couldn't possibly contain gluten as such. I truly feel for the tiny subset of the populace that suffers from this awful malady, but at least now they have more foods to choose from.

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