Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What Gluten-Free Diets Do, and Don't Do, and Why

The facts about gluten sensitivity are pretty straightforward. About two-thirds of humankind can digest wheat, and for them natural wheat is a cheap, healthy, nutritious food. The rest of us have varying degrees of difficulty digesting wheat. Some people need to limit grain consumption generally, while for a minority of people, of whom I'm one, wheat is just plain poison and will always be.

It used to take an expensive and somewhat dangerous medical test to find out which category an individual fitted into. Now there are two cheap and simple ways: (1) Go gluten-free for a month or two and see whether you notice a drastic improvement--if you're gluten-intolerant you will; and (2) Get a blood test, which will also allow a doctor to test the same sample for other causes of illness, which may be acute and life-threatening. Option #2 is obviously preferable, if you can do it without having to work around some sort of insurance boondoggle.

The gluten-free food fad "debunked" here ( http://acsh.org/2014/11/american-consumers-falsely-believe-gluten-free-diet-linked-health-benefits/ ) may be a harmless waste of money for many people. If you're gluten-tolerant, the only benefit you'll get from eating pricier gluten-free food is being able to share exactly the same thing someone else can eat. That social benefit means enough to some people that they're willing to pay more for gluten-free bread, but, er um, some gluten-free breads are actually higher in carbs and calories than wheat bread.

How much harm do people do themselves by going gluten-free if they don't need to? Usually not much, because they won't see any benefits from the gluten-free diet and won't stay on it. If their gluten-free diet is unbalanced, they may develop dietary deficiencies, just like other people who give up one specific food for longer than Lent and don't compensate for whatever nutrients they had formerly been getting from that food. (You'd have to be awfully unhealthy to develop any deficiencies from giving up any food for six weeks.)

So why is the tone of some things we read about gluten-free diets, like this hatespew, http://junkscience.com/2014/11/25/gluten-free-diets-overrated-but-favored-by-food-fetishists/ , hostile rather than reassuring? If the intention is to keep you from wasting your money, shouldn't the tone be more like "Relax...wheat's still safe and healthy food for you"? If the intention is to do the most good to the most people, shouldn't the reaction be more like "How wonderful that growing awareness of food sensitivities is making it easier for people who can't digest specific foods to be able to eat in restaurants or at friends' homes"?

Well...what if that's not actually the intention? I'm calling out Steve Milloy's web site on this issue because I think the site's been hijacked. Steve Milloy is a serious scientist, and used to be a good, snarky source of scientific corrections to inaccurately reported "science" (like the "Global warming is likely to put Florida underwater in ten years" garbage that was floating around, er um, ten or fifteen years ago). Then he stopped posting on his own web site. Then he let people like "john1282" post on it, and thus changed the official Junkscience site into a source of unpopular-but-still-unscientific junk that somebody like Milloy needs to resume debunking. In this case, the name-calling seems to tap into a concern Milloy's mostly Republican readers are expected to share--which needs some attention here--but it's driven by a different concern.

Why is the gluten-free fad so popular? Partly because of misunderstandings, but also partly because two new products that have been flooding the U.S. food market, (1) glyphosate--weedkiller--as a food additive and (2) rice and corn that have been bioengineered to resemble wheat in order to survive spraying with glyphosate, are not traditional foods that healthy people have been eating for centuries. We are seeing a lot of reactions that resemble celiac symptoms in people who don't have the gluten-intolerance gene, and in people who have the gene but have been following a gluten-free diet. Some of these reactions are scarier than the classic symptoms of celiac disease, more immediately life-threatening. They're appearing earlier in life than celiac disease normally appears even in those who have the gene. There's evidence that glyphosate and glyphosate-resistant food crops are mimicking the effects of gluten intolerance...in which case the very bad news is that buying pricier gluten-free products made with corn, rice, and potato "flour" won't help anybody, unless the GMO corn and rice are removed from the food supply. And what I've been living through during the past year definitely supports this theory.

It's still a theory not a fact...because certain corporations, notably the one everybody loves to hate, Monsanto, make a lot of money from glyphosate and have been fighting tooth-and-nail to prevent any reasonable efforts to study the hazards of glyphosate, or even to label GMO foods as what they are. And it's hard to read a hatespew like the Junkscience post linked above, which denies the reality that a lot of people live with painful or disabling reactions to foods they like to eat and suggests that people who don't eat whatever is set before them just "have a need to be anxious," as coming from anything but a greedy investor's panic at the thought of losing potential profit on an investment that merely happens to be killing people. (Much as I'd like to believe that John1282's flame, which relies so heavily on using the word "little" as an insult, is just the best effort a half-grown boy can make toward debating scientific research with a grown-up...)

