What if your health could be improved instantly, in every possible way, by eliminating gluten from your diet? It sounds like the exact inverse of a pitch for a 19th-century patent medicine: instead of consuming an exotic mix of ingredients as a panacea for your ills, omit a common component of bread and other grain products, the “base” of the old USDA food pyramid. But this unlikely recommendation has garnered surprising cultural weight, driven largely by Dr. David Perlmutter, author of the bestselling “Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugars—Your Brain’s Silent Killers.”
Dr. Perlmutter argues that up to 30 percent of people may be sensitive to gluten, with consequences ranging from Alzheimer’s to ADHD, from skin disorders to depression. To counteract this danger, he proposes an inversion of the food pyramid known as the “paleolithic diet,” a distribution of food supposedly closer to that consumed by humanity’s prehistoric ancestors: high in saturated fats and proteins from animal sources, low in carbohydrates from agricultural sources.
Similar diets have proven effective for the treatment of celiac disease, a life-threatening autoimmune disorder in which the body’s own natural defense systems turn against the gluten protein. But celiac disease only threatens 1 to 2 percent of the population; is a gluten-free diet necessary, or even desirable, for the vast majority of eaters? While a limited number of studies have recorded improvements in mental issues such as epilepsy and dementia due to a gluten-free diet, integrative medicine practitioner Chris Kresser emphasizes that “just because a low-carb diet can help treat neurological disorders, doesn’t mean the carbs caused the disorder in the first place.”
Dr. Perlmutter claims that a high-carbohydrate, high-gluten diet represents a deviation from the norm that humans are equipped to handle, but both evolutionary and anthropological evidence contradict that assertion. Humans possess more copies of the AMY1 gene, which codes for the alpha-amylase protein that breaks down starches, than do closely related primates such as chimpanzees. What’s more, human populations that have traditionally consumed more grains, such as the rice-eating Japanese, contain more copies of the gene than do hunting and gathering populations such as the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo. The human genetic code is not static but evolves over time to handle changing conditions like the rise of agriculture. Many traditional cultures also seem to function well on high-carb diets. Kresser points out that the Tukisenta people of New Guinea consume over 90% of their calories as carbohydrates while possessing some of the lowest recorded rates of neurological disorders.
Regardless of the evidence, food manufacturers are rushing to benefit from the skepticism surrounding gluten and carbs in general. Gluten-free products represented a $4.2 billion dollar industry in 2012, and new FDA guidelines allow products whose original formulations never contained gluten, such as vodka and bottled water, to be marketed as gluten-free. Consumers should beware the hype and instead focus on eating a balanced, scientifically supported diet.