The New Yorker in its next issue dives deep into the tasty dough of the gluten-free movement. It’s rightly skeptical (and that coming from someone who avoids wheat, and who knows when I do eat it that it is a luxury). A few highlights:
While there are no scientific data to demonstrate that millions of people have become allergic or intolerant to gluten (or to other wheat proteins), there is convincing and repeated evidence that dietary self-diagnoses are almost always wrong, particularly when the diagnosis extends to most of society. We still feel more comfortable relying on anecdotes and intuition than on statistics or data. Since the nineteen-sixties, for example, monosodium glutamate, or MSG, has been vilified. Even now, it is common to see Chinese restaurants advertise their food as “MSG-free.” The symptoms that MSG is purported to cause—headaches and palpitations are among the most frequently cited—were initially described as “Chinese-restaurant syndrome” in a letter published, in 1968, inThe New England Journal of Medicine. The Internet is filled with sites that name the “hidden” sources of MSG. Yet, after decades of study, there is no evidence that MSG causes those symptoms or any others. This should surprise no one, since there are no chemical differences between the naturally occurring glutamate ions in our bodies and those present in the MSG we eat. Nor is MSG simply an additive: there is MSG in tomatoes, Parmesan, potatoes, mushrooms, and many other foods.
Peter H. R. Green, the director of the celiac-disease center at the Columbia University medical school and one of the nation’s most prominent celiac doctors, says that the opposition to gluten has followed a similar pattern, and that it is harming at least as many people as it is helping. “This is a largely self-diagnosed disease,’’ Green said, when I visited his office, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “In the absence of celiac disease, physicians don’t usually tell people they are sensitive to gluten. This is becoming one of the most difficult problems that I face in my daily practice.”
He went on, “I recently saw a retired executive of an international company. He got a life coach to help him, and one of the pieces of advice the coach gave him was to get on a gluten-free diet. A life coach is prescribing a gluten-free diet. So do podiatrists, chiropractors, even psychiatrists.’’ He stopped, stood up, shook his head as if he were about to say something he shouldn’t, then shrugged and sat down again. “A friend of mine told me his wife was seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety and depression. And one of the first things the psychiatrist did was to put her on a gluten-free diet. This is getting out of hand. We are seeing more and more cases of orthorexia nervosa”—people who progressively withdraw different foods in what they perceive as an attempt to improve their health. “First, they come off gluten. Then corn. Then soy. Then tomatoes. Then milk. After a while, they don’t have anything left to eat—and they proselytize about it. Worse is what parents are doing to their children. It’s cruel and unusual treatment to put a child on a gluten-free diet without its being indicated medically. Parental perception of a child’s feeling better on a gluten-free diet is even weaker than self-perception.”
As with all things, the key if one is going to make a change to one’s diet is to substitute in healthy things, not junk. I know plenty of vegetarians who aren’t healthy because what they eat — chips, Dorritos, cake and frozen vegetarian dishes — are crap. Same goes for replacing gluten. The New Yorker touches on that:
The diet can also be unhealthy. “Often, gluten-free versions of traditional wheat-based foods are actually junk food,’’ Green said. That becomes clear after a cursory glance at the labels of many gluten-free products. Ingredients like rice starch, cornstarch, tapioca starch, and potato starch are often used as replacements for white flour. But they are highly refined carbohydrates, and release at least as much sugar into the bloodstream as the foods that people have forsaken. “Our patients have jumped on this bandwagon and largely left the medical community wondering what the hell is going on,’’ Green said.
It’s a lengthy piece, but worth a read.
Here’s Bobbie’s response to the article:
What frustrates me about articles like this is that they always lean in the direction of conventional wisdom (often in subtle and insulting ways) without spending any time actually deciphering if that wisdom is true. I mean, we used to hear from medical science that cigarettes were good for us. If you count native Americans, human beings also smoked for thousands of years. Did medical wisdom and historical use that make it true that cigarettes were good for us? The real problem is nobody really wants to admit it’s a problem, because to do so would lead to a major shift in human behavior. Americans seem predisposed to shifting behavior quickly if something new works. Which is why most of us don’t smoke, but most of the rest of the world still does.
It’s certainly true that mass wheat production saved human life. But that doesn’t make it healthy. And it’s also true that wheat is practical and portable food. But we have to process it to make that true, remove what’s good about it from it, and put it back later. I mean, hello, Michael Pollan, years ago, said that.
And there’s the complete dismissal of people like us. Half a dozen life-long health problems evaporated for me when I quit, and I lost weight. So I’m one of the “millions of people with vague gastric distress” who “found something to blame.” Fuck you, you smug ass hole. It wasn’t vague, and I didn’t find something to blame. I found a solution. Go eat your fucking bagel and stay out of my diet.
Posted by Steve