Probably you already hate Monsanto. If you don't, plenty of other web sites will explain why you should. It would take fresh news to motivate me to take the time to write any more about that.

But the other reason why "just going gluten-free" is becoming a fad, "I learned from my inmates at the jail that a gluten-free diet is better in some ways than the regular jail diet,  for example they got more fish", does interest me today. Two aspects of this comment are important:

1. A planned gluten-free diet can be "better" than an unplanned diet...because it's mindfully planned. Gluten-free Americans can't just order Fast Food Combo #3. If they just pick all the wheat products out of a standard menu, not much is left on the plate. So they have to think about a diet that, long-term, is likely to contain more protein, more complex carbs, and more fresh food...even if it also leaves room for more candy and potato chips.

If you're not gluten-intolerant, you can get the same benefits gluten-intolerant people get from going gluten-free...without the bother of actually going gluten-free. You lucky gourmet, you! You can replace white bread with fresh-ground wheat bread or barley or bulgur, replace disgusting sugar-flour-and-MSG goop with olive oil and pepper, lose weight, feel good, and not even have to pay twice as much for weird baked goods that don't always turn out very well.

2. John1282 is counting on Republicans to be the Scrooges Democrats like to claim they are, and react, "Jail food should be cheap and disgusting! Jail should make people know that they're being punished, so the food should be terrible." And actually I'm not opposed to our prison system using relatively safe ways to make jail food seem like a punishment, like cutting out all the seasonings and flavorings that aren't part of the actual food value of a meal. Drunk drivers deserve worse things than dinner after dinner of meat, potatoes, and vegetables without salt.

However, although the fact is ridiculously easy to abuse (and to ridicule), there are "borderline personalities" that are sane and stable when people eat healthy, and sick, impulsive, and violent when people become malnourished. A classic celiac is chronically malnourished, so one thing that can happen with untreated celiacs is that they become "Least Competent Criminals," not strong enough to win fights or fast enough to dodge policemen or intelligent enough to think that shoplifting, purse snatching, or picking fights might be a bad idea. Other food intolerance conditions can also contribute to the problems of "Least Competent Criminals."

Of course, tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs (including prescription medication) are much more likely to push "borderline personalities" onto the violent side of their "borderlines"--but for them, too, it's easier to sober up if they're provided with the nutrients their bodies must really crave after the drugs have leached nutrients out of their bodies.

There are actually documented cases where prison doctors were able to feed convicts a more nutritious diet than the usual attempt to compromise between "what they want" and "what's cheap" dictated, and the result was less violent, more reliably "reformed" convicts. Republicans need to know that, although catering to convicts' tastes might be a luxury, making sure that convicts eat healthy is a sound investment--assuming that society wants imprisonment to function as a corrective punishment rather than just a school where petty offenders learn how to pull off bigger crimes.

Diet, Crime, and Delinquency is one of the few health books written in the 1980s that's still generating lots of online publicity. You can buy it from me. You're also encouraged to look at what else comes up as related material, mostly citing Diet, Crime, and Delinquency, from an Amazon search for that specific book...here. The research in Diet, Crime, and Delinquency was a provocative preliminary; read critiques and suggestions for further study here. See one of those further studies here, another one here. You can even read a snarky discussion of an effort to popularize/sensationalize the research here (scroll down; the comments are worth reading). A more serious online discussion of diet and mental health is going on here....and there are plenty more, if your interest in this topic is more than academic.

Efforts to standardize "healthier" diets for schools and prisons, rather than testing what works for individuals, seem to be the main flaw in existing research so far. Most people behave better when they are healthier, but what makes people healthier varies. Vicki Griffin affirmed, in a video Grandma Bonnie Peters used to play in her Test Kitchen dining room, that elementary school students behaved better and earned better grades, on average, when they were fed whole-grain bread or cereal instead of Fritos and Mountain Dew for breakfast. That sounds like a no-brainer...unless you're gluten-intolerant, in which case you may have tested several times and finally accepted, as I have, that you might do even better if you just ate an apple for breakfast, but failing that, you'll be a lot closer to par on Fritos and Mountain Dew than you would on whole-wheat toast. (Fritos and Mountain Dew got me through quite a few mornings before GMO corn started creeping into Fritos.) The lesson to be learned here is not that convicts, or elementary school students, should be fed Fritos and Mountain Dew every morning--actually that would be a good way to push a few "borderline cases" to misbehave!--but that each one should eat what works for his or her body.

The best way to find out what works for an individual is for that person to restrict his or her diet for a few weeks and experiment. The worst way is to allow anyone to be exposed to a food bully preaching that people "should" be able to eat whatever is set before them.