Apr 19, 2015

Grain of Truth: The Real Case For and Against Wheat and Gluten, by Stephen Yafa (May 2015)

We've all been there: a friend hears about gluten sensitivity or reads "Grain Brain" or "Wheat Belly" and suddenly decides they're gluten-intolerant, cuts out all wheat, and claims to instantly feel happier, more energized, and healthier. When journalist Stephen Yafa's wife hopped on the anti-grain train, he decided to join her and investigate the science behind this fad diet that seems to just be growing stronger. Though he acknowledges that the science hasn't quiet caught up with the trend, what science there is does not add up to the sensationalist claims of doctor/writers like David Perlmutter.

Here's his conclusions: celiac is a horrible disease. There's no denying it exists and that its sufferers have to steer clear of all wheat. Gluten sensitivity or intolerance also exists, but seems to be increasingly common, and not just because more people claim to be gluten intolerant; the incidence has actually risen in the last 60 or so years. So what changed to make this happen? Processing. Grain is a multi-billion dollar business, and the emphasis is on quantity and speed with quality pushed so far back by the wayside that the government actually had to mandate enrichment. Grain companies have processed the nutrients right out of wheat in an effort to get the fastest baking whitest bread possible. What we're left with is a slab of carbohydrates that spikes our blood sugar and piles on the pounds. Enrichment - putting lost vitamins back into the bread before sale - can only do so much. There's no proof yet that this mega-processing is actually causing people to become sensitive to gluten or wheat, but the correspondences are intriguing. Yafa notes that there needs to be a lot more research in this area.

But what is clear is that people sensitive to gluten/wheat often have a much easier time digesting 100% whole wheat breads, ancient grains, and sourdoughs. A lot of this is due to fiber content: our gut microbes eat fiber, so when we don't have enough of it in our diet, they feed on us instead. the gut microbiome is a growing area of scientific study, and each new study suggests that it's far more important to our overall health than we ever suspected. A happy gut is a healthy mind and body, it looks like. 100% whole wheat, ancient grains like einkorn, and the microbes in sourdough mitigate or even eliminate immune response to gluten and wheat for many sensitive to it.

So how do we fix this? Locally grown or milled 100% whole wheat, a return to ancient grains, and slow baking are the answer. We've stripped nature of its essential vitality, and hastening the process of making bread has hurt our health. Right now, the options are few, far between, and expensive. Yafa's book is a clarion call to consumers to take a good hard look at their wheat and make educated decisions that will then force the bigger companies to start providing nutritious options at lower prices.

As for the writing, it's engaging and enjoyable; think Mary Roach but a lot less gross. The scientific discussions are tempered with anecdotal evidence and Yafa's own experiences, and he's a fun writer to read.

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