‘Gluten-Free’ Diets Put Food Security, Human Health at Risk – Nutritionist

By Julie Mollins, Wheat Communications Officer, CIMMYT & NWF Wheat Advocate 

This blog was originally posted on the CIMMYT website, and reposted with permission from the author. The original post can be viewed here: http://www.cimmyt.org/en/what-we-do/wheat-research/item/gluten-free-diets-put-food-security-human-health-at-risk-nutritionist

Eliminating wheat consumption to avoid ingesting gluten is at best unnecessary for most people and at worst means that diets could lack cereal fiber and other valuable health benefits provided by grains, according to a top nutritionist.

Complete removal of wheat from the human diet would further cripple efforts to feed the current global population of 7.3 billion, said Julie Miller Jones during a presentation delivered to scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City on Tuesday.

Despite providing 20 percent of calories consumed globally, wheat and its protein complex, gluten, are often criticized in books and news stories as the cause of many human ailments. However, wheat and grain-based staple foods provide an array of nutritional and health benefits. For example, a recent study showed that people who consume whole grains have increased lifespan and a decrease in deaths caused by cardiovascular disease.

The claim that such non-cereal fibers as those found in fruit, vegetables and legumes can replace cereal fibers has been shown to be untrue, said Miller Jones, who is professor emeritus of nutrition at St Catherine University in St Paul, Minnesota.

In fact, eating fibers from a variety of sources, including those from wheat and other grains, plays a role in maintaining healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels, Miller Jones said, adding that they also reduce the risk of gut disorders, help maintain healthy gut bacteria and keep unhealthy bacteria at bay.

Abandoning wheat consumption altogether could lead to a reliance on foods that are more expensive, in short supply or impossible to produce on a global scale to meet the dietary needs of a population expected to increase to more than 9 billion by 2050, said Miller Jones.

“Even if we did decide to abandon wheat as a dietary staple, we don’t have the turnaround time, the availability or the quantity of foods that have been recommended as alternatives in anti-gluten fad diets,” she said.

FALSE CLAIMS

The popularity of gluten and wheat-free diets has grown largely due to claims published in such books as “Wheat Belly” by William Davis, “Grain Brain” by David Perlmutter and in the news media, which assert that wheat products are the cause of most health problems. Such claims counter current medical and nutritional advice in international dietary guidelines established in conjunction with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Gluten-free” is a burgeoning industry. Sales have risen 63 percent since 2012, with almost 4,600 products introduced last year, according to the January 2015 issue of “Consumer Reports” magazine.

This is an alarming trend for such nutritionists as Miller Jones, who was also at CIMMYT to discuss the outline for a series of research papers on the various aspects of grain carbohydrates, gluten and health.

Many anti-wheat arguments imagine the dietary habits of early human hunter-gatherers before farmers began to domesticate wild grasses, creating wheat, which led to a more secure food supply and freed humans to pursue activities beyond food procurement.

“The proponents of such diets do not consider the degree of physical activity involved in procuring the heavily meat based-diets, the changes in all plants or evidence from pottery shards that grains were eaten and the short life spans of those eating the diets,” Miller Jones said.

“‘Gluten-free’ is actually just another low-carb diet with a hook – any diet that suggests abandoning an entire food group is unhealthy,” said Miller Jones who recommends the DASH diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, low fat or non-fat dairy products, whole grains, lean meats, fish, poultry, nuts and beans.

“Proponents of gluten-free diets don’t think about the nutritional ramification on gut microbiota diversity and functionality – that we have bacteria overgrowth. I’m really concerned about the resulting overuse of acid reducers.”

Such diets may have short-term weight-loss benefits, but reliance on many gluten-free products could lead to a decrease in dietary fiber – a nutrient that is under-consumed in most countries in the world and an overall increase in fat, starch and sugar intake.

“Apart from the approximately 1 percent of people who suffer from celiac disease, the fewer than 1 percent of people who suffer from wheat allergies and the few who suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity, prominent celiac experts and health professionals discount the many supposed benefits of going gluten-free, urging those who do not have these conditions not to adopt such a diet,” Miller Jones said.

As well, wheat and gluten-free diets may not provide enough essential micronutrients such as folic acid. Excluding cereal grains would result in a fiber-intake deficit far below the recommended amount needed to maintain a healthy digestive system, according to Miller Jones, who said the key to nutritional health and optimal weight is to consume a variety of foods in small portions and to exercise.

NUTRITIONAL IMBALANCE

Globally about half a billion people are obese and three times as many are overweight, WHO statistics show. WHO and U.N. food agencies estimate that at least 800 million people do not get enough food to eat and that more than 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiency, or “hidden hunger.”Stunting affects more than 160 million children under age 5 and wasting affects more than 50 million children under age 5. Under-nutrition is linked to almost half of all child deaths under age 5, equal to almost 3 million per year.

“Clearly, we are eating too many foods that ought to be chosen infrequently and some of these include an excess of grain-based desserts and snacks,” Miller Jones said.

Miller Jones provided valuable evidence on the healthy properties of wheat and rejected some false theories, said scientist Carlos Guzman, head of CIMMYT’s wheat quality laboratory.

“As a scientist, I think the good thing is that she’s a nutritionist, and not a wheat breeder who might have a more subjective point of view,” Guzman said.

“She was very prudent with lot of the information she shared – in nutrition sometimes it’s very difficult to know the extent of the good or bad effect of any food because there are so many factors that can interact and affect it.”

As an international expert, Miller Jones illustrated clearly how scientific evidence can be misused to mislead the public for personal financial gain, said Hans Braun, head of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program.

“Julie highlighted the complexity of nutrition – there is no simplistic answer to addressing obesity and other mainstream health problems, but her talk revealed how vital it is that we inform the public of the health benefits from grain consumption,” Braun added.

Javier Pena, a wheat quality consultant, who recently authored a CIMMYT review paper entitled “Anti-Wheat Fad Diets Undermine Global Food Security Efforts,” said that her unique and clear speaking style is of great benefit for those struggling with “pseudo-scientific” claims about gluten and wheat.

“As a highly-recognized nutritionist in the United States and abroad with long experience in the nutritional aspects of cereal-based foods, the information she shared is invaluable for scientists of various disciplines, our external partners and our clients – smallholder wheat farmers around the world.”