Sometimes I feel like diets in the United States are becoming as divisive as politics and religion. Well, almost.
Paleo versus vegan, low-carb versus low-fat, grazers versus fasters, raw dieters, juicers and so on. Followers seem to think their way is the only way.
Lately, the militancy of voluntary “gluten-free” and “wheat-free” dieters — not the ones who have a diagnosed gluten allergy, aka celiac disease — seems to be on the rise. It may be due partly to the book “Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health” and its vocal author, Dr. William Davis.
The book, published Aug. 30, 2011, continues to sell and was No. 1 on The New York Times Best Sellers List for advice and miscellaneous information last week.
In “Wheat Belly,” Davis, a cardiologist, calls modern wheat a “perfect, chronic poison.” Yikes!
Interviewed on “CBS This Morning” last week, Davis gave his latest national pitch against today's wheat, describing it as “an 18-inch tall plant created by genetic research in the '60s and '70s” and repeatedly calling it “this thing.”
“This thing has many new features nobody told you about, such as there's a new protein in this thing called gliadin. It's not gluten. I'm not addressing people with gluten sensitivities and celiac disease. I'm talking about everybody else because everybody else is susceptible to the gliadin protein that is an opiate.
“This thing binds into the opiate receptors in your brain and in most people stimulates appetite, such that we consume 440 more calories per day, 365 days per year.”
Hundreds of thousands who have gone wheat-free, Davis added, not only have gone on to lose significant amounts of weight but some are reversing the effects of diabetes, arthritis, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome and even depression.
The rise of gluten
Dr. Ann G. Kulze, local wellness expert and author of several “Eat Right for Life” books, says some of the rap on wheat and gluten is justified. In the past year, Kulze has been “bombarded” with questions about gluten-free diets, both from the standpoints of celiac disease and weight loss.
So much so, Kulze featured “Facts About a Gluten-Free Diet” on the South Carolina ETV radio show “Your Day” last week, so the topic was fresh on her mind.
Celiac disease, she underscores, is a serious concern because left undetected and without changes to diet, it can lead to scarring in the gastrointestinal tract and ultimately to a host of problems related to the inability to absorb vital nutrients.
Kulze notes that a Mayo Clinic study recently showed that there has been a four-fold increase in celiac disease in the United States since the 1950s. Today, 1.8 million people have been diagnosed and another estimated 1.4 million have it but have not been diagnosed yet. (The study also estimates 1.6 million are following a gluten-free diet without being diagnosed for celiac.)
While Kulze says science has yet to nail down a definitive reason for the rise in celiac disease, she notes that food producers have “jacked up the gluten content” in wheat to make products more spongy and that people are eating more gluten products.
Besides those with the disease, she says others have an intolerance to gluten. If tested for celiac, they would be negative, yet they still feel some of the same symptoms — stomach aches, bloating, fatigue, irritability — and are better off limiting gluten intake.
As for weight loss, Kulze says the magic in going gluten-free more often lies in cutting out bad “obesogenic” foods — pasta, breads, pizza, donuts, cookies — as it does wheat itself.
All that said, Kulze says products made with 100 percent whole wheat remain a good source of fiber and disease-fighting phytochemicals for those without celiac disease or intolerance or who are not overweight or obese.
Dovetailing with Paleo
There is some consistency between going wheat- and gluten-free and another popular diet, the Paleo diet. Those who follow it eat primarily meat, vegetables and nuts, similar to the foods consumed by cavemen in the Paleolithic age.
Followers say we evolved eating those foods, not grains, breads, rice, dairy products and certainly not processed foods. Those foods are so relatively new that our body's DNA hasn't had time to adapt to using them. Paleo advocates say eating those foods results in weight gain and diseases related to chronic inflammation.
Jason Burke, local owner of The New Primal food product company, says any nutrients and energy found in grain products can be found in other foods that are more nutrient dense. While he does not have celiac disease or an intolerance, the avid CrossFitter says his athletic performance is better when he doesn't consume grains.
“I live my life 80/20,” adds Burke. “I'm not radical about it. I'm not afraid of eating a sandwich made with whole-wheat bread every now and then.”
Yet Burke admits some of his fellow dieters are “Paleo Police” and he's even been chastised for marinating meat in soy sauce, which contains wheat. Similar to Davis, Burke suspects the issues with wheat and gluten probably have more to do with the mass agriculture as it does with wheat itself.
But what about beer?
East-West Health Arts owner Bill Fagan, one of the most enduring and popular personal trainers in Charleston, brings decades of experience in helping people transform from being fat to fit.
Anecdotally, he says he knows that wheat is a culprit in the obesity epidemic.
“I am no scientist, but I know from personal experiences that limiting starches and sugars works,” says the 61-year-old Fagan, pointing specifically to pastas, breads and (sorry guys) beer. “I try to get people off of beer, except on 'cheat days' once a week, because beer goes straight to your gut.”