On wheat and death.

Several months ago, I happened upon this little review about the connection between wheat (and other grains) on inflammation, which was pretty interesting.

It reports that there are plausible physiological mechanisms linking wheat to inflammation, that there is some animal and some human evidence available to back them up, but also that population-based studies and human trials have either not shown a significant effect, or haven’t been controlled in such a way to properly isolate the question of whether wheat and its inflammatory effects have measurable, significant health outcomes on people.

The evidence is suggestive in some respects, but not conclusive by any stretch – meaning that the basic dietary advice given to the general population stands: eat a variety of foods, including whole grains, provided you can tolerate them. If you can’t, you probably already know that by now. If you aren’t sure, go see a doctor (preferably an allergist and/or gastroenterologist) to get assessed, and see a dietitian for appropriate nutrition advice. (And beware of geeks bearing IgG tests.)

What follows is a selection of quotes from the review about the limitations of the research in humans:

  • “It should be noted that whole grains contain phytochemicals, like polyphenols, that can exert anti-inflammatory effects which could possibly offset any potentially pro-inflammatory effects of gluten and lectins [73].”
  • “Most of the intervention studies mentioned above attempted to increase whole grain intake and were using refined grain diets as controls, thereby making it very difficult to draw any conclusions on the independent role of cereal grains in disease and inflammation.”
  • “There are few studies that investigate the influence of a paleolithic type diet comprising lean meat, fruits, vegetables and nuts, and excluding food types, such as dairy, legumes and cereal grains, on health.”
  • “Because these [paleolithic diet] studies are confounded by the presence or absence of other dietary substances and by differences in energy and macronutrient intake, factors that could all affect markers of inflammation, it is difficult to make a concise statement on the impact of cereal grains on these health outcomes.”

The authors call, as most reviews of this nature do, for more research, preferably of the randomized controlled trial variety, or population studies that do a better job of controlling for confounders.

In other words: don’t panic. There’s a whole lot we still don’t know, and no one is taking anyone’s wheat away.

One thing that is missing in this discussion, so far, however, is acknowledgement of the cultural and practical importance of wheat and other grains in our diets. It always concerns me when this is left out, because whether we want to believe it or not, tradition, cultural foodways, and plain old accessibility probably inform the average person’s eating habits to a much greater extent than biochemical considerations of the inflammatory response provoked by selected components of a given staple.

Even though we might not want this to be true, it is true – and even though we might not want this to be important, it is important. We are humans. We are omnivores. We eat lots of different things, and not all of them for reasons of pure biochemistry.

It is difficult to overstate wheat’s importance in feeding the people of the world, both in a biological sense and in a cultural sense. Wheat forms the basis for cultural food staples spanning from bread to noodles to couscous to pastry to beer to gravy to breakfast cereals.

Wheat, a grass that today feeds 35 percent of the earth’s population, appeared as a crop among the world’s first farmers 10,000 years ago. It increased in importance from its initial role as a major food for Mediterranean peoples in the Old World to become the world’s largest cereal crop, feeding more than a billion people in the late twentieth century (Feldman 1976: 121).

Cambridge World History of Food, Volume 1

Which means you are going to need seriously strong evidence to impugn a food source that supports a huge proportion of our world’s nearly seven billion people. If there really were something nutritionally catastrophic about wheat, it would be a major concern – but, again, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And this paper is not it.

Aside from its pure biological importance, the cultivation of wheat also marks a technological milestone in human evolution —

…with the domestication of wheat, humankind began the shift from hunting and gathering food to producing it. This change in lifestyle set humans on a new evolutionary course, and their society and environment were never the same after farming was established.


— making it not only an extraordinarily important food source, but an extraordinarily symbolic food. Wheat is one of the pivotal crops of modernity. Though its first cultivation well predates the modern era, it set us on the path that led to the industrialized food production systems many of us rely on today, for better or worse.

Wheat and similar grains also require more intensive processing to be edible, compared to many fruits and vegetables that can be eaten whole and raw, compared to dairy, which is often processed for either safety (pasteurization) or preservation (cheese), but which is still consumable in raw form, and even meat and fish which, at its simplest, requires killing, butchering, and cooking (and sometimes not even cooking.)

From an early time, wheat was harvested, milled into flour, stripped of various parts of its grain, and further combined with other ingredients, then boiled or baked to produce edible products. Or the grain was fermented and/or distilled for alcoholic beverages. In modern industrialized food systems, wheat and other grains provide the basis for many highly-processed, and profitable, food products that are shelf-stable, very palatable, and very cheap.

I don’t think this fact of processing is lost on people, even people who don’t routinely think much about where their food comes from. Humans are masters of symbolic thinking, and I believe there is some level of awareness that wheat and other grains are subject to high levels of processing and refining which, depending on how you view those activities on a social and moral level, imbues the food product itself with either a sense of purity and goodness, or contamination and risk.

I regularly speak with people who are concerned about “nutrients being stripped from, and then sprayed back on” wheat products like enriched flour. There is a sense that all the good things have been taken away through refining, and suspect, man-made substitutes sneaked back in to fool everyone into thinking the food is nutritious. And yet, it is this same enriched flour that has significantly reduced the incidence of vitamin deficiencies and neural tube defects in the decades since its implementation in Canada and the U.S.

Humans are naturally both curious and suspicious of their food, in a sort of Hegelian dialectic referred to by food scholars (namely, Claude Fischler and Paul Rozin) as “the omnivore’s paradox.” We express anxiety about this paradox in a variety of different ways, including, in my opinion, through popular food fads – both positive fads, where some food is (usually temporarily, and often misleadingly) awarded the health halo and exalted to superfood status, and negative fads, where a former superfood or a perfectly neutral-seeming dietary staple is blamed for all human misery and misfortune.

I believe this is happening currently with several foods, the most notable, to me, being wheat. I believe this is due to several factors: our natural suspicion about food and its potential contamination or toxicity, combined with an increasing cultural discomfort with the products of modernity which has focused largely on industrialized food production and its discontents, as well as a growing awareness of Celiac disease, food allergy and intolerance, and non-Celiac gluten sensitivity.

Add to this our frustration with the fact that, despite all our technological advances, there still exist medical conditions that defy treatment or explanation, our ever-present fear of death, our idealization-bordering-on-worship of perfect biomedical health, our vulnerability to placebo and nocebo effects, and a soupçon of trendiness derived from evolutionary nutrition theories, and you get a heady cocktail intoxicating enough to produce a damn-near religious conversion.

If wheat doesn’t work for you, for whatever reason, you don’t have to eat it. You can find ways to live well without it, though it will take some effort and some money.

But if you’re looking for something to believe in, something to resolve existential angst, the discomfort of ambiguity and not-knowing, and the fear of your own mortality, avoidance of wheat is probably not going to do you much good.






138 responses to “On wheat and death.”

  1. Kathy Avatar

    We have several friends who avoid wheat and gluten like the plague. That’s fine, but one friend attempts to get others to do so as well via blog postings and links to sites (like this one: http://preventdisease.com/news/12/030112_World-Renown-Heart-Surgeon-Speaks-Out-On-What-Really-Causes-Heart-Disease.shtml) on wheat’s –and carbohydrates in general– evilness.

    1. Kathy Avatar

      Oh and I recently tried a reduced wheat diet to see if it would help any of my symptoms of IBS. This being based on a study of around 900 people that showed 1/3 felt better with no wheat in their diet. For me, there was no change to the IBS, but I sure felt like I’d acquired – or exacerbated – nutritional deficiencies, possibly b/c the wheat-free food I was eating didn’t have the vitamins that enriched flour does.

      1. Jeanne Avatar

        I cut out all gluten for a time many years ago for the same reason — to see if it had any impact on my IBS. It actually made it worse… my symptoms were a lot more frequent and a lot less tolerable during that period. I was never so happy to go back to eating wheat/gluten!

  2. Elodie Avatar

    Wheat is common. It is filling and fulfilling (unless you can’t tolerate it). It is cheap. I believe that last part is absolutely central to understanding the panic over wheat these days. So many opinions about food are actually disguised opinions about class.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yes, always! When something becomes common and accessible to all classes of people, it loses its symbolic distinction and its ability to confer status on the people who consume it. That very likely plays a role in wheat’s exile from the “good foods” list.

      1. Rowan B Avatar
        Rowan B

        This is very apparent in the way that paleolithic diet proponents talk about grains; ‘pasta is for filling up poor people’, for instance, or that grain production on the whole is only good for ‘mass hunger abatement’. These are paraphrases from memory, since I’m not minded to look for references.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          “Only” good for mass hunger abatement. As though ensuring most people are not starving is just a nice side-benefit, and not the core priority of food production systems. The mind boggles!

