It's likely that you've experimented with a gluten-free diet (GFD) and not because you have celiac disease or sensitivity but because at this point it seems almost un-American to let gluten-containing foods into your body. Inflammation, brain fog, bloating, and even heart disease are risks you must avoid according to many headlines, best-selling books, and media appearances.
At the 2014 revitalize conference sponsored by mindbodygreen, CEO Jason Wachob asked a panel I was on with Frank Lipman, M.D., and Mark Hyman, M.D., "Who's a fan of gluten?" It brought the house down when I was the only one who raised my hand. I went on to explain the proven health benefits of eating whole grains for disease prevention. Later, I explained the medical research supporting whole-grain foods in an article. So has the fervor for the universal adoption of GF diets and associated gliadin, amylopectin A, lectins. and exorphins diminished in the last few years? The 164 million entries on Google indicate that it hasn't lost any momentum, but recently, there have been five research studies on the topic that indicate that the GFD balloon might be about to pop:
1. Reduced risk of exposure to toxic heavy metals.
Rice and fish are often favored on a GFD, but these foods may concentrate toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and lead. In one study, researchers evaluated blood samples in 11,353 subjects, 55 of whom had celiac disease. They found that in people who were observing a GFD, blood levels of mercury, lead, and cadmium were higher than in those who did not avoid gluten. The increased burden of toxic heavy metals was found in those with and without celiac disease following a GFD.
2. Lowered risk of type 2 diabetes.
Scientists presented data at the American Heart Association in March 2017 from 199,794 subjects whose dietary histories had been followed for over 30 years. The presentation reported that those subjects who ate the most gluten had the lowest risk of type 2 diabetes upon follow-up. Believe it or not, the group eating the highest amount of gluten foods compared to the lowest group had a 13 percent lower risk of diabetes. The major sources of gluten were pizza, muffins, pretzels, and bread.
3. Decreased likelihood of heart disease.
The Harvard School of Public Health analyzed over 100,000 subjects for 25 years, collecting data on dietary histories periodically. During the follow-up period, over 6,000 cases of new coronary heart disease were identified. Participants with the highest intake of gluten had a rate of heart disease significantly lower than those with the lowest intake of gluten. After adjustments for intake of refined grains, gluten consumption was associated with a 15 percent lower risk of developing coronary heart disease. The researchers concluded that "the promotion of a GFD for the purpose of coronary heart disease prevention among asymptomatic people without celiac disease should not be recommended."
4. Reduced risk of colorectal cancer.
The world was abuzz in October 2015 when the World Health Organization announced their findings that processed red meats like bacon were not only associated with cancer but directly caused cancer as a Class 1 carcinogen. An updated analysis was just released that confirmed these findings. Also reported in the study was how whole grains (containing the gluten family of chemicals) reduce colorectal cancer risk. In fact, colorectal cancer risk decreased by 17 percent for each 90-gram-per-day increase in consumption of whole grains. We have known for years that high-fiber diets prevent disease, and 100 percent whole grains are a great source of fiber.
5. Avoidance of excess calories.
In a study presented this week in Europe, an analysis of the nutritional composition of foods in a GFD versus their gluten-containing counterparts revealed that the foods for a GFD had significantly more calories, protein, saturated fatty acids, and often sugar. Over 600 products were evaluated and this disparity was found particularly in breads, pizzas, and flours.
So what do we do now? Do we go back to Ezekiel bread and organic almond butter instead of a GF rice wrap? Fortunately there is an ongoing attempt to bring unity and sanity to the food debate being spearheaded by the True Health Initiative, a global panel of health and nutrition experts of diverse backgrounds and philosophies. The pledge we take as members of this group is worth reading and may give you some guidance on the gluten-free debate. It calls for ending the fixation with trends, fads, and diets and invites a greater focus on the practices of the healthiest populations in the world (Blue Zones), which include:
- A diet comprised mostly of minimally processed, generally plant-predominant foods in time-honored, balanced combinations—where the preferred beverage for satisfying thirst in almost all situations is water.
- Routine physical activity at moderate intensity, frequency, and duration.
- The avoidance of toxins, particularly tobacco and excess alcohol.
- Sleep adequate in both quantity and quality.
- The effective mitigation of psychological stress.
- The cultivation of meaningful, supportive relationships and strong social bonds.