Thoughts on the continuing gluten-free fad

Gluten-free. It seems to be one of those fads that just won’t go away. I’ve know people with celiac disease most of my life, so I understand the importance of gluten-free options for some people. But, I also know a lot of people who’ve been sucked into the gluten-free fad either because of anecdotal evidence (another person’s experience) or misleading “science”. I’m not a nutrition expert, so I’ve mostly been keeping my head low and sharing articles and posts from experts. But, this week, gluten-free has randomly reared its ugly head again a couple of times. I’m tired of it and I finally decided to voice my opinion.

Celiac disease is a real and terrible thing to suffer through. It was first described in the late 1800’s (long before the gluten-free fad diets) and, though carbs were suspected, the link to wheat wasn’t made until the 1940’s and the link to gluten wasn’t made until the 1950’s. (from Wikipedia’s Coeliac disease entry, retrieved December 9, 2013). The disease is characterized as an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine with symptoms of pain in the digestive tract, chronic constipation and diarrhoea, fatigue, anemia, and nutrient deficiencies caused by reduced nutrient absorption in the small intestine. It is not the same as a wheat allergy and it is possible to have a “mild” version of celiac (in other words, you may not have many symptoms, especially if you don’t typically eat a lot of foods with gluten in them).

Celiac sufferers are a relatively small proportion of the population. People with wheat allergies aren’t a particularly large group, either. But, people who choose to go gluten-free are an ever increasing proportion of the consumer market and they are helping to drive the emergence of gluten-free products (everything from pasta to face cream … which is good for the celiacs, but shows just how many people are being sucked into the fad).

Here’s the problem: a lot of people are going gluten-free to lose weight or because they read the gluten-free bible, “Wheat Belly” (by William Davies) and are now convinced that gluten/wheat is a poison that causes all kinds of random ailments. I get it – if something works for a friend, it’s probably worth trying, right? Maybe not. If you’re friend jumped off a cliff, would you follow? No. You’d likely at least stop for a second to consider the consequences and other options. So, why are so many people gambling with their health just because it seems to have worked for a friend? And, don’t even get me started on the book, “Wheat Belly”. It’s been criticized by scores of science and nutrition experts who used real science to show that the book’s claims are misleading and, in some cases, outright false. Here are just a few of the reviews everyone should read:

  • Diet Book Review: Wheat Belly (there are extra resources linked in this review)
  • Dissecting the Wheat Belly (if you don’t feel like reading much, this review is relatively short and to the point)
  • Wheat Belly (this is from a paleo  diet perspective, which I’m still a bit skeptical about, but the author makes some really good points)

Basically, what it comes down to is this: the book stretches “science” to meet its needs, uses extreme examples that don’t relate to everyday readers (but are worded to sound relevant), contradicts itself, and used fear mongering to convince the reader. I read the book about a year ago and I could see how people would believe what was said. Even as a skeptical librarian with a science background and a developing interest in nutritional science, I had to periodically remind myself to think critically and take every claim with a grain of salt.

It’s not to say that the whole book is a lie. There are some truths scattered throughout the book, like the author’s assertion that a lot of manufactured gluten-free foods are bad for us (low nutrient, high fat, high calorie, etc.). And, there is good reason to re-access how much and what types of carbs you eat. The standard North American diet (what people typically eat, not what is recommended) is rich in empty carbs and bad fats: white bread, chips, white rice, etc. These are all foods that you should eat in moderation (read: very rarely) or that have much healthier, whole grain alternatives, which should also be eaten with moderation (follow the Harvard food pyramid, which is based on real science). You do need carbs for your body to function optimally, but you don’t need that many and can get a whole lot of carbs through healthy veggies and whole grain foods.

The point is this: gluten-free eating is just a fad (unless, of course, you have a real medical need to avoid gluten). It’s essentially the Aitken’s diet re-visited and, as science keeps telling us, these food group elimination diets don’t work in the long term. Yes, you can lose a lot of weight on a gluten-free diet. You can also lose a lot of weight on any low-carb, low-fat, or low-whatever-your-Achilles-heel-is diets. But, they only work in the short term and if they cause you to significantly improve your eating habits. Anyone who starts eating more whole foods and healthier options is bound to notice some weight loss, increased energy, and general healthy improvements. As noted in the McLean’s article “The Dangers of Going Gluten-Free“:

There is even suspicion that a “placebo effect” may be at play, adds Vincci Tsui, a registered dietitian in Calgary. “Because when people do switch over to a gluten-free diet, a lot of times it does mean eliminating fast foods, processed foods, refined grains, or it means cooking at home more often, eating more vegetables and fruits,” she explains. “They feel better and they think it is the [avoidance of] gluten when really it may be the fact that they are eating better in general.”

We need to get away from this “quick fix” and “miracle cure” nonsense. They don’t exist. People who lose a lot of weight and keep it off do so because they continue to work on improving their health. This could be because they become life-long Weight Watchers members (which is fine, because WW at least promotes a relatively healthy lifestyle of reasonable eating and exercise) or because they finally quit their chip habit. The point is, they actively work on staying healthy and did not rely on a quick-fix.

We also need to get away from the idea that some food groups are bad or “poison”. In the grand scheme of things, all food groups are bad or poisonous for someone if they have an allergy or other issue, but we need to eat and we need to recognize that we need all the major food groups: protein, carbs and fat. It’s not whether we eat these things that will affect our health and weight, but how much and what types we eat. Wheat is not evil. It’s ok with eat white bread on occasion and to eat whole grains on a regular basis.

Again, back to the McLean’s article“there is no need for patients to avoid gluten” or wheat unless they’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or an allergy because, the doctors argue, “most of the evidence against wheat or gluten is unsubstantiated by science.”

I think Diana summed up things quite nicely in her previously mentioned review of “Wheat Belly”:

While most of us could benefit from consuming more varied sources of grain and fewer processed foods, eliminating wheat is not a magical cure. It’s just another fad diet.

And, in case anyone cares, I reviewed/edited this while eating a lovely sandwich with two nice big pieces of healthy Squirrelly bread. Yum!

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4 Responses to Thoughts on the continuing gluten-free fad

  1. Excellent review. Another complaint I have with these self-diagnosed gluten-allergy sufferers is the mindset that a complicated, labour intensive, expensive diet is a status symbol. Perhaps this is unique to my town or my social circle, but there’s always an element of humble bragging when conversation is stirred — nay, manipulated — toward the topic of “wheat belly” and the expensive, time consuming diet required. It’s enough to make me want to eat bagels by the boatload.

    Like

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Nan :) Someone commented on the arrogance aspect on Hannah’s FB when she shared Diana’s review of the book. I can honestly say that I’ve been lucky and either don’t know anyone who’s arrogant about it or just don’t hang out with them enough to notice the arrogance. I do know someone who, I’m pretty sure, wanted to feel special. They hung out with an honest to goodness celiac and a “vegan” (I ate vegan, for the most part, but wasn’t into the whole “meat is murder” dogma). I think she felt left out. It was (is) silly.

      Like

  2. Hannah says:

    YES. Brilliant. I love this post.

    Like

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