      2. Paulina Avatar


        “When something becomes common and accessible to all classes…”

        I am thinking of kale here. It seems that kale is considered special in the U.S., while in Northern Europe it has always been “poor people’s food”. I think most people in Northern Europe eat kale and also like it, but it is kind of everyday food (in winter, at least), nothing special.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          In some parts of the US (like the south), kale is a really common food and not a big deal, but in other parts it has developed some status connotations seemingly because it is fairly novel there (or was until very recently) and the nutritional benefits have been popularized.

        2. Dana Avatar

          Don’t know about the rest of Europe, but both the German and the Russian diet is all about kale. Kale, kale, kale and more kale with a side of potatoes and cabbage and a clear liquor to make it all go down (vodka in Russia, Korn in Germany).

          1. sannanina Avatar

            I actually think that this is something of an overstatement, at least as far as the German diet is concerned. In fact, if I would have to name the most important plant in my family’s diet it would be the potato. Yes, kale is a well known seasonal vegetable here, but so are pretty much all members of the cabbage family. Other than that, my family also eats a lot of carrots and other types of root vegetables during this time of the year.
            Of course, what people eat has changed in the last decades, but as far as I can tell my grand parents did not eat a kale dominated diet either.

    2. Sandra Doherty Avatar
      Sandra Doherty


  3. Twistie Avatar

    I’ve been around the block enough times now that I recognize food trendiness when I see it.

    Every couple of years there’s a new food hero and a new food villain and we are told that if we eat the hero and shun the villain, we will all live forever without illness in a land of sunshine and unicorns.

    Remember a couple years ago when whole grains were going to make all of us live forever? And now we’re told they’re poison that will kill us all yesterday.

    Back in the seventies, eggs and butter were felling us in droves. Today, they’re considered far healthier than the substitutes used for them.

    I decided a long, long time ago to ignore the hype, eat a wide variety of foods, decide how each food made me feel, and eat or avoid them as indicated by how my body reacts.

    It’s made life both simpler and tastier.

  4. Linda Strout Avatar
    Linda Strout

    I wonder if our anxiety about food is due to the millions of years when we were forced to identify new plants for the edibleness and the dangers of eating stored food. This had to have been a huge problem and potential source of death. I could see that the most cautious people would have been the ones to survive, but they would have passed their fears onto the next generation.

    1. Chris Avatar

      I was wondering the same thing. Survival of the cautious!

    2. Michelle Avatar

      That’s a really good question! It seems plausible. A lot of children, for example, are very neophobic when it comes to food. I see this as possibly a survival strategy that serves young animals well – to be cautious about things that they don’t have enough experience to know about, before they have language to communicate with, because sometimes edible-seeming things are also poisonous.

    3. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar

      I think Michael Pollan was right that people used to eat according to pleasure and custom, but there’s been a shift to eating according to rapidly changing theories.

      Evo-psych doesn’t have a simple explanation for what’s going on now about food– I’m sixty, and I can remember when people weren’t nearly so nervous about what they were eating.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        I’m 34 and I can remember when people weren’t nearly so nervous about what they were eating! The trend has really grown EXPONENTIALLY in the last decade, thanks in part to the wide dissemination of ideas and information via the internet. Even now, I will watch a TV show from like 1999 and be amazed when a TV family sits down to eat dinner and there are zero comments about the quality or healthiness of the food, even just as a cheap passing joke.

        1. Kathy Avatar

          I have older publication date cookbooks that illuminate the food “trends” if you will during that time. I have a cookbook from the 60’s “The Mennonite Treasury of Recipes” basically that’s all about home cooking, using everything up etc. The levels of fat, cream, butter etc. used in the recipes is quite an eye opener, esp. compared to today’s recipes. http://notquiteamishliving.com/2012/12/31-days-of-cookbooks-the-mennonite-treasury/

  5. Ani Avatar

    As a sufferer of Fibromyalgia, I keep getting told that removing wheat (or god knows what else) will fix me right up. But anyone with Fibromyalgia, or who has lived with someone with it, will know that nothing will “fix it right up”. I have a hefty history with restrictive disordered eating, and while I have been in a somewhat rocky but altogether strong recovery period for four years now, I know that elimination diets are absolutely out of the question for me. I also know that my recovery period has caused me to become very close with my body and the foods I put into it — I naturally filter out dairy because too much of it makes me feel worse. I trust myself to do the same with wheat or whatever else doesn’t work for me! So when my newest doctor sat down all bright-eyed and said “I’ve been to this conference — you should try going off wheat. I understand it can make quite the difference”, I wanted to just sit down and cry. I eat bread multiple times a day — I even bake it myself (using the fancy pants 5-minutes-a-day-method, I ain’t kneading nothing with these hands) multiple times per week. It keeps me strong, and helps me eat when I don’t feel like eating. It serves as a vessel for me to get protein and vegetables into my body. I know that it’s good for me because I can feel that it’s good for me. Trying to explain this gets deadened or pitying looks. This comment is headed toward rambling and emotional territory, so I’ll cut it off by saying that I really love this article and it gives me a little strength and support in taking care of my own body in my own way.

    1. Kathy Avatar

      I too have fibromyalgia. I understand.

    2. HeatherHH Avatar

      Fibromyalgia here. In the early days, before I was diagnosed, I cut out gluten for 9 months. It made no difference in how I felt. And when I jumped back into a “normal” diet with both feet, I didn’t notice any difference then either.

    3. Michelle Avatar

      I’m so glad you know what works for you and what doesn’t. Keep listening to yourself.

  6. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar

    What do you make of the claim that modern wheat is much higher gluten than wheat used to be?

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I haven’t looked into it, so I don’t really know. But I do know that most cultivated plants are quite a lot different now than they were when they were still wild. Human intervention has made many plants (and animals) essentially unrecognizable compared to their wild ancestors. I also know that different types of wheat (red vs. white, winter vs. spring, hard vs. soft) have different amounts of protein/gluten. So it seems a question worth asking, but it also seems like the answer is probably more complicated than the question suggests.

    2. inge Avatar

      I read in a usually reasonable magazine today, that according to the guy responsible for corn quality in Germany, selection in the last fifty or so years had been for higher yield, not for enhanced baking performance (more gluten) or higher resistance to pests (harder to digest).

      The article in question also touched on the role of the food industry in the “*free”-food fad.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        (By “corn” I’m assuming you mean “grain” and not “maize” right? Just to clarify.)

        1. sannanina Avatar

          Not inge, but another (?) German here :o)
          The German word for “grain” is “Korn” (or “Getreide”), the German word for “corn” is “Mais”. So yeah, definitely closer to the Brits in that instance.

          (Inge, am I correct that you are another German? If yes, would you mind telling me where you are from? I really would like to meet other people in Germany who hang around on Fatosphere blogs…)

          1. Michelle Avatar

            On behalf of the English language, I apologize for all the nonsense. Korn and mais are such nice, serviceable words and we had to go and mess it up.

          2. sannanina Avatar

            Heh, yeah right. We Germans prefer to use words in logical, totally straight forward, and consistent ways ;0). That’s why we have only one word for “salad” and “lettuce”. (Oh the examples I could come up with…)

          3. Neeva Avatar

            Hi sannanina, wie wärs mit Raum München?

            – Hi sannanina, how about Munich?

          4. sannanina Avatar

            Ich bin leider zurzeit im Raum Hannover – nicht wirklich in der Nähe von München :o(

            (Unfortunately I am currently living close to Hanover – not really close to Munich.)

          5. Mercy Avatar

            I’m also in Germany, but also in Munich.

          6. inge Avatar

            Hi everyone,

            yes, German here, currently in Nuremberg, home of Bratwurst and Lebkuchen.

            I could not remember the American (?) word for “grasses cultivated for edible seeds”, so I used what came to mind ;-) Sorry for the confusion, I could have looked it up…

            I atuually find English terms for food fascinating, because there are so many!

          7. sannanina Avatar

            All of you in Bavaria should consider meeting up ;o)

  7. Norman Cohn Avatar

    In a way, it was bread that fueled the French Revolution. And it was bread that Jesus broke and gave to his disciples in the last supper. So a study like this one would hardly make people all of a sudden give up on such an important food source in our culture and history. : )) But it’s an important study nonetheless, and it may pave the way for future researches on the topic!

    As far as I’m concerned, if I were told that eating wheat would surely rob me 10 years of my life, I think I’d chose a shorter life – with bread!!

  8. Ashley Avatar

    THANK YOU! Without a doubt the thing that bugs me most about these exhortations to cut out wheat/dairy/meat/whatever is completely ignoring cultural context, or even acknowledging a family culture. I work in breastfeeding and often am asked about what solids are best to start with, and my reply is always some variation on “whatever your family eats.” I believe it’s vitally important that a child joins their family’s food culture, whatever that is.

    For my family, that means wheat. I’m an amateur artisan baker, and thus wheat is fundamental to my identity. Baking is a skill I’ve carefully honed and take great pride in, and good bread is one of my greatest pleasures. I love baking for my friends and family, I love the smell of it, the touch of it, every aspect of bread. To eliminate wheat from my life would greatly diminish my quality of living.

