No this isn’t going to be a technical post about immunoglobulins or whatever they call those things. Not even going to mention Th1 and Th2 responses. No antibodies, no autoimmunity, not even leaky gut. Rather, this is about looking at the big picture when it comes to the global “wheat hunt.” And, as always, this will be a presentation of a new way of looking at things that most people don’t take into consideration.
Diets that eliminate wheat and other grains containing gluten are without question the most popular current diet trend. Diet trends come and go, and are usually cyclical with phases of hysteria followed by dormancy followed by hysteria followed by dormancy ad infinitum. These cycles are probably fueled by human nature itself, which tends to flow back and forth between states of irrational optimism followed by irrational pessimism, only to find a glimmer of hope somewhere and become delusionally optimistic once more. This seems to be even more true when it comes to highly emotional things like our appearance (weight loss) and overcoming chronic and debilitating illnesses – something that the gluten-free world offers a great deal of hope and promise for (with giant stacks of sciencey-sounding stuff, dozens of experts and gurus in unanimous agreement, and no shortage of great short-term testimonials).
Grains have some very negative attributes (phytic acid, lectins, allergenic proteins, linoleic acid, aflatoxin), but so do fruits, so do vegetables, so do dairy products, so does sugar, so do nuts, so do seeds, so does meat, so do root vegetables, so does fish, so do legumes, so do eggs, so does chocolate, so does red wine, so does green tea, so does water. Nothing is definitively good or bad. Almost all foods have positive AND negative attributes, and at the end of the day we all have to eat something. Plus, consume too much of anything and it’s likely to do you harm rather than good.
Wheat does have some positive attributes I’ve noticed in real world practice. It is very calorie and carbohydrate-dense and palatable with a low water content. This makes it fantastic for recovering from a low metabolic rate (and probably why cravings for it are so high when metabolic rate is reduced via diets, overexercising, stress, etc.). It’s impossible to raise metabolic rate with watermelon, but wheat? It works well. Eating pancakes with syrup and plenty of pizza and cookies is a much more expedient route to metabolic recovery than trying to strictly adhere to “Paleo” foods that exclude grains, dairy, and refined carbohydrates – the most calorie dense and palatable of all foods.
That aside, what matters most is… Reality.
Reality Bite #1 – Most people who do notice losing weight when they eliminate gluten from their diets are losing weight because they are eliminating virtually ALL of their favorite foods. Go ask 100 people what their favorite foods are today. 90 of them will contain wheat. Many of the remaining ones will be eaten with wheat somehow, or other gluten-containing grain. They may feel like they are eating more because they are consuming more bites and volume of overall food with the missing calorie-density of grains. But that doesn’t mean they are consuming more calories. Cutting out grain makes the diet less enjoyable, triggers a spontaneous drop in calorie consumption, and a subsequent short-term and temporary loss of weight akin to any calorie-cutting method. In most cases, the weight loss on gluten-free diets isn’t magical or due to anything involving the immune system or inflammation. Dozens of diets could be devised to achieve the same effect, such as food-combining, veganism, carb restriction, fat restriction, low-salt diets, excessive chewing (Fletcherizing), raw foodism, no-sugar diets, liquid diets, etc. – there are endless paths to temporary and usually minor weight loss, and I don’t recommend any of them.
Reality Bite #2 – The vast majority of people who embark on any diet, or restrict any food, will be unable to continue to live with that restriction forever if it is in disharmony with their normal social environment. We know that for major diet changes to take place, it has to be a collective, societal change or else it is extremely unlikely to happen. Even if it did work for weight loss and tangible improvements in well-being for the majority of people, which it doesn’t, most people would be off of it within a year. A diet that nobody will stay on is not exactly a viable health enhancement strategy – and the often-reported heightened sensitivity to grains that occurs after eating gluten-free for a long time leaves a person in worse shape than they were before they started down the gluten-free path.
Reality Bite #3 – Most people don’t need to eliminate gluten from their diets to dramatically improve their health… Even if they are sensitive to it! In fact, the overly-reactive, overly-allergic, hyperinflammatory state that often brings about the poor reaction in the first place, is a state that can be reduced without eliminating grains from the diet. I’ve helped dozens of individuals daring enough to go down that road to eliminate gluten sensitivity. There’s no question that being healthy eating whatever you want is a far better place to be than being healthy and avoiding nearly everything. I look at dietary restriction as a last resort, not a first line of defense. I recommend people “swing for the fences” trying to get to that state of ultimate dietary freedom before they start identifying and omitting problem foods – a route that is extremely stressful, socially isolating, and progressively less effective as time goes on. I encourage people to look at food sensitivities as the disease, not something that causes disease, until they have exhausted all measures to overcome them.
Reality Bite #4 – Gluten-free diets suck. Even if they could expand your lifespan by a few years or even a decade I would still be hesitant to do it. Being carefree and easygoing about your diet and health practices is a strong virtue for health and beyond. And foods containing gluten are very enjoyable to eat, which shouldn’t be discounted as “unimportant” or a sign of “addiction” and “weakness.”
Reality Bite #5 – Grain consumption has an inverse relationship worldwide with most modern degenerative disease. This may or may not be meaningful, and I’m not very fond of any statistics interfering with a person’s highly individual dietary choices, but it’s the truth nonetheless. Generally the more grain and carbohydrates in general that a nation eats by proportion of total food intake, the leaner and less prone to the major diseases that nation is (diabetes, cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease). One example would be the strong negative correlation between grain-based breakfast cereal consumption and obesity and diabetes. Breakfast cereal is indeed a strong protector against obesity, gluten and all.
There are many others that I could continue to point out. Hopefully this small dose will at least open up some people to a few simple possibilities. Possibilities like…
- Gluten is not as bad for you as you think it is.
- Gluten-free diets may not have much bearing on long-term weight loss, if you even lose anything at all.
- It’s possible for many to actually overcome gluten sensitivity.
- Gluten-containing grains, used correctly as part of a comprehensive approach, may actually increase your metabolic rate and the systems of the body that are positively impacted by such increase (all systems, that is).
- You’re unlikely to stay on a gluten-free diet whether it works or not, or any diet for more than 6 months to a year – so just give up on the whole idea of dieting in general.
- All foods have negative attributes, and if you focused on the negative attributes in all foods, you’d be scared to eat anything and be REALLY screwed. Even the act of eating does damage. Not eating does even more. Just eat the food and focus your energy on what you want to do with your time here, which is hopefully not constantly obsess over the tiny details of your diet.
- Restricting any food from your diet, especially something as appealing and endemic to the world’s menu as wheat, will probably lead to a nasty rebound effect when you finally fall off the gluten-free wagon. Expect some weight gain as restricting anything will make you more likely to binge on it to excess as you become increasingly fixated on it during the restriction phase, and expect your ability to digest and metabolize it correctly to suffer as well, as typically happens when you don’t eat something for a long period of time.
Hey, maybe you’ve really tried but you just can’t eat gluten. Great! Everybody has a few foods that they don’t or can’t eat. It’s not the end of the world, and you don’t have to let it define you. Maybe you can stay off of it forever and feel considerably better. Fantastic! This post wasn’t about that. This post was addressing the unecessary and unwarranted gluten-free craze that is currently peaking in our society.
More great thoughts on the gluten-free craze can be found in Scott Abel’s lengthy video series on the topic HERE.
In other news, Happy National Ice Cream Day!!! Worried about ice cream being unhealthy too? Read this post on ICE CREAM.