Should You Really Avoid Gluten? A Plant-Based Doctor Explains

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Father-son duo T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., and Thomas Campbell, M.D., co-wrote The China Study, the popular 2005 book that explored the research on the benefits of a plant-based diet. Now, in Dr. Thomas Campbell's new book, The China Study Solution: The Simple Way To Lose Weight and Reverse Illness, Using A Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet, he shares his practical advice for living a plant-based lifestyle. In this excerpt, he explains what you should know about gluten.

Gluten is currently considered a great evil in our pop nutrition world. But based on current evidence, I believe this is an inaccurate exaggeration.

I also am disturbed by the popular proposal that gluten is so dangerous that if we just get rid of it we can eat creamy, cheesy foods and meats galore and find good health. This ignores a far deeper and broader body of evidence that dairy foods specifically and animal foods in general are much more poorly tolerated than gluten. Other foods are far more convincingly linked to chronic disease.

A gluten-free diet is difficult, expensive, and, based on current data, unlikely to be beneficial for all but a small minority of people.

But I do find myself with serious concerns about wheat. Celiac disease provides the most damning arguments against its consumption. Celiac disease is serious business. I find myself wondering if we were meant to eat wheat, and if wheat were consistent with health, how could it cause such a serious illness for 1 out of 100 people?

In addition, we now know that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is real, despite the fact that it may be uncommon. I have made this same argument against dairy, too. If it were healthy to be the only species on earth to consume large quantities of the lactation fluid of another species way beyond our own weaning period, how is it that so many people are lactose intolerant and allergic to dairy products?

I honestly do not know what the research is likely to show over the next 10 years. It may, in fact, be reasonable to lessen our wheat exposure. For now, I do not recommend that most people go on a gluten-free diet. Doing so is difficult, expensive, and, based on current data, unlikely to be beneficial for all but a small minority of people. Adhering to a whole-foods, plant-based diet presents enough challenges in our high-fat, high-sugar, fast-food culture, but a deep, vast array of evidence supports its enormous benefits. Being gluten-free adds an additional, significant layer of difficulty to relationships and emotions that most people don’t have to cope with.

Plus, whole-grain wheat provides lots of fiber and protein, is a concentrated source of energy, and provides several different minerals. My final recommendations are as follows:

1. Avoid the processed foods from which people get most of the gluten they eat.

That includes white bread, pizza, cookies, cakes, and pastas made with white flours. Eat a varied whole-foods, plant-based diet without limiting whole grains, including 100 percent whole-wheat products.

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2. If you're at risk, get tested for celiac disease.

If you have family members with celiac disease or you are in a high-risk group (those having certain autoimmune diseases, severe anemia of unknown cause, or osteoporosis) or have other, more general chronic abdominal or digestive symptoms, talk to your doctor about getting tested for celiac disease. Know that the tests we use to check for celiac disease are much more sensitive (able to detect disease) if you are eating a gluten-rich diet at the time of testing.

3. Explore whether you have gluten sensitivity.

If you've been checked and don’t have celiac disease and don’t have food allergies, including wheat allergy, but you have chronic related symptoms, find a way to do a medically supervised, blinded trial to see if you truly have gluten sensitivity. This is nearly impossible to do in most communities, but I mention it here as an ideal.

I think this is a good idea so you’ll know whether or not you should avoid gluten. Depending on what you turn out to be sensitive to, you might save yourself a lot of trouble and money if you can avoid lifelong uncertainty and experimentation with gluten-free diets.

4. For those who feel so compelled, try a gluten-free diet for four weeks.

Gluten is not required for good health, and a four-week trial of a gluten-free diet is a safe way to see if you feel better. You must avoid all gluten, including wheat, barley, rye, and most processed food products unless they are specifically labeled as gluten-free. For a definitive self-trial, I would also avoid oats during this time, since some celiac patients have sensitivity to oats as well. Of course, you cannot be sure you aren’t experiencing the placebo effect. You also cannot be sure your health isn’t more affected by avoiding the other food products that normally come with wheat, or by the fact that you are likely going to be consuming fewer calories overall.

As mentioned above, be aware that the tests we use to check for celiac disease are far less reliable if they’re done when you have already been on a gluten-free diet. Do not go on a gluten-free diet and then go to your doctor to be tested for celiac disease.

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Reprinted from The China Study Solution by Thomas Campbell. Copyright (c) 2015 by Thomas Campbell. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.

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