  9. Stacey Avatar

    I discovered 4 years ago, while pregnant, that wheat made my morning sickness worse. As soon as I stopped eating it, my nausea went away entirely. After the birth, I started eating it again. Pretty soon, I noticed that by the end of the day, I looked about 4-5 months pregnant. When I woke in the morning, I had a flat belly again. I began to wonder about the wheat. So I stopped again. Bloating gone! Bowels more regular, even my period is regular again! I don’t believe wheat is inherently bad, but I do believe that many, many people have at least a mild intolerance. I hate that this puts me in a “fad” group. But at least there are dozens of blogs with great recipes for me to choose from!!

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I definitely think some people experience an intolerance, and it sounds like you were one of them. I know it’s annoying to feel caught up in something faddish, but the upside is that you do have lots of options available on the market now! Keep listening to your gut :)

  10. Professor Plum Avatar
    Professor Plum

    Well-reasoned. I found the anti-wheat argument pretty convincing, which was demoralizing. No matter how convinced one is by the evidence, it is impossible to stick to an eating plan that requires one to forgo the most commonly served food staple. Your argument that you need really strong evidence to propose such a drastic dietary change, especially in light of all the pro-wheat evidence, comes as a relief to me.

    PS. You are a really good writer.

  11. Chris Avatar

    Like many people, I have performed all kinds of food experiments on myself, thinking it was fine. And not realising it might have been, well, a touch disordered!

    I once read that there was a connection between cow-dairy and type 1 diabetes, which I have had for 21 years, and although the connection was supposed to have to do with getting the disease in the first place, as opposed to maintenance or management of it at a chronic stage, I decided to go without dairy and see what happened.

    At the time I was vegetarian, and I cut out dairy for four years. Four years, just as an experiment, and I kept that up! Even though there was no evidence, nothing I could see at all that indicated it was doing me, personally, any good.

    Then, after too much time spent eating insufficient amounts of fat, my testosterone was way down and I was fatigued all the time, but finally I started to climb out of that hole.

    I attribute my recovery (with some vague degree of science informing it) and increased testosterone to eating vast quantities of butter and cream. A whole lotta fat, and my testosterone started coming up.

    Imagine my surprise, when the food I had come to think of as being bad, the food that so many people believe is to blame for all kinds of death and disease, imagine my surprise when it helped me to heal.

    Food’s good at that, I figure. Food! Promoter of life! More than just disease in a packet!

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Wow, interesting, though I’m sorry you went through that! I think a lot of people do self-experimentation like this, particularly when they have a disease. Sometimes it turns out to be a useful thing, but it always carries a risk too.

      I wonder how much of that tendency toward self-experimentation is related to the idea that a disease is an intolerable burden that must be eradicated at all costs to make one a worthy person, rather than just a thing that some bodies do sometimes. I suspect our culture’s attitude toward disease trains people to think of diseases and physical impairments as a black mark on their character, and that they should do anything and everything to rid themselves of it. I don’t know if that was your experience, but I wonder.

      1. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar

        I follow Seth Robert’s blog about self-experimentation, and I think I can see something of that frantic quality. On the other hand, he’s found out some things which a fair number of people (including me) have found useful.

        If you’re going to go that route, I recommend his approach of keeping records and looking for large effects.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          This reminds me of one more thing: I would love to see a study that examines whether self-experimentation is more common among people who live in countries without publicly-funded health care.

      2. Chris Avatar

        That was exactly it for me. Despite the fact that it’s an incurable condition – or at least that there’s no known cure – I somehow took it upon myself to cure it, to eradicate that burden. I was never one to shy away from personal responsibility, and I wasn’t aware of how problematic or damaging it could be if, in my case, I pinned my success as a human being to my ability to be superhuman! Hmm. It didn’t sound totally nuts to me when I was doing it, but… I kept records in my own way, but I’m now well beyond conducting experiments on myself, and I’m better at having perspective. We have publicly-funded healthcare, by the way – just no know cure!

        And there’s the overlap with fat/body acceptance. I didn’t question it enough, so I thought the way to be free of stigma, as I perceived it, was to be cured. I didn’t think about working to eradicate stigma.

      3. Kathy Avatar

        That Michelle or we feel typical medicine has failed us and are desperate to feel better & turn to self-experimentation with food (or supplements, or homeopathic remedies or, or, or) in an attempt to feel better.

        That said, the stigma thing ? Yeah, that’s there.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          Very good point. I think a lot of people (rightfully) feel medicine has failed them, because medicine has its limitations, both scientifically and in terms of providing support and compassion.

          1. Chris Avatar

            Yuh-huh. It’s a weird kind of split – without insulin I’d have died, and I really am grateful. But – understatement of the year – there’s room for improvement.

          2. Ani Avatar

            As a chronically ill person, I have to say that it also comes from all the stories of how if you get the perfect food formula for yourself your body will either a) return to its original state of disease-free perfection or b) become some sort of holy vessel that can transcend time and space. I still get excited and buy juicers or quinoa lavash or something every so often in the vague hope for saintly vesselness.

          3. Michelle Avatar

            Wow, I love this. Thank you for adding it.

  12. Mary Kate Avatar
    Mary Kate

    Wheat doesn’t work for me, at all, so I avoid it. But the only reason I avoid it is because I’ve done food challenges after allergy testing and I know what it does to me. I think that piece is what so many people seem to miss — if the food makes you feel bad, physically, don’t eat it. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it. Otherwise? When I want to eat it, I eat it. I only conscientiously avoid foods that my body has shown me it can’t handle.

    1. Barlow Avatar

      I tend to naturally cut out dairy (that whole lactose intolerant thing makes it a bit unnappealing at times) but every now and then I still chow down on pizza or ice cream or something (Lactaid!). And Greek yogurt is my favourite thing ever. Knowing I can eat dairy if I want to usually means I don’t want to, and when I do, either it’s something I can tolerate (said greek yogurt) or I take my lactaid and deal with any side effects.

      So sometimes I am eating pizza knowing I might not feel great later but it’s honestly worth it sometmes *shrugs*

  13. Gretchen Avatar

    I am grateful to be someone who can eat wheat without adverse reactions. Especially as my comfort foods are biscuits (cookies) and pastries.

    I have wondered, though, about whether the rise of wheat from a mostly Mediterranean staple to a staple all through Europe and former European colonies might not be such a great thing. Only a few hundred years ago, people in the north of Europe would have eaten rye and oats and barley and other grains far more than they would have eaten wheat. As a descendent of people from those regions (Germany, Norway, Ireland), wheat is part of my contemporary culture. But that doesn’t mean all people, even all people of European descent, have been eating wheat for the thousands of years in which it has been cultivated.

    In any case, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that people pay attention to the foods that make them feel good, and the foods that make them feel ill, and make a decision based on their own reasoning about how they prefer to feel.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I love rye bread so much.

      The interesting thing about your question is that I think (if I remember correctly) that Celiac disease is more common in people with Mediterranean/southern European ancestry, as well as people with northern European ancestry. Celiac disease does have a genetic component. I have no idea what all this means, but it’s interesting. Oh, and keep in mind that barley and rye also contain gluten, which seems to be the central problem in Celiac disease and non-Celiac gluten intolerance, but there may be other different things between those grains and wheat.

      1. Mich Avatar

        I was reading something on allergy net (or whatever it was called, a giant database online about allergies) and it said that allergies to rye flour was very prevalent in Denmark, surpassing wheat. I found this very odd as you’d think rye was a staple there.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          Wow. Sometimes more exposure to something creates a higher risk of allergy, as far as I know. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but yeah. Interesting.

          1. inge Avatar

            Maybe the answer is quite simple: If every member of a group eats a certain food, then everyone with an allergy or sensitivity will find out. While most people who might be allergic to some food exotic and rare for them will never notice.

          2. Michelle Avatar

            This is true.

  14. Imogen Avatar

    What a marvelous post, Michelle – and so timely! I have been thinking about wheat for a while now and have come to the conclusion that if it really was all that dangerous, the human species would have died out by now.

    It’s also very interesting to note your commenter above about class. I think she may be right. It is only the rich who can afford to be picky about their food; the poor are glad for whatever they can get!

    Fascinating. Thank you so much for posting this.

  15. Shoal Avatar

    I agree with this post.

    I can’t eat it myself without three days of pain afterward but I don’t understand these people evangelising about gluten free living. I mean some people are allergic to citrus so should everybody on the planet stop eating oranges? That’s how I feel about this whole gluten thing. If you find yourself getting sick after every meal, it’s worth looking into whether you’re allergic to one of those things that’s in most of the things you’re eating (gluten, soy, corn, milk). I figured it out when even a piece of toast made me feel sick (“maybe it’s the toast?”) and now that I know what to avoid, eating is a lot less painful. no more getting nauseas halfway through lunch, etc.

