The Gluten(free) Myth – Is gluten-free the solution?

So, with the last post, looks like I’ve gotten a bunch of people confused, a bunch concerned and another bunch plain curious. To recap, for anyone even remotely aware of where health, fitness and nutrition has been heading towards in the last few years, answers to the following questions are very significant.

Will going gluten-free help me? Should I try a gluten-free diet? Should I stay away from gluten forever?

Firstly, let’s go against the grain

If you haven’t read my take on grains yet, I recommend that you read it right now. No, it isn’t a random monologue on how grains wreak havoc in your body and neither is it a love letter to the beautiful wheat. Trivialities and special cases aside, I don’t think grain consumption causes any problems. Grain dominance, on the other hand, does wreak havoc.

Grains, in general, have two major nutritional issues.

1. They are, for the most part, empty calories. Nutritionally, they don’t offer much of anything other than calories. And since now we live in an age of calorie abundance (I’m talking about the affluent society we are all a part of), we don’t really foods that are dense in calories. Many years ago when agriculture flourished and a grain dominated diet was the norm in every part of the world, our activity levels were extremely high due to the lack of machines, cars, microwaves, storage facilities, PS2s, cushy chairs covering every inch of the floor etc. and more important than micronutrients (and even macronutrients) was… calories. And hence, a diet that provided the consumer with plenty of calories and, especially, from a food that was easily storable and portable was the solution. Today, we are, as a society, rich in calories (read: overweight) and deficient in multiple vitamins and minerals. So the grain dominated diet is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, we have other problems and for that we need to be consuming, mostly, foods that are not dense in calories but filled with micronutrients.

2. They contain anti-nutrients. Like gluten in wheat and avenin in oats, all (whole) grains contain anti-nutrients that have various deleterious effects on the gut which in turn affects the entire human body.

Now, while I understand and embrace the anti-nutrient part of the argument, my biggest reason for not letting grains dominate one’s diet is the fact that they are empty and have nothing to provide other than calories (from starch).

Having gotten this out of the way, let’s get back to the question…

Should I go gluten free?

Good bad gluten

And from what we know about grains and gluten, here is my answer…

Yes and no.

Yes, you need to remove anti-nutrients like gluten from your diet in order to strengthen your gut. And no, you should not purely focus on going gluten free and as a result use other grains to dominate your diet or turn to gluten-free boxed foods.

The goal is to not remove only gluten but to remove any and all anti-nutrients, like gluten, from your diet.

Anti-nutrients from grains and legumes can cause a host of issues in the human body from irritable bowel syndrome to bloating to gas to other major autoimmune diseases and this has been proven and well documented. Depending on the person, the kind of food he/she ate while growing up, genetics, deficiencies, quality of food consumed and other lifestyle factors, the effect of these anti-nutrients vary from non-existent to mild to pronounced to severe.  For the purpose of this post, it is important to know that anti-nutrients affect your gut and that in turn affects health. Nothing more, nothing less.

So then, does it make sense to remove wheat (and hence gluten) and fill that space with another grain (and hence another anti-nutrient)? Clearly, no. Drawing a parallel, if your liver is bust due to excessive whisky consumption, would you remove the alcohol or would you just dump the whisky and move to vodka? You see my point?

Sorry, but pulling wheat out and replacing that with an equivalent amount of millet or corn or magic-grain-number-332 will NOT help.

So the problem is gluten, but not only gluten. The problem is anti-nutrients. But is that all?

Escaping the devil so you can chill in the deep blue sea

Shonali, after writing that amazing article about gluten sensitivity and intolerance on Metro Plus, decided to go gluten-free and it looked like she was pretty committed to staying away from all forms of gluten. She had taken the time to find out what foods contain gluten and did a nice job of staying away from them all. But then she told me something very interesting.

“…I went bonkers the first week. Cut gluten and ate stuff I normally wouldn’t eat – murukku, adhirasam, ice cream. also felt super energetic and doubled my gym and yoga. Which made me hungrier… so I ate more…”

Though interesting, this is a very common occurrence. The problem arises when you start to see one particular food (or component of food) as the devil (as in gluten) or as the panacea (as in superfoods). While your intention is good health, a good dose of food marketing makes you choose the (what seems like) route to health.

Since gluten is a part of pretty much all ‘junk’ foods and many many easily available, quickly cookable and efficiently storable foods, once gluten is off the table, too many foods that you would normally eat are also off the table. But that’s when the horns start growing and you start to ‘think’…

“Oh wait! Ice cream doesn’t have gluten! And holy sheeeeet! Milkshake doesn’t either! And wait for it… waittt for itttt! Chocolate!”.

And what happens? Wheat and gluten are replaced by other possibly anti-nutrient rich but definitely nutrient-less foods and (gluten-free) junk foods, and hence sugar, start featuring in your diet much more frequently than before.

That’s a lot of rice!

Even if you don’t give in to junk, you will now need to replace all those gluten containing foods with something else and chances are you will choose something that seems to be a lot more benign but still fills your plate and tummy like wheat did. So rotis are replaced with ragi rotis, bread is now gluten-free bread and mountains of rice fill the space that chapathis used to.

What if you ate a diet dominated by something that doesn’t contain anti-nutrients? Say, white rice? Something like the typical south Indian diet – idly/dosa/puttu/pongal/aapam for breakfast, 2-4 cups of rice with some vegetables on the side for lunch and breakfast or lunch for dinner. That should be fine right?

Well, no.

