by Laura McFarland, Communications Director
Turns out my mother might not be so unusual after all. Or at least in one particular way: she’s gluten intolerant, but not celiac. For years she ate crackers to settle her stomach; then she learned that it was the crackers that were upsetting her stomach.
She is joined by nearly 20 million other Americans who regularly experience distress after eating products that contain gluten. About 1% of the population has celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine). Currently, however, according to this fascinating article in The New Yorker, about a third of American adults, a number well beyond even this 20 million, say that they are trying to eliminate gluten from their diets.
Given that humans have been eating wheat for about ten thousand years, what’s going on that would suddenly make the numbers of those who experience intolerance increase? The article explores multiple possibilities — a change in wheat’s genetic composition, the modern diet, changes in the bacteria which help us digest food, intolerance of a specific group of carbohydrates (FODMAPs), too much vital wheat gluten — and provides examples of studies.
Multiple opinions are noted, from David Perlmutter, a neurologist and the author of one of the gluten-free movement’s foundational texts, “Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar — Your Brain’s Silent Killers,” writes “Gluten sensitivity represents one of the greatest and most under-recognized health threats to humanity.’’ Given that 20% of the world’s calories, not to mention the basis for multiple economies, come from wheat, that’s a fairly daunting concept to grapple with.
Then there’s research by Joseph A. Murray, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and the president of the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease. Said Murray, “Everyone is trying to figure out what is going on, but nobody in medicine, at least not in my field, thinks this adds up to anything like the number of people who say they feel better when they take gluten out of their diet. It’s hard to put a number on these things, but I would have to say that at least seventy per cent of it is hype and desire. There is just nothing obviously related to gluten that is wrong with most of these people.’’
So which is the more accurate perception? Perhaps understanding what’s really being removed from one’s diet when they try to give up gluten. As author Michael Specter suggests, “The initial appeal, and potential success, of a gluten-free diet is not hard to understand, particularly for people with genuine stomach ailments. Cutting back on foods that contain gluten often helps people reduce their consumption of refined carbohydrates, bread, beer, and other highly caloric foods. When followed carefully, those restrictions help people lose weight, particularly if they substitute foods like quinoa and lentils for the starches they had been eating. But eliminating gluten is complicated, inconvenient, and costly, and data suggest that most people don’t do it for long. The diet can also be unhealthy.”