Wheatless in Los Angeles: Why Does the New York Times Hate the Gluten-Free?

Readers of this blog know that Steve and I keep a mostly raw food diet, which was spurred in part (for Steve especially) by giving up wheat. That happened a few years back when I taught a research methods class that used Michael Pollan‘s book, In Defense of Food, as its core text. During the course, William Davis‘s book Wheat Belly also came out, and my students researched its findings, read its cited studies, found others. Steve and I subsequently gave up both processed foods (even raw ones) and wheat as a result. We lost fat, lowered our cholesterol, felt better. So we stuck to it. Since then, “gluten-free” has become a thing, a joke even, and we often find ourselves defending our diet choices. Here we go again, we say.

The paper of record, The New York Times, has once again (albeit on the “Opinion” pages under the frankly inaccurate title “The Myth of the Big, Bad Gluten”– tell a person with Celiac’s that it’s a myth) gone after the gluten free folk. And the author (Moises Velasquez-Manoff) once again proves my theory that it just seems so unbelievable that modern wheat might be bad for you that there is a deep need to come after perfectly harmless diet choice that people like myself make because it works for me. It’s baffling to me. I mean, if people are giving up a processed food in favor of fresher, greener things, what’s that hurting? Why be so nasty about it? So I thought I’d take a moment to answer a few points made in the article.

And of course Velasquez-Manoff rolls out the now familiar old chestnut, the “but humans have been eating wheat for thousands of years” argument. I suppose the paleo diet followers may use this argument–I don’t know who says this, because the author doesn’t cite anyone specific, but does go to great pains to trace how humans evolved lactose tolerance in an attempt to make a parallel with wheat. However: The argument is not that humans can’t tolerate wheat. The argument is that it’s at least clinically demonstrable that some people can’t tolerate modern, hybridized, processed wheat flour, which has only been around for a few decades.

The author then goes on to concede as fact recent increases in Celiac’s Disease, a truly miserable condition that causes a debilitating range of symptoms in its sufferers. Rather than see this as the end of a spectrum of tolerance, the argument turns to try to dismiss a series of theories about why this increase is occurring. He does this using one 2013 study to reject the possibility that increase in gluten protein in modern wheat may be responsible. The study finds that the amount of protein (in the form of gluten) hasn’t changed over time, but to my knowledge the theory started by William Davis in his book was that it was the kind of amino acid that was causing the problem, not the amount.

Are we just eating more wheat? This also gets dismissed, since the author cites another study that points out Europeans actually ate more wheat a century or so ago. But while it might be true that people consumed more wheat in the nineteenth century, the article ignores its own observation that the issue is with modern, hybridized wheat. Which they were not consuming in the nineteenth century–they were going over to the local mill, buying the freshly ground flour, taking it home and baking it (or buying that day from a baker who had done so). The problems with argument here drive me crazy.

All this seem to be in print because Velasquez-Manoff would like to propose his own theory about why you may be but are probably not gluten sensitive. He argues that recent increases in Celiac’s Disease are really due to increased immune system sensitivity–something that has been recently proposed with the rise of peanut allergies in children. But of course the article simultaneously sneers at those of us who do not have Celiac’s, but instead experience a range of other unpleasant symptoms when they consume modern wheat products. I’m not sure why that shouldn’t also involve the immune system and be just as valid, but sneering is something the Times does very well.

So as a last word, I’d like to just point out that modern wheat is a processed food. Bread that you buy anywhere, from an artisan bakery to your white loaf of Wonder, uses a processed wheat flour, called “enriched.” It has to be stripped of nutrients in order to have a shippable shelf life, and those nutrients (such as folic acid and B vitamins) have to be chemically added back into the flour. Usually, the “whole grain” part is added back in as well. This is true no matter how “whole grain” you buy, since all unprocessed wheat flour starts to go rancid in a very short time. If it’s widely recognized that processed foods are bad for you, why should something as basic and as omnipresent as wheat flour be any different?

Was wheat causing my digestion problems? Yes. Was it causing skin rashes? Yes. Headaches? Yes. I know this because I get all three of these things when I eat wheat, which I still do on occasion. But when Steve grinds some einkorn into flour and bakes a loaf at home, no problems. Was wheat causing other health issues? My early osteoporosis, asthma, weak immune system? That causality I can’t prove, because those are long-term problems that don’t just pop up when I have a slice of pizza. But since those things have disappeared from my overall health concerns, I’m not willing to take the chance, thank you, New York Times. Go have your sandwich and leave the rest of us alone.

Posted by Bobbie

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Counterpost: Your gluten-free, wheat-free, paleo, whatever diet is horrible

In the interest of balance — like a balanced meal, maybe — I’ll point you to this Q&A with a guy — who happens to be a  religion professor at James Madison University– who thinks all our fad diets are pretty stupid:

Food rituals, food taboos, dietary demons, dietary myths, magic diets, guilt, sin: why do we apply so much religious language to food?

