“I’ve lost weight and feel better after eliminating most wheat out of my diet, but have been given grief by a few who think that because I’m not celiac, there’s no reason to eliminate wheat and gluten. Your opinion on taking wheat and gluten out of a diet?”
What we choose to eat is one of the most important and personal decisions we make. Consequently, I’m stunned and amazed at folks who think nothing of criticizing these decisions made by family members, friends, colleagues, or the individuals they meet in the Comments field of a website. Their behavior is extremely rude. And, unless you are seriously harming your health, it’s nobody’s business but yours.
As far as giving up wheat is concerned, I think about taking the plunge every year about this time, when New Year’s resolutions begin to germinate. But then I come to my senses. After all, we live in an age in which artisanal bread—made by hand in small batches, often from wheat that’s been locally grown and milled—has never been more delicious or more widely available. What am I, crazy? And besides, if I gave up wheat, I’m not sure what I would slather butter on.
Of course, I am extremely fortunate in that I have the constitution of a horse. I can only imagine what people who suffer from celiac disease—an autoimmune condition that has a genetic basis and can develop at any point in life—have to go through. Those who have been diagnosed (with the help of blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine) know that they must avoid all products containing gluten, the major protein found in wheat and related species such as rye and barley, Kamut, and spelt. Otherwise, their bodies’ immune system will attack healthy tissue, especially in the small intestine. That means they are at risk for malabsorption of vitamins, minerals, and calories. Long-term consequences may include osteoporosis, other autoimmune problems such as rheumatoid arthritis, and even gastrointestinal cancers. Pretty scary stuff, in other words.
Celiac disease is different than a wheat allergy, which is just that—an allergy, which has nothing to do with the immune system. Wheat allergies are primarily seen in children and can be confirmed with an allergy test. Although the reactions can range from surprising or unpleasant (projectile vomiting) to life-threatening (anaphylactic shock), generally speaking, sufferers won’t have the intestinal damage that leads to long-lasting effects, and the allergy is often outgrown by adulthood. When one lucky 17-year-old I know was told that he could enjoy pasta Bolognese or a slice of birthday cake with impunity, he said the news was more freeing than being handed the keys to the car. And because he grew up eating, and enjoying, other grains such as amaranth, it sounds like he’ll automatically balance his wheat consumption with everything else in his carbohydrate repertoire.
The terms wheat or gluten intolerance or wheat or gluten sensitivity are often used to mean celiac disease, but the current trend is to make this a separate category. Some sufferers, for instance, exhibit the very real symptoms of celiac disease or a wheat allergy but their test results are not conclusive. In other words, if your symptoms disappear after eliminating wheat from your diet, then by all means do so.
My own personal and decidedly nonscientific take on this? I think that many people just eat too much refined wheat, period, and don’t embrace the variety of other grains that are as far away as the local co-op. Think about it: In a single day, many of us will eat a bagel, English muffin, or toast (even whole-wheat) for breakfast; a sandwich for lunch; and pasta for dinner. Do that on a regular basis, and that adds up to a whopping amount of refined wheat in our diet. Perhaps our bodies simply need a break. I, for one, have a lot to learn from a 17-year-old.
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Jane Lear: Currently the features director at Martha Stewart Living, Jane was also on staff at Gourmet for almost 20 years. There, she helped develop the concept of an annual produce issue—the first time a food magazine ever grappled with the politics of the plate—and headed up seven subsequent produce issues. She also wrote about culinary techniques as well as the popular "Kitchen Notebook" section. Jane is a contributor to numerous cookbooks and now blogs regularly at JaneLear.com. As our weekly food advice columnist, she's here to answer questions about the food landscape, from policy to no-fail cooking techniques. TakePart.com