Sure, you’ve removed the anti-nutrients and that is definitely a good first step, but where are the nutrients? By making rice as the biggest component of your diet, you are filling yourself up with empty calories (from starch) and this, in the long term, will probably result in a bunch of micro-nutrients deficiencies because the diet is rich in calories but poor in micronutrients which are found in other real foods like vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs and dairy.

The real deal

So to summarize the goal is…

  • to remove anti-nutrients containing foods from your diet,
  • reduce or optimize empty calories based on your activity level (no activity = very little empty calories etc.)
  • replace these with nutrient rich foods like organic vegetables and fruit, high quality dairy, grass fed/free range meat, wild caught fish and country eggs.

Or in short… eat RealFood for the most part! While a gluten-free diet is a part of the solution, it is not THE solution.

Now, I’m sure most of you are going ‘Well, of course! What else did I expect Raj to say? This guy asks me to stay away from all grains! Crap! Where the hell is that unsubscribe button?!’, but the more important question is…

Should you stay away from gluten and grains forever if you want to live a long healthy life and/or sport a hot body?

Should you? Is it truly that bad? Are you stuck with RealFood till your doctor says you have 30 days to live and you decide to finally eat that cheeseburger with fries and gravy? Or can you actually eat your pizza and cake regularly and not end up a fat diabetic slob with plaque filled arteries?

My thoughts, we’ll find out in part 3. But what are your thoughts? Is RealFood sustainable? Can you stay away from wheat? Should you stay away from wheat? Let’s talk in the comments section.


14 responses to “The Gluten(free) Myth – Is gluten-free the solution?

  1. Divya R April 20, 2012 at 10:47 am

    A very sensible post as usual Raj! My take – the moment we put in ‘permissables’ in our food rules eg. “its okay to have a pizza slice occasionally”, given the abundant availabilty, and ease of prep etc its very easy to overdo it, and at the cost of nutrient rice foods! There is a danger that such rules can very soon become the “everything in moderation” variety!!
    When you have a strong stance and say the diet should be “gluten free” or “grain free” or “processed food free” or whatever, they will still creep in every once in a while — and that’s plenty enough, even from a sustainabilty perspective!!

    • Divya R April 20, 2012 at 10:49 am

      …Nutrient “rich” foods!

    • RG April 20, 2012 at 10:25 pm

      Fair concern Divya… but what if there is a way around it? What if there is a method to the madness? Truthfully, gluten-free eating isn’t as hard anymore is it? There are enough and more gluten-free products out there (junk or not). So if going down that slippery slope is a possibility, it is possible gluten-free or not. I’ll explain more in the next part.

  2. isabellafellini April 20, 2012 at 11:16 am

    One of the biggest differences is people who have an intolerance to gluten versus those who have a choice. For those who have to stay away from gluten, it’s pretty easy. My brain spent the first three months reassociating food memories. The transition to real food was made easy by having to cut out wheat. It meant I couldn’t eat on the go: no more sugared-up coffees; no more goodies from the kitchen counter at work; no more snacks at the coffee house; no more quick meals; and a lot less eating out. Even at home, I wound up cooking more. And because I was initially lazy, I wound up cooking super simple meals (i.e. steak and a salad). I just started buying some gluten-substitute products (pasta, crackers, etc.) but honestly, my body could care less about these foods even if they are the gluten-free versions. So I think that if we pay attention to our bodies, not just to what we crave, but to how we feel after consuming different foods, it becomes natural to consume real food.

    • RG April 20, 2012 at 10:26 pm

      Yep. Gluten intolerance/celiac is a different story. But is gluten intolerance acceptable? Why so? Is being type 2 diabetic acceptable? Or is it better that the person reverses it with solid nutrition and exercise? While the battle is harder for folks who are gluten intolerant, there is a way around it. More in the next part.

  3. Abhi April 20, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    Awesome post, Raj! I have a doubt, though. Will all the above issues be addressed if we add plenty of vegetables and dairy to a typical rice dominated south Indian vegetarian diet (it’s mostly gluten free anyway)? Or, assuming that one wants to get a good body in the gym, is it a must that we reduce the quantity of rice even if we don’t eat junk food?

    • RG April 20, 2012 at 10:28 pm

      Adding in more vegetables to a diet that is already dominated by rice doesn’t help the cause. Think about an average person’s activity level today. It contains mostly, well, sitting. With little to no activity, all the rice (starch) is not helping. So build your diet using real foods and supplement with grains etc. What grains? How much grains? Next part.

  4. Al Kavadlo April 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Nice post,Raj! I like the replacing whiskey with vodka analogy!

  5. anand srivastava April 23, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Awesome post Raj. Avoiding all empty energy sources as much as possible is a very important goal.

    I think one other thing could have been added.
    Added fat is another source of empty calories, although some will help in digestion. Adding a whole lot of it should be avoided. I had done that mistake for a long time and still haven’t fixed it completely, as I learnt about the principles from the low carb paleo world.

    One word of caution though. For vegetarian people with bad digestive system, going low in ghee and rice means a lot of fiber which is problematic. While healing you want to get only as much vegetables as your stomach can handle, and fill the energy deficit with ghee and/or rice.

    I guess there is a hierarchy of diseases, in which order they should be treated. Pathogens would be at the highest level.

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  8. Dr.Graham Sayer, medical scientist May 14, 2012 at 8:13 am

    Your white rice is totally devoid of any nutritional value because the valuable parts have been stripped away in processing. You should, of course, be eating brown rice or wild rice.

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