Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Wheat, the Scapegoat—Enough Already
For better or worse, the gluten-free, wheat-free, and grain-free diet movements are en vogue right now. Sure, some of us adhere to one version or another of these diets for medically justifiable reasons. But a whole lot of other people are jumping on the bandwagon just because. And books like Wheat Belly, Grain Brain, and Gluten: Zero Global aren't helping any.
Poor wheat has been horribly maligned, blamed for everything from hangnails to brain cancer and everything in between. Anti-wheat and anti-grain evangelists try to convince anyone who will listen that gluten, wheat, and/or grains (take your pick, depending on your preferred level of specificity) are responsible for all manner of health evils, and that purging them from your diet will bring upon us a Second Coming.
I'm here to say enough already!
Don't get me wrong... If you're one of the people who has regained your health through the power of diet, whether motivated by one of the aforementioned books or not, great. I'm fully in support.
But enough with the "if it's true for me it must be true for all humanity" brainwashed thinking. Just because purging a food from your diet sparked a miraculous health turnaround for you doesn't mean that it's the root of all evil and that we should banish said food (aka gluten, wheat, grains) from the face of the Earth.
The bold claims and promises being made by certain best-selling authors and bloggers reek of snake oil. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And the claims aren't hard to debunk. In fact, they're so straightforward to disprove that it's almost laughable. Yet they continue to perpetuate and permeate the gluten-free community.
Go ahead and click on that graph above to see a full-size version. Study its details. Then come back here and keep reading.
One of the most common claims you hear is that eating gluten/wheat will make you fat and sick, and the more of it that you eat the fatter and sicker you get. Simple enough, except that the claim evaporates upon even cursory scrutiny, and it's easy enough to put to the test.
My graph above includes a dozen countries. The UN classifies them all as "developed nations," which I used a proxy for affluence and socio-economic status. I further chose only European nations or nations of predominantly European descent (e.g., United States, Canada, Australia), as a proxy control for similar genetic background. Then I pulled national obesity data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation's recent 2013 The State of Food and Agriculture Report. Next I grabbed per capita wheat consumption for those same countries from the most recent available data from FAOSTAT.
The data speaks for itself. The U.S. is by far the most obese nation of the group, with 31.8% of the population classifying as obese (Mexico only last year overtook the U.S. as the most obese developed nation worldwide), yet every other country in the group consumes as much or more wheat than we do ... with far lower rates of obesity.
Countries such as Greece and Italy consume an astounding 75% more wheat per capita than we do, yet their national obesity rates are 45% lower than the U.S. Meanwhile, countries such as Denmark and France consume about 25% more wheat than Americans, yet have obesity rates half that of us.
How is it that nations with similar levels of affluence and genetic predisposition can eat so much more wheat than Americans yet have such profoundly lower rates of obesity? Answer: because gluten, wheat, and grains are not the dietary Rosetta Stone. For some of us, yes, avoiding them unlocks manifold health benefits. But it's unfair—and inaccurate—to make wheat a scapegoat.
The story is exactly the same if you pull World Bank data for life expectancy for the countries in my graph. In theory the more wheat you eat, the sicker you get, and the sicker you get, the sooner you die. But that's not what happens at all. Countries that eat far more wheat than us live healthier, longer lives than we do.
It would be convenient if the truth was as simple as "It's the wheat, stupid." But it's time we move beyond such naive and overly simplistic thinking. Enough already.