Virtually ever religious tradition has had food taboos and sacred diets. I think part of the reason is that food is something that we have direct control over. It crosses the boundary in a very personal way: we take something outside of our body and put it into our body. Eating is very personal, and it’s easy to invest those kinds of things with religious and ritual significance.

With diets today, there seems to be a lot of fear involved, too.

It’s terrifying to live in a place where the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, or ADHD, or the causes of weight gain, are mysterious. So what we do is come up with certain causes for the things that we fear.

If we’re trying to avoid things that we fear, why would we invent a world full of toxins that don’t really exist? Again, it’s about control. After all, if there are things that we’re scared of, then at least we know what to avoid. If there is a sacred diet, and if there are foods that are really taboo, yeah, it’s scary, but it’s also empowering, because we can readily identify culinary good and evil, and then we have a path that we can follow that’s salvific.

That gives you a taste of how a religion professor is approaching this topic. He specifically calls our the book Wheat Belly, which we’ve referenced often.

Given how well cutting wheat out has worked for us, I can only say, well, that: It worked for us. It may not work for everyone, but we encourage people who are curious to give it a try and see. And we think it comes down to common sense, the Michael Pollan “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

But there is one point I think is worth some thought:

What works for another culture might not work for our own culture. People ask me, what’s the harm? Why not just go gluten free? And the answer is that going gluten free has all sorts of effects. It affects your relationship with your friends and family. It affects your relationship with your own past and foods that you love. While there might be some culture in which celebratory foods don’t typically contain gluten, that’s not our culture.

For me, unless I have an extraordinary reason, I do try to err on the side of being a good guest or good host rather than a militant eater. Food’s great, and so is good health. But family and friendships are better.

Posted by Steve

Gluten-free: Cultural or dietary choice?

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.

[snip]

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.

UPDATE:

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.

There.

Posted by Steve

So now your ‘gluten-free’ food should actually be gluten-free

This may come as a major shock, but products you’ve been seeing (and maybe buying) that claim to be “gluten-free” weren’t necessarily telling the truth.

Now, all that is set to change. Or is supposed to. (Depends on your level of skepticism, and as an added disclaimer, we’re talking U.S. products here.)

We’ve reached a deadline — set up a year ago — for food manufacturers to get their facts straight. Now, according to Food and Drug Administration rules, if someone (corporations are people) sells a product that’s mislabeled there can be regulatory repercussions.

Here’s more from the good folks at the FDA:

In August 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule that defined what characteristics a food has to have to bear a label that proclaims it “gluten-free.” The rule also holds foods labeled “without gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “no gluten” to the same standard.

Manufacturers had one year to bring their labels into compliance. As of August 5, 2014, any food product bearing a gluten-free claim labeled on or after this date must meet the rule’s requirements.

[snip]

In addition to limiting the unavoidable presence of gluten to less than 20 ppm, FDA now allows manufacturers to label a food “gluten-free” if the food does not contain any of the following:

  • an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains
  • an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten
  • an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten

Foods such as bottled spring water, fruits and vegetables, and eggs can also be labeled “gluten-free” if they inherently don’t have any gluten.

Under the final rule, a food label that bears the claim “gluten-free,” as well as the claims “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” and “no gluten,” but fails to meet the requirements of the rule is considered misbranded and subject to regulatory action by FDA.

Just what those actions are don’t seem to be spelled out — big surprise?

The FDA does not that products with longer shelf lives — like pasta — might still be in stores for a while, which is OK. So you will likely want to check that, if you’re curbing your gluten consumption. The FDA also is urging restaurants to follow these rules, although it can be a little trickier because they really apply to packaged foods.

Posted by Steve

It ain’t the gluten that’ll get you, it’s the wheat

A couple of weeks back, we highlighted a recent study on gluten, which followed — and potentially debunked — the main one that found gluten sensitivity could be a widespread issue.

That study got a lot of coverage, because the initial research is pretty central to the boom in gluten-free products.

But, as we also noted, our aversion to wheat has nothing to do with gluten. We still find that the problems that Dr. William Davis found with wheat ring true to us — or maybe I should say, our gut reaction is still that there’s something amiss with today’s wheat.

Davis, the author of Wheat Belly, not surprisingly had a few things to say about this latest study. Here’s the crux of his response:

Likewise, wheat is far more than just the gluten protein. Among the most important of the tens of thousands of other components in wheat:

[snip]

In other words, wheat and related grains are still quite terrible for health, with or without gluten. Viewing wheat as nothing more than a vehicle for gluten is hazardous. Conducting a small study in which purified gluten is administered but elicits abdominal distress no different than whey or placebo possibly tells us that this group of 37 people do not have a specific intolerance to gluten–period. It does not exonerate wheat, any more than any apparent reduction in adverse health effects of smoking filtered, low-tar cigarettes exonerates smoking.

