Saturday, November 1, 2008

Book Review: Dangerous Grains

Dangerous Grains is about the health hazards of gluten grains. It's co-written by James Braly, an M.D. who specializes in food allergies, and Ron Hoggan, a celiac patient who has written widely on the subject.

Celiac disease is a degeneration of the intestinal lining caused by exposure to gluten. Gluten sensitivity is a broader term that encompasses any of the numerous symptoms that can occur throughout the body when susceptible people eat gluten. The term gluten sensitivity includes celiac disease. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, its close relatives (kamut, spelt, triticale), barley and rye. Wheat is the most concentrated source.


Dangerous Grains is a good overview of the mountain of data on celiac disease and gluten sensitivity that few people outside the field are familiar with. For example, did you know:

  • An estimated one percent of the U.S. population suffers from celiac disease.

  • Approximately 12 percent of the US population may suffer from gluten sensitivity, according to blood antibody tests.

  • Gluten can damage nearly any part of the body, including the brain, the digestive tract, the skin and the pancreas. Sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms are absent.

  • Both celiac and other forms of gluten sensitivity increase the risk of a large number of diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and cancer, often dramatically.

  • The majority of people with gluten sensitivity are not diagnosed.

  • Most doctors don't realize how common gluten sensitivity is, so they rarely test for it.

  • Celiac disease and other symptoms of gluten sensitivity are easily reversed by avoiding gluten.

That's an enormous disease burden coming from a single type of food. I suspect the true incidence may actually be higher, although it's difficult to be sure.

Dangerous Grains
also discusses the opioid-like peptides released from gluten during digestion. Opioids are powerful drugs, such as heroin and morphine, that were originally derived from the poppy seed pod. They are strong suppressors of the immune system and quite addictive. There are no data that conclusively prove the opioid-like peptides in gluten cause immune suppression or addiction to wheat, but there are some interesting coincidences and anecdotes. Celiac patients are at an increased risk of cancer, particularly digestive tract cancer, which suggests that the immune system is compromised. Heroin addicts are also at increased risk of cancer. Furthermore, celiac patients often suffer from abnormal food cravings. 

I know several people who have benefited greatly from removing gluten from their diets. Anyone who has digestive problems, from gas to acid reflux, or any other mysterious health problem, owes it to themselves to try a gluten-free diet for a month. Gluten consumption has increased quite a bit in the U.S. in the last 30 years, mostly due to an increase in the consumption of processed wheat snacks. I believe it's partly to blame for our declining health. Wheat has more gluten than any other grain. Avoiding wheat and all its derivatives is a keystone of my health philosophy.

Another notable change that Sally Fallon and others have pointed out is that today's bread isn't made the same way our grandparents made it. Quick-rise yeast allows bread to be fermented for as little as 3 hours, whereas it was formerly fermented for 8 hours or more. This allowed the gluten to be partially broken down by the microorganisms in the dough.
Some gluten-sensitive people report that they can eat well-fermented sourdough wheat bread without symptoms. I think these ideas are plausible, but they remain anecdotes to me at this point. Until research shows that gluten-sensitive people can do well eating sourdough wheat bread in the long term, I'll be avoiding it. I have no reason to believe I'm gluten sensitive myself, but through my reading I've been convinced that wheat, at least how we eat it today, is probably not healthy for anyone.

I'm not aware of any truly healthy traditional culture that eats wheat as a staple. As a matter of fact, white wheat flour has left a trail of destruction around the globe wherever it has gone. Polished rice does not have such a destructive effect, so it's not simply the fact that it's a refined carbohydrate. Hundreds, if not thousands of cultures throughout the world have lost their robust good health upon abandoning their traditional foods in favor of white flour and sugar. The medical and anthropological literature are peppered with these stories.


Overall, the book is well written and accessible to a broad audience. I recommend it to anyone who has health problems or who is healthy and wants to stay that way!

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