    But if you’re not getting sick everytime you put food in your mouth, or if you haven’t had an allergy test, it makes about as much sense to cut out gluten as it does to cut out citrus or peanuts or legumes or anything else you’re not allergic to.

  16. CS Avatar

    I’m a dietitian and my dad has recently gone gluten free. He says he feels a lot better which is great, I do believe it can help some people although some of the benefits may be placebo effect it is hard to know. It does make any kind of celebration meal trickier. My mom loves Dr. Mercolla and will take his advice over mine so that can be a bit frustrating but I’m happy they feel healthy.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yeah, I’m always happy for anyone who makes a change that genuinely works for them and makes their life better. But it is also frustrating that not all of these changes come without risk, and many people are unaware of those risks, or refuse to acknowledge them.

  17. Diana Avatar

    love love your blog. I especially loved the final paragraph “despite all our technological advances, there still exist medical conditions that defy treatment or explanation, our ever-present fear of death, our idealization-bordering-on-worship of perfect biomedical health,” I really need some perspective living in this blur of mostly useless info. It’s great to be reminded what stokes it. It helps me put it down and look elsewhere.

  18. Blue Avatar

    Great post! My grandparents all lived to their 80’s and 90’s and to my knowledge, they never avoided anything. I’m sure they didn’t follow any fad diets (obviously if you have allergies or an intolerance then it’s best if you can identify it and avoid what’s necessary which doesn’t make it a fad!). For me, regarding fads, “If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

  19. GrHK Avatar

    As an undergraduate in archaeology and sister to a lovely girl with celiac disease, I must say that I’m more than happy with your blog. I, like a previous commenter, am in danger of getting somewhat emotional about this subject, so I’ll keep it short.

    Nowadays, when I go out to dinner with my sister and some friends, she carries a card with her. It explicitely states that she can’t consume gluten, and it asks the chef to be careful with his preparation. We decided to introduce the thing after a chef thought she was one of the people who had taken the ‘fad’ diet to heart. He didn’t take her request seriously, so unfortunately we ended up in hospital that night. Again, this is a very personal thing, and I have nothing against people trying diets, but it has serious consequences for those who are ‘really ill’.

    I’m studying archaeology, as I mentioned before. Archaeologists tend to get a bit annoyed by the concept of a ‘paleo-diet’. To quote one of my professors: “The neolithization of the world didn’t just involve the domestication of cereals. In many cases, domesticated animals were introduced at the same time. I highly suggest to the ‘paleo-fanatics’ that they restrain themselves from consuming domesticates, and go looking for an aurochs instead. I wonder if they’ll manage.”
    Of course he was being quite cynical, but the point is, as you’ve stated, that we nowadays tend to overanalyze what we’re consuming. Science is ‘misused’; diet guru’s borrow quotes that suit their theories, without mentioning the articles that go completely against them.

    What was I trying to say with all this… Well, my sister – despite of her health problems – has been volunteering since she was twelve. She’s going to university next year, because we’re lucky enough to live in a wealthy part of the world. I guess I’m just annoyed that society tends to focus on such relatively irrelevant elements of our existence. Not to say that food is irrelevant, but it doesn’t need so much thought. Please, refrain yourselves from overanalysing, and try to focus on the more important things in life; living for instance.

    1. Normann Cohn Avatar
      Normann Cohn

      I totally agree. And If I got the blog’s author right, that’s what results from the “normal eating approach” – it ends up helping us realize, among other things, that eating is just one aspect of our lives and that we don’t need to establish such an obsessive relation with food. I’ve always thought that the obsession about food and eating is like a sympton of the diet culture and mentality.

      That’s not to say, however, as you correctly pointed out, that food is unimportant. It is important just like, I don’t know, reading, watching movies, meeting and hanging around with people, establishing relantionships, talking, doing sports, appreciating art, traveling, sleeping…

      I can say that the moment my fiancée gave up on the diet mentality her very existence opened up to a whole range of different interests. Dieting was kind of making her hostage to an obsessive and narrow pattern of thinking and behaving, in a way.

      It must be quite hard to live with celiac disease, especially when people, for one reason or another, don’t take it as seriously as it should be taken. More recently, our municipality passed a law compelling all restaurants and establishments of sorts to inform clearly what itens in the menu do or do not contain gluten. The law’s been hard to enforce, but it’s slowly starting to make an impact on the way restaurants deal with their clientes.

    2. Mich Avatar

      That’s awful about the restaurant? Did you tell them what happened with the improper preparation?

      Yes to the archaeology. Our animals today are not like the wild ones of 10,000 yrs ago either, just as plants aren’t. Even guinea pigs are not the same: the domesticated variety doesn’t exist in nature anymore, and scientists aren’t sure which wild ones gave rise to the little pets.

      1. Mich Avatar

        Ugh, sorry that first “question” was really a statement. The 2nd question was the real question.

    3. Elodie Avatar

      Archaeologists tend to get a bit annoyed by the concept of a ‘paleo-diet’.

      So do historians.

      I’d also suggest that the Paleo fad people try living the way people really did back then. No medicine; no health care; no real shelter from natural disasters. No police, roads, or water filtration systems. Possible war every time you meet another tribe, and therefore actual war pretty regularly. Also, they need to get used to eating whatever’s available and digestible. And if you become physically disabled? Have fun with that.

      The idea that people were healthier before civilization is an ancient one; it’s in the Old Testament. But it’s also one that’s pretty ridiculous, especially these days. I do not understand why many people are so hung up on the idea that what we “naturally” ate before civilization must be healthier. I see people apply this to animals a lot as well — like a wild mouse must be healthier for a cat to eat than pet food developed by people who research animal health. There seems to be this idea that Nature Knows Best, and that there is one “natural” path to follow and this is the only good way and all our ancestors did it. It shows a deep ignorance of history, science, and human culture that I find truly maddening.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        Yeah man those people in the Old Testament lived wicked long.

        I would love to understand more the philosophical and psychological roots of the Naturalistic Fallacy and the Fallacy of Antiquity. We lean on both of those SO HARD when we discuss food, health, and nutrition.

      2. inge Avatar

        I do not understand why many people are so hung up on the idea that what we “naturally” ate before civilization must be healthier.

        Well, they rarely died of diseases which are associated old age, so of course they must have been healthier. *headdesk*

        I wonder if anyone has ever investigated the correlation between increased deaths from heart disease and the widespread use of antibiotics. I have this nagging suspicion that more people died of heart issues after WWII because they didn’t die of anything else before.

        1. scarlet Avatar

          My understanding is that heart disease increased when traditional saturated fats like butter, tallow, lard, and coconut oil were gradually reduced in favor of industrially-produced fats like margarine, vegetable shortening, and vegetable oils. This may not have been the only factor, but it was likely a significant one. Industrially-produced fats are high in omega-6, low in omega-3, rancid, and inflammatory. (Canola oil is said to be high in omega-3, but this is not true considering the way it is processed with high heat, bleaching, deodorizing, etc. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are too delicate and volatile for such processing.) Inflammation is increasingly suspected of causing or contributing to heart disease. Even one hundred years ago, traditional saturated fats were eaten without ill effect.

          I don’t know how accurate it is to state that the “diseases of civilization” are the “diseases of old age” when children are now being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Something has changed in our diets, and not for the better. I am not a Paleo enthusiast, but I also do not countenance ignoring the deleterious effects of some aspects of the modern diet.

          1. Linda Strout Avatar
            Linda Strout

            Our physical activity has changed, along with the types of chemicals in our environment. There are a lot of things that affect health.

          2. inge Avatar

            But you need to go only about one hundred years back, and people with diabetes (and, probably, many who suffered from allergies or intolerances) simply died.

            That alone probably skewed the numbers to a degree that it would take some effort to make them comparable.

            (And doesn’t diabetes 2 go into remission when you are starving? My parents’ and grandparents’ generations still remembered going hungry a lot. Not going hungry is still a brand new thing for humanity.)

          3. Barlow Avatar

            Lot of people think that one origin of vampire stories was undiagnosed diabetes.

          4. Linda Strout Avatar
            Linda Strout

            I have read that tuberculosis/consumption was one source of the vampire myth. There are probably multiple reasons for the myth, though.

          5. Barlow Avatar

            I’d feel comfortable saying there were probably a fair few sources :P Or otherwise you wouldn’t have myths from places that didn’t have those diseases, right?

            Also it was probably like the witchcraft thing. Something was weird? WITCHCRAFT!!!

      3. Nof Avatar

        I’ve read a couple of books now about human evolution and the birth of agriculture. They’ve all agreed that pre-agricultural humans probably had more nutritionally-complete diets, because of the far wider range of foods consumed. However, famine scares or simply not having quite enough food one day was also common. Agricultural didn’t provide as nutritious a diet, but it did provide consistently enough calories. And in the end, consistently enough calories–even if they weren’t the optimal mix of calories–won out over more complete nutrition, in part because children survived better. An adult can weather caloric deprivation for a while with few permanent ill effects, but a child or infant can’t.

