A reader sent me a link to a blog post claiming that paleo types who advise against eating grains are scaring people for no reason. (No, I’m not going to link to it.) Grains are good for us, you see, because the Mayo Clinic, the USDA and numerous other experts say so. That’s the main evidence offered: a mindless appeal to authority.
The writer acknowledges that the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease has gone up, as have claims of gluten intolerance, but suggests the increases are a matter of increased awareness. In other words, we’ve been scared into the thinking wheat is bad for us, so we’re reporting more problems with wheat.
The reported increase in celiac isn’t due to better diagnosis, however. As Dr. William Davis explained in Wheat Belly, the rate of celiac disease really and truly has gone up – it’s quadrupled, in fact. We know that because researchers found blood samples taken from soldiers 50 years ago and compared them to blood samples taken from soldiers today. Sure enough, today’s soldiers were four times more likely to have celiac antibodies in their blood.
As for the argument that gluten intolerance is all in our heads, perhaps a double-blind study would answer that. You know, feed some subjects foods containing gluten, feed other subjects similar foods without gluten, with neither group knowing which foods they’re eating. If only someone had conducted such a study …
… oh, wait. It’s been done, as reported in a New York Times article about gluten sensitivity:
Crucial in the evolving understanding of gluten were the findings, published in 2011, in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, of an experiment in Australia. In the double-blind study, people who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, did not have celiac and were on a gluten-free diet were given bread and muffins to eat for up to six weeks. Some of them were given gluten-free baked goods; the others got muffins and bread with gluten. Thirty-four patients completed the study. Those who ate gluten reported they felt significantly worse.
So gluten intolerance isn’t all in people’s heads. It’s in their guts too. At least that was the case in this study.
Ahh, but if you eliminate grains, you’ll miss out on all the health benefits who grains provide, the blogger assured us. Oodles of studies have shown that whole grains are good for us.
I’ve written about those studies many times. Every time I tracked down a study purporting to prove the benefits of whole grains, the comparison was between people consuming whole grains and people consuming white flour. All we can determine from those studies is that whole grains aren’t as bad for us as white flour. To prove whole grains have real benefits, we’d have to compare people who eat whole grains to people who eat no grains.
Ask the USDA, a doctor, a dietitian, or almost anyone who writes health articles for the mainstream press, and they’ll go on and on about hearthealthywholegrains. Well, here’s one study that actually measured changes in heart-disease risk factors after feeding subjects whole grains:
A total of 316 participants (aged 18-65 years; BMI>25 kg/m2) consuming < 30 g WG/d were randomly assigned to three groups: control (no dietary change), intervention 1 (60 g WG/d for 16 weeks) and intervention 2 (60 g WG/d for 8 weeks followed by 120 g WG/d for 8 weeks). Markers of CVD risk, measured at 0 (baseline), 8 and 16 weeks, were: BMI, percentage body fat, waist circumference; fasting plasma lipid profile, glucose and insulin; and indicators of inflammatory, coagulation, and endothelial function. Differences between study groups were compared using a random intercepts model with time and WG intake as factors.
120 grams of whole grains … that’s a lot of hearthealthywholegrain goodness. Now let’s look at the results:
Although reported WG intake was significantly increased among intervention groups, and demonstrated good participant compliance, there were no significant differences in any markers of CVD risk between groups. A period of 4 months may be insufficient to change the lifelong disease trajectory associated with CVD. The lack of impact of increasing WG consumption on CVD risk markers implies that public health messages may need to be clarified to consider the source of WG and/or other diet and lifestyle factors linked to the benefits of whole-grain consumption seen in observational studies.
Yes, I’d say the public-health messages regarding whole grains need to be clarified. Here’s my version of the clarification:
Sorry … turns out we were wrong about the whole-grain thing.