The New York Post last week published an article on New York’s latest craze: gluten free eating.
I’ve been a gluten-free skeptic for some time. Though avoiding gluten has its place–people with celiac disease (about 1% of the U.S. population) cannot properly digest the protein, which is found in wheat, barley and rye–there’s little evidence that gluten harms the rest of us.
And yet the diet has truly become a craze. “Gluten-free” foods are one of the fastest-growing segments in the grocery aisle, and some restaurants have started offering gluten free items (though I continue struggling to find vegan items). And U.S. Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open winner Novak Djokovic attributes part of his rise to a gluten free diet.
So, why am I skeptical? Partly because it’s not clear to me why anyone actually avoids gluten. I’ve heard some people believe gluten upsets their stomach (though they’re not celiacs); others think it makes them lose weight; and apparently teenage girls across America are adapting the gluten-free diet simply so they have an excuse to skip meals and stay skinny. Others think gluten makes them tired and sluggish.
This dispersion of reasons behind the rise of the gluten-free diet is one reason I’m skeptical, but it’s also a reason that I can’t dismiss the diet out of hand. Let’s take these reasons one by one.
Weight gain: This is an easy one for me to debunk, if only in my own mind, because I know from experimenting with my own diet that certain foods lead me to gain weight and others don’t. Food that includes gluten will make me gain weight–but only when it’s in its “refined”–white bread or white pasta for instance. If it’s in whole-grain form, I find that it does not lead to weight gain–in my own body, anyway. I’m skeptical that it leads to weight gain in others as well.
I’m also skeptical about the weight loss benefits of a gluten-free diet because many people who suddenly stop eating gluten-containing products were probably eating white bread, white pasta and heavily processed foods with white flour in them before they stopped eating wheat. Stop eating refined wheat, and you’re apt, in my experience to lose weight. But it’s not because you’re cutting out the gluten–it’s because you’re cutting out the white flour.
The other reasons people give for avoiding gluten are tougher for me to debunk–even in my own head. It may be that some non-celiacs do get upset stomachs when they eat wheat. It may also be that wheat makes us sluggish. It’s extremely difficult to prove otherwise, especially since different people’s stomachs and energy levels may react very differently to different foods.
Typically when it comes to issues like these I tend to believe that the foods humans “grew up on” through the ages are likely to be OK for our bodies today. This is the theorem behind Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and to me it’s very persuasive, though by no means conclusive. We’ve had a long time to adapt as a species to foods like wheat, and in the earliest days of agriculture it may have been unlikely that people whose bodies could not thrive on wheat would have survived the toughest plagues, droughts and famines. By this stage in our existence, we should be well-adapted to what’s been one of the major staples of our diet for thousands of years.
But again, that’s hardly enough evidence to make the ineffectiveness of the gluten-free diet an open-and-shut case. What’s more, some dietary purists who view the world I do (i.e., ancient foods are good foods) view wheat as a new food, in the grand scheme of things. For instance, proponents of the Paleolithic diet believe we should eat only those foods that existed before the advent of agriculture, which they view as an unnatural dietary development. This would preclude wheat. Some of the more extreme proponents of this diet believe we shouldn’t even cook our meat. In any event, Paleolithic dieters will, by default, also remain gluten-free.
Do you have your own sense of whether gluten is an unambiguous “bad” for modern man, and not merely for celiacs? I would love to hear your thoughts on this, as it’s an issue that’s not only difficult for me to sort out due to the variety of health claims put forth by gluten-free dieters, but one that’s very difficult for me to experiment with on myself given that I’ve already cut animal products and refined carbohydrates from my diet and, to feed myself each day, rely heavily on whole grains to keep myself going. Help me out here.