        I’m honestly not sure how people can assume pre-agricultural or hunter-gatherer populations are intrinsically healthier. From what I’ve read, it seems like 1/3 of people died in infancy and 1/2 were dead before 18. If you were part of the 50% that made it to adulthood it seems like you lived a decently healthy life, but I can’t get over that “only half of people lived to adulthood” thing.

        1. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar

          So far as paleo being meat-heavy, there are different sorts of paleo– Terry Wahls promotes a vegetable-heavy sort of paleo that she developed to control her MS symptoms.

          1. sannanina Avatar

            Interesting about Paleo not necessarily being meat-heavy…

            Nof – Did they mention anything about the range of food in modern diet(s) compared to the pre-agricultural diet(s)? I would guess that the food available nowadays actually is more diverse than even a few decades ago – at least for middle and upper class people in a number of countries. I for one am pretty sure that my diet is far more diverse than that of my grandparents.

        2. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar

          The explanation I’ve seen for the rise of agriculture is that it produces more food for humans out of a given area. More people equals more military power, so agriculturalists take territory from hunter-gatherers.

          One of the reasons hunter-gatherers are considered healthier (until recently) than agriculturalists is that hunter-gatherers are taller. I’m not sure whether it’s just more calories, or also better nutrition.

          Animals manage without agriculture, so the stability of the food supply probably isn’t crucial. Infants get their food stability from mother’s milk.

    4. scarlet Avatar

      I find the ethos of the Paleo diet to quite inconsistent. It’s easy to pick it apart and point out the incredible contradictions. Avocado, a New World fruit, is okay with most Paleo gurus yet raw milk, which surely has a much longer history of consumption amongst Europeans, is not. However, one does not need to go back to Paleolithic times to find more robust populations. Heart disease was not even identified until the 1920s. It may have existed, but it was not endemic. It makes sense to ask what has changed in the last 100 years or so. We eat stunningly more factory-made foods, more vegetable oils, and new foods like high-fructose corn syrup. We have, for the most part, stopped soaking and fermenting grain foods. We have moved away from small farms to the increasing monocropping of vast amounts of wheat, soy, and corn, much of it GMO, using nitrogen fertilizers extracted from a non-renewable resource because out topsoil is otherwise too depleted. We have moved domesticated animals from pasture to feedlots, and we feed ruminants grains that make them sick. This all has an effect, and it is not “ignorant” to question these practices.

      1. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar

        Diabetes Rising is a book by a medical journalist with Type 1 diabetes, and he says that diabetes (in general– it’s not as simple as there being two distinct types) has been becoming more common for the past century, and none of the standard explanations quite hold up.

        Type 2 diabetes does appear in children, but it’s incredibly rare compared to type 1.

      2. inge Avatar

        Heart disease was not even identified until the 1920s.

        One of the first descriptions of clogged arteries was from the early 18th century. But generally, in the 18th and 19th century, scientists were puzzling about what this “tightness in the chest” meant.

        However, I think it highly likely that there was a lower rate of heart disease in the past — even theose princes of the early modern era who were politicking all day and partying all night and never went hungry probably got more exercise than today’s average gym rat.

        The problem with industrial farming and food processing I see as ecological and economical. Damage to consumers from industrially produced food is likely a drop in the ocean compared to the damage that antibiotic-resistant bacteria “bred” by industrial meat production do, or the suffering of farm workers from pesticides. (And that drop might even out with higher availability of diverse foods, and better food hygiene.)

  20. Inc Avatar

    I’ve cut it out. On basis of geeky, hardly upstanding evidence, but I was quite desperate to change things. And my life has stabilized, which is why I haven’t really felt like experimenting again.

    On the whole, the slim basis of it bugs me a bit, and the social implications of not being able to just fit in do too. I don’t want to be a bother. I don’t particularly want to be some ‘alternative’ person either, nor a hippy, or someone fitting in with the latest trends. But extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures.

    On the other hand, I have actually been surprised at the ease with which it can be implemented in normal cooking. It meant returning to other staple foods and root vegetables and things (beans, lentils and other starchy produce) and I’m pleasantly surprised, also with my own cooking (which has ‘ease of use’ as first, second and third priorities.)
    (Lunch and breakfast now, that’s a bit more difficult for me, the rice cakes are cheap, but utterly boring.)

    But I’m still in two minds about it. I think your reassurance that it’s still ok to cut it out just as it is to leave it in, meant something to me.

    (One thing I can gladly say: I have never felt the urge to convey others.)

  21. inge Avatar

    Some more rambling thoughts: I find the classism in modern nutrition taboos (fads, whatever) a really fascinating topic. But it’s not really “modern”, AFAIK — Wasn’t it the ancient Greeks who considered barley so poor a grain that only slaves and horses could live on it, while “real” people needed wheat? (One collects the weirdest trivia when hanging out with archeologists and history buffs, and rarely has an opportunity to fact-check.)

    Me, I’ve grown up with pretty traditional middle European food, so, rye mostly, oats, barley, buckwheat. Also classism in that choice, white bread was for shiftless city-dwellers and soft southeners who did not want to chew their bread. *G*

    Today, going without wheat would be slightly annoying, but going without rye and oats would really spoil my mood. It feels really weird to hear “gluten” and “wheat” used interchangeably.

    Fortunately, I can eat any properly prepared food with no trouble at all. I count my blessings!

    1. Mich Avatar

      Neat about barley and Greeks. Barley was the main staple of gladiators too. That and wood ash (for the calcium).

      1. Linda Strout Avatar
        Linda Strout

        You can get calcium out of wood ash?

        1. Michelle Avatar

          Yes, apparently it is rich in calcium carbonate or calcium oxide. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_ash#Composition


          It’s alkaline enough that you can make soap out of it if you mix it with fat, too.

          1. Linda Strout Avatar
            Linda Strout

            I knew about the soap, but not the calcium. Very cool. How did our ancestors figure that out? Or were they just desperate at one point in time?

          2. Rowan B Avatar
            Rowan B

            Ground cinnamon, which is of course made from tree bark, is apparently 1% calcium by weight, according to the USDA. I don’t know of any other foodstuff that is quite that concentrated a source, and I always wondered if it was a typo. But perhaps not!

            (Nettles are also quite high in calcium, though.)

          3. Nof Avatar

            I can’t reply to Linda directly, but I’d wonder if maybe it started out as a stomach soother (calcium carbonate being the active ingredient in Tums), and then people noticing its effects that way?

            How they figured out wood ash helped stomachaches I can’t say, but a lot of old remedies are so out there that I’m sure they figured it out eventually.

          4. Linda Strout Avatar
            Linda Strout

            Nof, maybe it was sheer desperation that made someone try ash.

          5. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar

            It could be indirect desperation– wood ash falls into food, there’s not enough food to throw it out and wood ash isn’t obviously poisonous, someone with stomach problems notices the good effects.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      I’m with you – going without rye and oats would spoil 2/3rd of my meals daily. Wheat itself just would impact my snacks and some dinners.

      And I’m sure you’re right that the classism thing in food is not new at all.

  22. Mark Avatar

    I went paleo about 2 years ago. I did so on the basis of scientific merit, which makes a very strong case for it. I’m no evangilist, and I felt no different than before. But, I do not think that the current medical evidence was sufficiently covered in this article. The biological impact of pro-inflammatory substances, as hypothesized, may prove to be correct. Moreover, the paleo/primal movement seeks to provide awareness as to the indeterminite nature of the impact of refined foods. Lately, for example, a strong correlation has been drawn between diabetes and grain-based products; not because of gluten, but instead due to the insulin response. All this suggests is that further study is needed; cum hoc ergo propter hoc. What appears to be true, however, is that much of our current understanding is based on insufficient or biased study conducted with few, or no controls. But, just because an area of science remains undocumented, that is not to suggest that the status quo can suffice as proper advice until proven otherwise. That is a logical fallacy. After all, DDT was once considered ‘safe.’ Again, there is nothing to suggest that such a diet provides absolute benefit. But, dismissing it on the basis of purely anecdotal evidence, referencing that status quo, is both foolish and irresponsible.

    1. sannanina Avatar

      Three things that I was thinking when I read your comment:

      1.) I don’t think anything in the article contradicted this:

      All this suggests is that further study is needed; cum hoc ergo propter hoc. What appears to be true, however, is that much of our current understanding is based on insufficient or biased study conducted with few, or no controls. But, just because an area of science remains undocumented, that is not to suggest that the status quo can suffice as proper advice until proven otherwise. That is a logical fallacy.

      In fact, based on this article as well as Michelle’s other writing, she would probably strongly agree with you that more (and better controlled) studies are needed.

