Functional Medicine

Could Michael Pollan be Wrong?

Let me preface this post, I like Michael Pollan’s eating philosophy.  His seven word premise “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” concisely and accurately sums up how we should eat. Simple and uncomplicated.

I also concur with his view on nutritionism, Pollan’s term for nutritional science.  It’s often reductionist, improperly used by food scientists to create super-foods, that aren’t, and can lead to a false consciousness in the mind of the eater. Despite what the packaging says, foods fortified with nutrients have never been shown to produce the physiological benefits that are seen in whole-foods. The synergy is missing.

However, Pollan’s recent post on gluten-free diets in the NY Times had me question the authenticity of his response. It seemed incongruent with his usual line of thinking: “Could it really be that bread, a staple of Western civilization for 6,000 years, is suddenly making millions of us sick? I’m dubious.”

I’m surprised. Even a 3 year old child can tell the difference between Wonderbread and bread made under traditional practices with heirloom grains.  The two are starkly different.

But there are many more reasons why we are seeing an increase in gluten-sensitivity:

1. Genetic manipulation of gluten – It has been sliced, diced and hybridized to increase its gluten content (gluten makes food fluffy and elastic).  It’s now a “super-gluten” that is more robust and difficult to digest. The more challenging it is to digest the more likely the body thinks it is foreign and will start to attack it, in much the same way it does with a virus or bacteria.  Once this happens, you initiate an immune reaction to gluten every time you eat it.

2. We eat so much of it -If you eat oats for breakfast, a sandwich or soup for lunch, pretzels in the afternoon and pasta for a dinner, you’re consuming gluten at least four times a day.  If you ate eggs 4 times a day, you’d probably be sick too.

3. The pervasive use of grains – Almost all packaged food contains a gluten-based grain as an ingredient. Gluten is found in modified food starch, cereal filler, wheat protein, wheat starch, thickening agent, barely malt, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, MSG and binders. Soy sauce, salad dressing, teriyaki sauce, BBQ sauce, miso soup, stock cubes and canned soup almost always contain gluten. The more gluten exposure, the more people reacting to it.

4. Many of us lack the genetic adaptation to gluten – About 30 percent of people of European descent carry the gene for celiac disease (HLA DQ2 or HLA DQ8). However, celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are not the same thing. Gluten sensitivity precedes celiac disease and is significantly more common than celiac disease.  If you carry the gene, you’re gluten sensitive even if you don’t have celiac disease.

5. Stress and over-exposure to environmental and dietary chemicals – We are more stressed and exposed to more toxins than ever before. Stress and toxins increase permeability of the gastrointestinal tract (GI).  This allows large molecules, like gluten, to enter the bloodstream and weaken the immune system, predisposing the individual to gluten sensitivity. Stress also decreases digestive enzyme secretions which are required to breakdown gluten into amino acids to prevent triggering an immunological response to gluten.

6. Over-use of NSAIDS, anti-acids and medication – NSAIDS and anti-acids also weaken the GI tract, increasing its permeability and allowing gluten to enter the bloodstream, potentially potentiating a gluten sensitivity. Medications often contain grain-based adhesives further increasing exposure to gluten when the immune system is already under siege.

7. Over-used antibiotics – antibiotics eradicate pathogenic bacteria as well as the micro flora that keeps our digestive system in balance. This increases the susceptibility of bacterial and yeast overgrowth which can increase permeability of the intestinal lining propagating a gluten sensitivity if the gluten molecule enters the bloodstream.

Given this, do these reasons justify the explosion of gluten-free products?  Unlikely.

Gluten-free products are often more health-dubious than the gluten-containing food.  They are typically more refined and convert to glucose faster than the gluten-containing food, which in turn, can cause a cascade of deleterious health effects.  Stay off the processed food regardless of whether it is gluten or gluten-free.

So… what should you eat?  As Pollan espoused “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” Or in my words, “eat real food, small amount of protein and mostly vegetables”.