Your Facebook questions answered: Grain Brain and gluten-free

 “Rosie – I’m wondering your thoughts on gluten free, the book Grain Brain and David Perlmutter.”, asks Enlightened Eater Facebook fan Jennifer Burnham.

Jennifer, you’re not alone in wondering about the validity of the book, Grain Brain. It has certainly received a lot of attention. In my opinion, it’s a smattering of science mixed in with a great deal of science fiction.

The first clue in its lack of validity is the endorsement of the biggest  snake oil salesman of our times, Dr. Mehmet Oz.  His testimonial,  “An innovative approach to our most fragile organ.” , is top centre on the  front cover.

As a dietitian, I would love to see the word scientific in that endorsement. The word “innovative” speaks volumes.

Author David Perlmutter, MD., states “Even so-called healthy carbs like whole grains can cause dementia, epilepsy, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, decreased libido and much more.”  Yes, if you have celiac disease and consume gluten, there can be a range of neurological consequences.  Perlmutter spends pages and pages describing those negative effects of gluten in patients with celiac disease. Study after study is quoted and there are even photos of  MRIs, making the book look very scientific.

But he’s talking about those with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition  where the only treatment available is the elimination of gluten. Reading his extrapolation to the general public actually made me want to scream.  There is no doubt that consuming gluten for those with celiac disease can have a range of potentially deadly consequences but to use the research on celiac disease to scare others off gluten is irresponsible.

It’s also recognized that there is indeed  a category of individuals with non-celiac gluten sensitivity but the incidence of this intolerance doesn’t appear to be very high. And these individuals do not appear to suffer the same damaging effects to their health as those with celiac disease.

The author also makes the claim that the gluten contained in modern wheat can bind to the “brain’s morphine receptor to produce a sensorial high”, creating “a pleasurable, albeit additive effect.”

Wow, it’s amazing that the experts who deal with addiction have not pinpointed this effect. If this doesn’t fit into the Give me a break category, I don’t know what does.

It is important to note, though, that we are eating more gluten than ever before but not because of the grains we consume. It’s used in countless processed foods these days. But again, it’s not any risk posed by gluten for the average person that makes processed foods less than ideal. It’s the nutrients lost from the  processing, such as fibre and various phytochemicals, along with the glut of sodium that makes these foods pale in nutritional value compared to whole foods.

Now I do have to say, there are grains of truth in some of what Perlmutter says. He goes on to talk about “inflammation, which can be triggered by carbs, especially those containing gluten or high in sugar.”

He slams our consumption of bagels, scones, doughnuts or croissants  and high sugar carbs as being  culprits in inflammation.  The discussion issue of refined carbs and sugar and their impact on a host of disease risks is not a ground-breaking  one, even though he tries to make it appear so. There have been a multitude of studies, over the years, looking at the inflammatory impact of carbs with a high glycemic index.

Perlmutter outlines details about the results of  meals imbalance, carbs, insulin levels and diabetes as if his statements were radical and cutting-edge.  Maybe he should read try to read the advice of some noted nutrition experts and see that doughnuts, croissants and white bread have long been on the list of foods to avoid.

Another criticism of the book is that the author singles out grains as the culprit in a wide variety of health problems such as the increasing incidence of Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). What about the possible role of food colour in the rise of the disorder? Yes, he does  devote a few of the almost 300 pages to  the importance of omega-3 and omega-6 ratios and imbalance  on issues such as ADHD. But then he goes back to only one culprit – grains –  and lumps the good with the bad.

As for the authors link of gluten to the rise in  autism,  a recent review  of studies published from 1970 to date related to the gluten-free, casein-free diet in autism spectrum disorder patients found that few studies could be regarded as providing sound scientific evidence and that the evidence is currently limited and weak. The authors recommend that it should be only used after the diagnosis of an intolerance or allergy to foods containing the allergens excluded in gluten-free, casein-free diets.

It would indeed  be wonderful if all our society’s ails, especially the growing incidence of brain disorders, could  be blamed on one factor.  It would provide a simple solution to a devastating and growing problem. But it’s simply not the case.

As I read through the book, I felt as though I was once again reading Wheat Belly and its pseudo-science. Not surprisingly I then came across the author gushing about Wheat Belly’s William Davis’ brilliance.

That said it all.

What’s your take on Grain Brain? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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Categories: Book Review, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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One Comment on “Your Facebook questions answered: Grain Brain and gluten-free”

  1. Jennifer Burnham
    October 20, 2014 at 7:08 am #

    Many thanks, Rosie – brilliant, as always! I certainly do appreciate your thoughts, and yes, your scientific rationale, to this question.
    Jennifer Burnham

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