      2.) I really do not know that much about Paleo – but it seems rather meat heavy to me. And while eating grains in large quantities might be linked with diabetes, eating meat is linked to some other diseases, as far as I know. (Gout would be one, kidney disease another one as far as I know.)

      3.) If future studies really show that a) grains are problematic for humans to eat and b) Paleo is the way to eat (which would involve more than avoiding grains, after all) it might make sense to first search for a (sustainable) way to feed the world’s population according to Paleo principles before recommending it as the standard way to eat.

  23. purpleshoes Avatar

    What kills me about it is that even if it’s true that everyone should be eating paleo, that’s basically a global catastrophe. Cows make most of their greenhouse gasses by farting, not by eating grains or being driven around. There’s actually no evidence that the extraordinarily expensive grass-fed meat the paleos prefer produces fewer greenhouse gas – it takes longer to get a grassfed cow up to slaughter weight, which gives it more farting time.

    I will say that a diet with some animal protein in it sure is much easier on me and my sense of satiety than the extremely restrictive low-fat vegetarian diet I was raised on – my general finding was that people eating that diet tended to “sneakily” supplement with higher-density sweets and snack foods. Much as the Victorians were exasperated that poor people kept buying ‘nutritionally-useless’ fruits and vegetables when scientists could prove that they had no useable calories and should be tossed out, I think we’re probably going to see some research in the years to come about how animal fat and animal protein have different effects on hunger regulation. (I also suspect we’ll continue to see evidence that non-optional full-time sitting jobs are rough on our glucose tolerance. Like many society-wide predictors of health, that’s a hell of a thing to dump on individuals who need to make a living and might make that living at a desk.) But I think if we bother to pay attention to how people around the world look while eating balanced diets, we will also notice that some of those people aren’t thin.

    That said, I will say that the current trend has led several people in my life who had ruinous and undiagnosed stomach troubles to identify gluten as a real actual allergen for them. I am happy for their successes.

    1. inge Avatar

      What kills me about it is that even if it’s true that everyone should be eating paleo, that’s basically a global catastrophe.

      I have read suggestions that we should turn to insects for protein. However, I shudder at the idea of a genetically engineered termite large enough to cut steaks from!

      1. purpleshoes Avatar

        I hear you, and honestly as a former vegetarian who would eat whatever is in Quorn and not ask questions, if you put a crunchy coating on “improved protein nugget food” and don’t tell me it’s ground grub I would probably eat it!

        That said we totally already developed a technology for delivering more protein to more people with less land, and that technology is called agriculture ;D

  24. fredt Avatar

    Life without wheat, sugar, any flours for that matter, is the only way I could live anymore, having been wheat free now for most of six years now. Life without wheat has become a weight stable way of life, something that I never had before.

    A breakfast of eggs and bacon would work for me for 5 to 6 hours, and if I added toast, perhaps 3 hours. That said wheat, toast, had to go. Until dietitian can can explain that one, I will beleive Taubes, Davis, and Perlmutter.

    1. sannanina Avatar

      But fredt – that’s you, your experience. It is great that you found something that works for you. And yeah, it is quite possible that there are biochemical reasons for why it works for you. But people are not all equal. In fact, we already differ in the amount of amylase that our bodies produce. (Which, by the way, is at least some evidence that there are people/populations around whose bodies are adapted to eating grains/starch rich foods to some degree. Just as I think that the fact that quite a few people CAN digest dairy even as an adult is a sign that their bodies are adapted to eating dairy.)

      And for the record, I have never gone wheat/grain free – but I do know that a breakfast including some kind of grain (and that could be buckwheat, spelt, oats, millet, rye etc. or a combination of these) makes me personally feel better and satisfies me longer than a breakfast without grain. I also know that mildly limiting sugar makes sense for me, but if I cut it out completely or even “just” limit it severely I end up craving and overeating on it*. Which might have to do with having been both a dieter and a binge-eater for most of my life. But that is the whole point: People differ. Their genetics differ, their gut flora differs, their cultural and personal histories concerning food differ, and their financial means to afford different kinds of food differ. And in order to recommend to the whole population to cut out grain (or any other major, historically important food group) there really should be stronger evidence first.

      *And yeah, I know that there are people who believe that sugar is addictive. However, an addiction model cannot easily explain why I do fine with moderate amounts of sugar or why the sugar cravings actually become stronger over a matter of weeks and months of avoiding it.

    2. Barlow Avatar

      Personally, I need a balance of carbs, fat, and protein in the morning or I’ll be passing out two ours later. I’ve timed it. I could eat 2 pieces of toast and a bowl of oatmeal at 9am and I’ll be woozy by 11am on my work days. If I eat my two pieces of toast with peanut butter (protein) and a greek yogurt (extra protein!) I’m fine until lunch.

  25. Jo Hannah Avatar

    The controversy that surrounds the grain free / gluten free / paleo diets is a good thing. I think it will spur more awareness, more conversation, more research, and ultimately, this will result in a better understanding of how grains DO affect our health, and more importantly, how the processing of grains affects our health.

    For me, the proof has always been in the pudding as they say! I pay very close attention to how I feel, how the food I buy affects my community, and of course, how it taste. After years of personal experimentation, I know, without doubt in my mind, that whole organic foods, unprocessed (except by me in my kitchen!) and grain free, have had the most positive impact on my health. For anyone that isn’t sure, I think a 30 day trial for any change is a great way to see how you feel with, or without, a certain food.

    I would also caution anyone against sticking with conventional dietary habits just because the research is not in yet (that actually sounds like just run of the mill lazy thinking to me)… there are just too many variables out there that influence what research gets done and how it gets done to take chances.

    Be your own best health advocate. Try going grain free (or meat free or whatever) and see how you feel. Eat organic, whole foods regardless, since there is sufficient research out there that ties pesticides, artificial ingredients, GMO foods, and other additives to illness. If you do that much, you will probably find that the less you eat processed, refined foods (like flour and sugar), the less your body will want it and will reward you with more energy and a stronger immune system.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Experimenting with dietary restriction is not a risk-free endeavour. Some people will find the risk worthwhile, but others will not, and for very good reasons.

    2. purpleshoes Avatar

      You know, there actually isn’t very much evidence at all about trace pesticides on food or GMOs in food having measurable health effects on the end consumer. The primary measurable health effect is that those foods are more expensive, and more expensive is not a neutral factor for the vast majority of human beings. Additives, assessed one by one, may or may not affect some people in some ways.

      The broader ecological debate about pesticides and pesticide-related GMOs is a noble one and one that I’m invested in, but conflating those broad environmental goals with individual consumer health is not borne up very well by the science.

  26. James Wilk MD Avatar
    James Wilk MD

    I could not have said it better.

    I am a physician who specializes in medical disorders complicating pregnancy, particularly diabetes. Moreover, I was formerly obese and once had impaired glucose tolerance, hypertension, and dyslipidemia.

    I lost 85 pounds 4 years ago and became very familiar with the medical literature about obesity and the metabolism of carbohydrates and of sugar in particular (because of my own blood sugar), and I came to the conclusion that the reason “paleo” works, is NOT because it is wheat-free, but because it is a sugar-free, low-glycemic index diet.

    I believe paleo is unnecessarily restrictive and ecologically unsustainable. I eat wheat (it’s the main grain in my diet) every single day, often with every single meal and I have a BMI of 22. I have normal hemoglobin a1c, normal blood pressure without medications, an HDL of 57, an LDL of 85 and triglycerides of 68. Moreover, I have no evidence of “inflammation” in my body on clinical or laboratory grounds.

    AND I get the benefits of whole grain intake, such as decreased cancer risk. Moreover, I know that my whole-grain diet, with only modest amounts of animal products, is ecologically sustainable.

    Thanks for your rational take on this issue.

  27. girl Avatar

    Thank you for the thoughtful discussion.

    Avoiding gluten never assuaged my autoimmune condition, until I also gave up eggs and dairy. I’m not happy about it and it doesn’t make sense to me, but until I can get the same results without the restrictions, I’m sticking with it.

    I don’t think it’s as easy as not “having” to eat these things though — the message I get is that these are the foods that people eat, and I have to fight for it if I want to do any differently. Maybe it wouldn’t feel like a fight if I weren’t already struggling to feel better. But when people are sick they rely on others more, and it’s hard to rely on manufacturers, grocers, and restaurants when you have a food restriction. So the psychology is, I guess, harder than the reality that if you spend enough time cooking from scratch, you can be healthy without grain.

    And I agree with you that the psychology is huge. You mentioned that “the idea that a disease is an intolerable burden that must be eradicated at all costs to make one a worthy person” can motivate even more drastic therapies than illness itself can. I know that there is amount of effort I could expend to feel okay and be happy if someone else were paying my bills, and a lot more effort that I currently expend so that I can take care of myself. That second amount of effort is totally about being a worthy person. It’s also probably a wash, since I consume so much insured healthcare in order to keep up, and become a pretty exhausted, good for nothing person when I’m using up all my energy at work. I can’t imagine I’m the only one in this position!

