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August 20th, 2013:

Jeff Duntemann’s Metadiet Picobook, Part 4

Hypothesis: Wheat sensitivity makes you gain weight.

Experiment: Go gluten-free.

(Quick note: This is a series. If you haven’t been reading it from the beginning, please go back and do so.)

Wheat is a weird business. Furthermore, the current emotional furor about GMO foods has muddied the water horribly. When people think “GMO,” they imagine legions of scientists in blinding white labs teasing DNA strands out of organisms and inserting artificial genes with nanogrippers. Or scanning-tunnelling electron microscopes. Or black magic. People forget that homo sap has been doing GMO for ten or fifteen thousand years. Selective breeding and hybridization (not the same thing) have turned wolves into dogs, grass into corn, and (different) grass into wheat. Nanotechnology not required.

The mud in the water comes from a widespread impression that if a food plant is “natural” (i.e., untouched by high tech) it’s completely safe to eat. GMO is fine as long as you leave the DNA intact.

Alas, hybridization does not leave the DNA intact. This is new knowledge for me, and a lot of what I know comes from an excellent 2011 book called Wheat Belly by William Davis . The publisher appears to have wanted a diet book, but what they got was heavy on the science. Some of that science is disturbing, to say the least:

Analyses of proteins expressed by a wheat hybrid compared to its two parent strains have demonstrated that, while approximately 95 percent of the proteins expressed in the offspring are the same, 5 percent are unique, found in neither parent. Wheat gluten proteins, in particular, undergo considerable structural change with hybridization. In one hybridization experiment, fourteen new gluten proteins were identified in the offspring that were not present in either parent plant. Moreover, when compared to century-old strains of wheat, modern strains of Triticum aestivum express a higher quantity of genes for gluten proteins that are associated with celiac disease. [pp 25-26; author’s emphasis]

To make a long and unnerving story short, 10,000 years of meddling have made wheat’s genome very odd. Accelerated hybridization in the last 100 years has accelerated its oddification in tandem. Now we’re finding that more and more people just can’t digest the stuff well. A small but growing cohort (celiac sufferers) can’t digest it at all.

I don’t have this problem myself. However, a number of close friends do. In addition to digestive difficulties, wheat sensitivity makes people put on weight, particular around the waistline. Two of my friends have cut back on wheat gluten and by doing so have lost a great deal of weight. They also feel a lot better.

It’s a difficult experiment to make, more difficult than cutting back on sugar. Sugar is in a lot of things. But a lot of other things are wheat and little else. The bulk of the grain carbs we eat are wheat, and the cheaper the wheat, the more likely it is to be a modern hybrid. Gluten-free baked goods and pasta exist, but they’re not common and they’re relatively expensive.

Worse, there are no generally accepted lab tests for non-celiac wheat sensitivity. The only thing you can do is cut out wheat and see what happens. Again, Carol and I don’t have the problem, but we’re aware of the issue, and we try to buy imported pasta that isn’t as likely to be hybridized to the extent that mass-market pasta is. I’m trying to move my carb intake (reduced as it’s become) to corn and potatoes. This is bitchy because I’m sensitive to corn bran. But it does give me an excuse to stick with potato chips.

It’s not obvious to everybody, but beer is a wheat product, and going wheat-free means going beer-free. There are gluten-free beers. I don’t drink beer and don’t know if they’re any good. If you just want the buzz, red wine is better. If you’re really attached to beer, you may have to do some hunting.

I’ve been asked an excellent question: How do I know if weight loss experienced after going gluten-free is due to gluten exclusion and not simply reduced carbs? Answer: I don’t know. It is true that wheat’s ubiquity makes it hard to go gluten-free without cutting carbs drastically, and that makes single-factor experiments tricky. I guess you could boost your consumption of other starches in compensation, but starches are still carbs and do affect insulin regulation. My suggestion: Hold your non-wheat carbs steady and try gluten-free for a month. If you lose weight, keep at it. Weight loss is good even if you’re not sure precisely how it happens, and this is one instance where controlled experiments may not be possible.

So. Sugar and wheat are the first things to go after in your metadiet experiment. Next: The Magic Ingredient. (I may need to post an Odd Lots first.)