[snip]

Yes: Some people have problems with gluten. But EVERYBODY has problems with wheat. The healthcare system, nutritionists, dietitians, physicians, and the media need to get deglutenized: get rid of the notion that the only problem with modern wheat is gluten. It ain’t so.

Deglutenize yourself. Sing it to the tune of:

Posted by Steve

 

 

So, maybe the whole gluten thing is a bit overstated

In the interest of fairness and balance, we’ll pass on news that the scientist behind one of the main studies arguing for the existence of gluten intolerance now has done a follow-up study that calls into question his earlier findings.

Such follow-up studies are pretty standard, at least among serious-minded scientists. (It’s the rest of us who take one study and blow it out of proportion.)

There’s a good bit of coverage of this today. This Forbes piece seems a pretty solid one:

In 2011, Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the GI Unit at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, published a study that found gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley, to cause gastrointestinal distress in patients without celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder unequivocally triggered by gluten. Double-blinded, randomized, and placebo-controlled, the experiment was one of the strongest pieces of evidence to date that non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), more commonly known as gluten intolerance, is a genuine condition.

[snip]

37 subjects took part, all with self-reported gluten sensitivity who were confirmed to not have celiac’s disease. They were first fed a diet low in FODMAPs for two weeks, then were given one of three diets for a week with either 16 grams per day of added gluten (high-gluten), 2 grams of gluten and 14 grams of whey protein isolate (low-gluten), or 16 grams of whey protein isolate (placebo). Each subject shuffled through every single diet so that they could serve as their own controls, and none ever knew what specific diet he or she was eating. After the main experiment, a second was conducted to ensure that the whey protein placebo was suitable. In this one, 22 of the original subjects shuffled through three different diets — 16 grams of added gluten, 16 grams of added whey protein isolate, or the baseline diet — for three days each.

Analyzing the data, Gibson found that each treatment diet, whether it included gluten or not, prompted subjects to report a worsening of gastrointestinal symptoms to similar degrees. Reported pain, bloating, nausea, and gas all increased over the baseline low-FODMAP diet. Even in the second experiment,when the placebo diet was identical to the baseline diet, subjects reported a worsening of symptoms!

[snip]

“In contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.”

The Forbes piece notes, rightly, that gluten-free products have become a multi-billion dollar industry, and that the whole market seems to be driven more by consumers and smart marketers than any actual, you know, science.

We’d disagree with that, a bit. And we can only attest to what we’ve found by experimenting, if you will, on ourselves. Wheat products do seem to produce the symptoms that William Davis, the author of “Wheat Belly,” describes (and which we cover pretty extensively at the link to the right about the Yogi Diet.)

We feel better avoiding hybridized wheat, which is what you get in the U.S. And we feel a lot better passing on processed foods.

But results may vary, which I think is one conclusion we can draw from this study. So follow what works for you — not some silly fad.

Posted by Steve

Yogi diet: Do you know where your sugar is hiding?

This past week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a five-year study of American eating habits that found that most “added sugar” in the U.S. diet comes from food, not beverages, and that most of that hidden sugar got eaten at home — not out on the town.

In other words: We (Americans, anyway) aren’t eating all that healthy at home when we think we might be, and colas, sports drinks, etc. aren’t necessarily the big boogieman we think. (That said, they are terrible.)

Here’s a link to the study.

Via experiencewholefoods.wordpress.com

Government diet guidelines — which probably are a lot “looser” than many yoga practitioners follow — suggest limiting “discretionary” calories to between 5% to 15% of total consumption.

I bet you won’t be surprised to find that typically Americans are at the high end of that, about 13%. Maybe it is surprising we aren’t way above it. “Added sugar,” by the way, is defined as including “all sugars used as ingredients in processed and prepared foods such as breads, cakes, soft drinks, jams, chocolates, and ice cream, and sugars eaten separately or added to foods at the table.”

The study breaks down differences in “added sugar” consumption across a variety of demographics. The one I think is perhaps most relevant to yoga in the West is this one: the highest income men and women both consumed the least amount of “added sugar.” I tend to think of them as being the most likely to practice yoga.

So what can we take from this? Well, one of our hobby horses: the evils of processed foods. Have you looked lately at what’s in what you eat? Even in stuff you buy that claims to be healthy? Well before we went raw, and certainly before we cut out wheat (as the occasional “fall of the wagon” food), we had limited our sugar intake a lot. We were surprised, years back, to discover how much sugar is in something like jarred pasta sauce. Or peanut butter. Or that “nature bar.” Foods you don’t think of as “sweet” often have sugar in them. (Or salt. Or fat.)

It’s sort of how big food companies have been successful.

Thus I think “hidden sugar” might be a fair way to described “added sugar.”

Posted by Steve