    So I think some of these psychological experiences lie behind the symbolic thinking of the grain-free movement. People feel like they’re at war with the world, that they’re a minority, and that they are sick, which means that they are worthless and bad. If they want to defend themselves and wage that war, they can project the sickness — and the badness — onto grain.

    And all the myths are ready made. Even in Sunday school, we were told that the farmer Cain killed the shepherd Abel in the world’s first murder. And the Catholics said that the wheat of the Eucharist was only salvific because it was miraculously turned back into flesh! So it’s not almost religious — it is religious.

    And it’s political. Growing up in the environmentalist nineties, I was taught how settlers in America, in order to grow grain crops, burned the forests that had sustained native peoples — native peoples who were pretty heavily romanticized (Pocahontas, Avatar, potlatch), even while being pitied for their vulnerability.

    And to be fair, the best myths are not 100% made-up. We know that a lot of pastoralists and hunter gatherers have died (and sadly, continue to die in some parts of the world) at the hands of people who farm grains.

    So I think the idea that the worth involved isn’t social but moral or spiritual — that, as you say, disease is a black mark on our character — has led people to project that guilt onto grain and agriculture. We’re not the ones who are sick. People who farm are sick — physically and morally. Look what they’ve done to the environment and to the natives of the Americas or of the rainforest! And then we have college educated white people who shop at Whole Foods identifying as victims with Brazilian aborgines, all because neither of them eat grain, which is pretty ridiculous!

  28. girl Avatar

    (PS – It would also be really easy to cross Godwin’s Law here, what with the aurochs and the grand myths about civilization, but I hope that most of even the Paleo movement doesn’t deserve the comparison, even if I think there probably is a real link to early 20th century conversations. :/)

  29. JITC Avatar

    I think although it may be in small part, some of what may contribute to this is the “pain” of the wheat free diet that comes from difficulty in daily life to execute it. There are many people on this thread who have declared its ease of implementation, but if we take into account how few restaurateurs take pay attention to gluten contamination when they are preparing food, it truly does become an issue because the modern American has an extremely difficult time just finding a nice place to eat out for a night that guarantees them a lack of gluten.
    I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with Celiac and IBS and has found herself switching to a Paleo diet, which she has attributed to vastly improving her day-to-day life. When she was first diagnosed, her reaction was, “This is really hard, I wish everyone had Celiac so that my life became easier. You should quit gluten, too. Everyone quit gluten!” It’s also hard to convince people whose lives have been substantially changed due to dropping wheat from their diet that yours in unaffected by it. An assumption arises that everyone else would feel the beneficial effects of the transition, and avoids any studies that are contrary to their experience, as well as favoring poorly conducted studies that don’t rigorously control for the multiple variables of diet and exercise.
    I appreciate this composition greatly. Thank you for your reasonable address of a particularly pervasive mindset.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      You’re right, despite all the advances that have been made in the gluten-free market in restaurant years, for people who don’t tolerate gluten, getting truly safe, gluten-free food is still fairly difficult, especially in restaurants. It can be done, but it comes with considerable risk, and it requires a lot of practice to get it right.

  30. […] the Fat Nutritionist, Wheat and Death: bringing a little balance to current discussions about wheat and gluten. While some folks are […]

  31. Matt Avatar

    I have lost of 50 pounds by not eating grains in the span of about 3 or 4 months. Grains are absolutely terrible for you. You may refer back to the fact that grains have been a part of our diet for a very long time, and while you are correct, you completely disregard the age of genetic modification of soy and wheat. Increasing gluten levels in our grains is terrible for our overall health. Pancreatic cancers, diabetes, and obesity has been steadily increasing and has been pushing record numbers since the widespread use of genetically modified grain. You are doing your readers a large disservice by telling them to continue to eat these foods. Taking another example, Mexico has recently surpassed the USA in terms of obesity rate. The Mexican diet is very high in grains, surprisingly higher than the American diet, and their obesity rate correlates perfectly with my argument. If you want your readers to become healthy and lose weight, tell them that first they need to eliminate carbs from grain sources entirely. They can eat as many carbs as they want from sources such as broccoli and other vegetables. Vegetables that are crunchy are significantly healthier than others such as potatoes, which should be avoided. Fruit should be consumed at a much less rate, only a handful per day. Protein sources of any kind, especially grass fed meats, are great. Nuts and roots are also highly recommended. While this may seem extreme, excess fat on the body actually makes it more difficult to lose weight initially because of hormonal imbalances. I currently eat grains somewhat sparingly or less often if I can. While following my paleo diet, eating roughly every 2 or 3 hours is highly beneficial to long term success, and one can eat as much as they want to be full.

    1. sannanina Avatar

      If you want your readers to become healthy and lose weight, tell them that first they need to eliminate carbs from grain sources entirely.

      The “lose weight” part of this sentence makes me question that you spent even five minutes to find out what this blog is about before writing your comment.

      And as someone who has worked with Michelle in the past I can tell you that she succeeds in making at least some people healthier (physically, but also mentally) totally without telling people to cut out grains completely.

      Also, you might want to read up on laws on GMO foods in different countries and their obesity before implying that GMO grains are the (main) cause of increasing obesity and diabetes rates. I am no specialist on GMO laws, but I can tell you that a) there is far less genetically modified grain grown im my home country than in the US b) bread and flour here are usually made from grain grown in the country and not from imported grain. Yet obesity rates here have been rising. (And yes, whi

      1. sannanina Avatar

        Ahhhh! This was an accident – I did not want to post this yet. Anyways, I just wanted to add that while I do not agree that obesity is the “health crisis” that we are told it is, it is an interesting question why average weights have been going up in many countries around the world. I just don’t think that grains and particularly GMO grains are a likely answer.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          I’ve heard so many “One True Answer” hypotheses to this very question – for a while, people said it was due to HFCS. Others proposed it was due to lowered physical activity. Some proposed it was due to the success of smoking cessation efforts. Others have proposed it is actually a side-effect of dieting becoming more popular. My gut tells me that there are probably many different factors for this relatively modest shift in human weights. It is unlikely that one “silver bullet” is the answer for it, given that weight itself is a very, very multifactorial trait.

          1. sannanina Avatar

            Yeah, I do actually agree with this… still, I think it would be interesting to try quantifying these different factors and their interactions. (Which, admittedly, would be a rather complex endeavor, particularly if one wants to do it “right”. And it most certainly could not be done in one study but would require several larger, coordinated projects.)* Then again – considering the current climate in the scientific community as well as in the general population, I bet that any study trying to investigate some of these factors in combination would be touted as the answer to the “obesity epidemic”. Instead, I wish that we could treat this as just another piece of the puzzle that leads to a better understanding of how our bodies (and minds) work. And I wish we could really take the time to study this topic in depth before deciding if we really want or should base any concrete steps on the results.
            *I think there are studies which investigate how diet and exercise in the widest sense interact. But I would be particularly interested in going beyond that – both, by looking at particular ingredients of food such as HFCS in combination with factors such as (specific forms of) exercise and by including even more factors such as genetics, stress, etc. I guess there must be something like that out there, too… at least in form of some longitudinal studies. But if there is I never have heard of it.

          2. sannanina Avatar

            Also, I did a quick Google search, and while I did find some hits considering a link between round-up (a herbicide) exposure and obesity (and therefore an indirect link between GMO crops that are round-up resistant and obesity) this is a different issue from a possible link between wheat with increased gluten content and obesity. The only other info I found was this http://rt.com/usa/gmo-gluten-sensitivity-trigger-343/

            I have to admit that did not search thoroughly, nor did I look at any peer-reviewed sources, though. So if anyone (including Matt) as has more information/expertise in this area it would be great if he/she was willing to share. This issue just pushes my buttons – not just because of the demonization of grain (and the conflation of “obesity” and health), but also because of the blanket demonization of GMO foods. I am no friend of Monsanto and co, neither do I like the idea of making plants resistant to herbicides in order to be able to use more of those herbicides without killing the plant (or, for that matter, changing the genome of plants so that they produce a substance that is poisonous to insects). I do, however, believe that genetic modification of plants might have potential when it comes to making crops grow on poor soil or in unfavorable climates.

          3. Michelle Avatar

            I’m with you on all of this. I would like to see a sane overview of this topic, instead of a lot of hand-waving. Oh and remember the social contagion hypothesis? And the adenovirus hypothesis? And the leptin hypothesis?

          4. Mich Avatar

            Like that show Mayday on Discovery Channel: there is never just one cause of a crash/accident. There are many, perhaps 100 factors that lead to the event.

    2. closetpuritan Avatar

      1. What sannanina and Michelle said.

      2. “Broccoli is a crunchy vegetable and potatoes are not”? They’re both crunchy when raw. They’re both mushy if you cook them long enough. IME you have to cook potatoes longer than broccoli in order to make them “non-crunchy”. And Matt just said that roots are good, but potatoes are a root, and he’s saying they’re bad. Also, Michelle is not “telling [her readers] to continue to eat these foods”; she is not telling them what to eat at all.

      3. A lot of these “one true answer” things seem plausible until you take into account that other countries seeing a similar rise in BMIs are not affected by the “one true answer”. For example, Matt mentions HFCS and also mentions that Mexico now has a higher rate of BMI>30 than the US, but he does not mention that HFCS is not commonly consumed in Mexico. Also, according to Grist Mexico has had a moratorium on growing GMO corn since 1988.

      4. As for “the age of genetic modification of soy and wheat”–yes, soy is often genetically modified in the US (as is corn), but “genetically modified wheat has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, GM wheat isn’t approved anywhere in the world.” I have heard that in recent decades wheat has been bred in such a way that we may not handle it as well (but I haven’t really investigated this), but if so, this is from traditional breeding methods, NOT from genetic engineering.

      In short, Matt, you don’t seem like a reliable source of information, and I will not be taking advice from you.

      This is part of what’s so confusing and frustrating for so many people–even the better-researched nutrition advice is often contradictory, and a lot of it is not well-researched at all. Probably 90% of the advice people encounter is crap like this. (90% of everything is crap.) Giving people even more advice/instructions/commandments to sort through is for the most part just increasing the burden on them.

      1. sannanina Avatar

        Points 3 and 4 contain really interesting information, thank you :). (I knew that soy and corn are often genetically modified in the US, but I had no idea that there is not approved GM wheat variety.)

        And I had a good laugh reading your first point ;). Yes, it is quite true – raw potatoes are VERY crunchy.

  32. gl Avatar

    Late to the party here, but this and the general hysteria about wheat right now in general always reminds me of the Welcome to Night Vale episode “Wheat and Wheat By-Products”. I mean, clearly wheat is dangerous, look:

    “An update on our previous message about wheat and wheat by-products. You should not eat wheat or wheat by-products, say several frantic scientists, waving clipboards in our studio.

    As it turns out all wheat and wheat by-products, for unknown reasons, have turned into venomous snakes, which are crawling all over our small city, causing even more chaos than is normal. These snakes have been described as terrifying, loathsome, and “probably from the bowels of hell itself!” — also, green and three feet long.

    If you have any wheat or wheat by-products in your home, you are almost certainly already dead.”

    But seriously, I know people who can’t eat gluten (because of IBS and other related GI tract illnesses) and I know people who don’t because of the fad. And while the later earns my bitten tongue and a private eye roll, the former can be heartbreaking. Your closing nails it: “You can find ways to live well without it, though it will take some effort and some money.” Because it’s all fine to wave off the crazy fad kids, but for people who have dietary restrictions for medical reasons having the means to deal with them can be hugely difficult and costly, which is a shame. Eating accessibly shouldn’t just be for the rich.

    1. girl Avatar

      As just one example of how things can be tricky, there’s often a “gluten free” section of the grocery store devoted to gf baking mixes, crackers, and pasta. Products that are obviously made of wheat are offered in wheat-free versions. But what celiacs and other gluten-free diet adherents really need are gf versions of all foods. Kudos to grocers who are labeling sausages, canned soups, jarred vegetables, nuts and dried fruits, etc. I find I still have to check labels, but it saves time. It’s true that one can also save time by checking the most expensive versions first!

  33. Mich Avatar

    I was just looking up information about wheat fortification, and found this: http://www.aaccnet.org/publications/plexus/cfwplexus/library/books/Documents/WholeGrainsSummit2012/CPLEX-2013-1001-28B.pdf

    There is almost no fortification of whole grain products, because the phytate prevents most minerals being absorbed. People who switch from white to wheat flours, we are beginning to see a return to higher rates of birth defects, anemias, and rickets.

  34. […] On Wheat and Death by the Fat Nutritionist […]

  35. Elizabeth Nicholson Avatar
    Elizabeth Nicholson

    Re: Wheat
    One issue not addressed in the excellent article is the fact that wheat today is recently largely a GMO product. I personally, a vegetarian to the point of vegan, have eaten wheat products for ~40 years with no deleterious side effects. Within the last ~five years I have noticed an untoward belly weight gain and bloating with accompanying elevation in blood pressure. Having eliminated wheat from my diet in all forms for the last six months, I have lost considerable weight and the BP issue is resolving. I am a small boned, petite female with no previous weight or BP issues. Removing wheat is the only change made in diet and I consider this significant. There are very acceptable substitutes for wheat such as nut flours which make delicious breads and bread-like foods such as pancakes, cookies, etc. Please be advised that GMO foods are not recognized by the body and create havoc with our evolutionary dietary heritage. Many studies confirm this. Thank you.

    1. closetpuritan Avatar

      “wheat today is recently largely a GMO product”
      Incorrect. Unlike specially developed herbicide-tolerant and insecticide- resistant corn, cotton, and soy varieties grown prolifically in the United States, genetically modified wheat has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, GM wheat isn’t approved anywhere in the world. And clearly you didn’t read the previous comments.

      “Please be advised that GMO foods are not recognized by the body and create havoc with our evolutionary dietary heritage. Many studies confirm this.”
      Citation needed.
      I’d say that this is wrong, but it’s basically word salad; to get to “right” or “wrong” it has to actually be coherent. “Not recognized by the body”? WTF is that supposed to mean? Does that mean the body can’t digest them? If so, false. Does that mean that the body doesn’t recognize that it has digested something? If so, false.
      “Create havoc with our evolutionary heritage”? WTF? This doesn’t mean anything!

      1. sannanina Avatar

        Not just this, but before targeted genetic engineering there was this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutation_breeding

        Just to be clear, I don’t think that speeding up the rate of random mutations artificially as in mutation breeding OR introducing genes from other species as in genetic engineering necessarily has harmful effects. On the other hand, I do question the use of pesticide resistant plants as well as plants producing toxins that make them resistant to certain pests. Both because they might be harmful to the environment and in the second case because I believe there is a possibility that the substance the plants start to produce might have harmful effects on humans that are not yet known. (Note that there is no evidence right now for either problem so far, though.) And I also think that it is a reasonable assumption that any mutations in plants can be just as much harmful as useful for humans.

        The thing is: Every new technique has risks and benefits. And there is no evidence whatsoever that genetic engineering IN GENERAL produces plants that are unfit for human consumption or harmful to the environment, even though certain varieties might have their drawbacks.

        (Sorry, I know this was kind of off-topic…)

        1. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar

          I’ve seen concern about contemporary strains of wheat being different from what wheat was 40 or 50 years ago, but nothing definitive about the changes.

          Anyone have information?

          1. closetpuritan Avatar

            I think I tried to look this up in the past and didn’t get very far. I tried again just now and found this post on Mark’s Daily Apple (a paleo site). I’m not sure how reliable it is*. They do cite this study, which says that maybe modern wheat is causing an uptick in celiac disease due to higher levels of a type of gluten protein called Glia-α9. So, maybe. I’m not sure that a higher level of this protein has any significance for people without celiac disease. (And none of this is GMO-related. The claim is that this has happened “in the last decades” according to the scientific paper.)

            *I tend to distrust anything that claims that much of the food we eat is “rancid”, and I haven’t heard good things about Weston A. Price, so both of those things make me question the info on Mark’s Daily Apple.

            I also found someone asking about this here, but they don’t seem to have found an answer. The question has been up for less than a month, though, so it’s possible someone will come along with more information.

  36. Alf Wilson Avatar
    Alf Wilson

    The article doesn’t mention that modern wheat varieties are significantly different to prehistoric and even fairly recent varieties; they have many more chromosomes made up of novel genes that program for unique, “untested” proteins. The apparent increasing prevalence of allergic responses and intolerances to wheat (and other “modern” industrialized foodstuffs) might well be due to these newer strains of wheat, but this article avoids that possibility.

  37. Erin Avatar

    Thank you for putting into words my exact thoughts on the “ditch the wheat” movement. It’s impossible to make a valid argument for a non-medically necessary diet change without taking into account what the cultural implications of that change are. I have several gluten-intolerant/ coeliac friends, and the hardest part for them is not missing the actual foods they can no longer eat, but not being able to share the experience of eating them with friends and family.

    One of my co-workers has been religiously vegan for 20 years, with the exception of Yom Kippur, when she eats her mother’s kugel. She says she can’t bear to not keep up that tradition, even though she has no real taste for it any more.

    The books Eating Animals and In Defense of Food are undoubtedly controversial, but one of the things I felt both books got right was this: the more you separate a food from its context, history, and meaning, the harder it is to understand why and how it should be eaten. One of the reasons food science and diet culture are often so destructive is that they consistently ignore this factor.