Gluten

At this moment, there appears to be a “gluten-free” craze or fad.

By now, you all know that I recommend a gluten-free lifestyle. But, I advocate learning the reasons behind elimination first.

Imagine if, in 1949, when doctors were recommending cigarettes, that I came out of nowhere and just said “stop doing what your doctor tells you – it’s bad for you!”

Instead of just hoping that people will go against “conventional wisdom” to improve their health, I’d rather provide some facts about gluten.

First, let’s look at the actual plant that has the most gluten – wheat. The plant in the bottom of the picture is wild-grown wheat, while the top plant is commercially grown wheat.
Wheat
This picture is slightly deceiving because the “ancient einkorn wheat” is actually a modern day variation of wheat grown in the wild. Originally, the stem would continue even further and there would be far less seeds. But, even in this picture, you can see that the output (the size and amount of protective “hairs”) of the plant has changed.

While scientists tinkered with the genetics of the plant to increase profits, they also increased the protein content immensely. This was considered an added benefit but, unfortunately, no testing was done on human tolerance.

As acetaminophen (Tylonel) was developed, it had to be researched mechanistically, tested on animals, and finally on humans, before each generation of the product could be sold in stores. This was never done with wheat.

Next, let’s consider the role wheat played historically. For the last 10,000 years, grains helped humans develop villages, cities, and countries, allowing us to leave behind 2.6 million years of hunting and gathering.

Imagine life as a hunter-gatherer – traveling around in groups, moving your “home”, and collecting food.

Would it make sense to spend hours every day picking tiny seeds off a plant, that would then have to be soaked, sprouted, and ground to make one thin cracker? Or would it make sense to throw a spear into a herd of antelope and provide enough food for weeks?

Would you rather search for days to find a few grasses of wheat? Or would time be better spent picking berries and plucking leaves (requiring no preparation) as you travel?

Wheat, and other grains and seeds, would be stored for a time of famine…when a hunt was unsuccessful or in winter when plants were scarce.

Now we know the role wheat played historically and how the plant changed through recent genetic hybridization. But, what about the actual affects gluten has on humans?

It is predicted that 1% of the world population has celiac disease, an overt allergy to gluten, while about 10% report having “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”.

Gluten sensitivity can result in over 250 symptoms, including joint pain, dry skin, or indigestion.

There is no test for “gluten sensitivity”, as there is with celiac disease. The only way to discover sensitivity is to completely remove gluten from the diet and reintroduce after a few months. Finally, one microgram of gluten can change the gut chemistry for up to 6 months – therefore, an accidental exposure, or short-term elimination, may provide invalid results.

I don’t want to bore you by exploring every issue involved with gluten, so I’ll just mention the two most compelling facts:

Gliadin, one of two proteins that make up gluten, breaks down to polypeptides. These are small enough to travel through the gut lining, into the blood, and cross the blood-brain barrier. At this point, they bind to opiate-receptor sites, producing euphoria, similar to a tiny dose of morphine or heroin. Studies show that gluten stimulates appetite so much, through the reward/pleasure centers of the brain, that individuals eating gluten consume an extra 400 calories a day.

Finally, transglutaminase is the enzyme in that breaks down gluten. The more gluten one eats, the more transglutaminase their body must produce. The issue here is that transglutaminase has the ability to affect every cell in the body. This is one reason gluten sensitivity can manifest in hundreds of different symptoms. The literature shows that high levels of transglutaminase are present in individuals with neurological diseases such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia.

I could continue but I don’t want to make this post too dry or sound like I’m trying to make gluten into some boogey-man.

The takeaway points are:

We have genetically-altered the wheat plant to contain far more gluten than it should.

Humans are not meant to consume as much gluten as we have in the last 50 years.

Gluten has the potential to affect nearly every function within the body.

Considering these facts, it is no surprise that there is a “gluten-free” craze at this moment. As more people eliminate gluten from their diets, they discover that it was the cause of many different health issues, ranging from fat-gain to Type II diabetes to anxiety.

And with that, you know the risks of over-consuming gluten, and the benefits of opting for more nutritional foods.

The science is out there – why not give it a try and see if removing gluten from your diet for a few months improves your life in any way? What will you have to lose (besides a few pizza nights or conveniently packaged snack bars)?

The Most Nutritious Foods

As many of you know by now, I try to consume the most nutritious foods possible. However, I’ve never listed exactly what foods provide the most nutrients per serving.

Advertisements claim that certain foods are important nutritionally. Markets assign numbered scores to various products. Most of these rating systems, such as NuVal and ANDI, are inaccurate for a number of reasons.

First, they look at nutrients that are not essential for life, and conversely, overlook nutrients that are necessary for life. Second, they draw from disproved nutritional norms, such as dietary cholesterol and saturated fat being “bad”. Thirdly, they are designed by agricultural companies or individuals with a bias.

Scientists, such as Loren Cordain and Mat Lalonde, have done extensive work in the last few decades to redesign nutrient rating systems. They set aside non-essential nutrients in food and focused purely on what the body must consume from outside sources.

The body cannot produce the following:

Fatty Acids: Omega 3 and Omega 6

Amino Acids: isoleucine; leucine; lysine; methionine; phenylalanine; threonine; tryptophan; valine; histidine

Vitamins: A; Bp (choline); B1 (thiamine); B2 (riboflavin); B3 (niacin); B5 (pantothenic acid); B6; B7 (biotin); B9 (folic acid); B12; C; D; E; K

Minerals: calcium; chloride; chromium; cobalt; copper; iodide; iron; magnesium; manganese; molybdenum; nickel; phosphorus; potassium; selenium; sodium; sulfur; zinc

These nutrients were plugged into the following formula to determine nutrient density:

(sum of essential nutrients per serving) ÷ (weight per serving)

I’d like to make a few points before posting Mat’s nutrient density list.

First, the database he drew from did not have complete data for certain nutrients.

The database did not differentiate between preformed vitamins and their final form. Vitamin A, “beta-carotene”, in sweet potatoes and carrots, must be converted to “retinol”, found in egg yolks and liver. Vitamin K1, found in green leafy vegetables, requires conversion to K2, found in grass-fed dairy.

There was no way to account for bioavailability of nutrients. Most grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain high levels of phytates which prevent absorption of nutrients and minerals.

Finally, and most importantly, the diet, age, and lifestyle of animals were not specified. Grass-fed beef, raised on open pastures, is much healthier than corn-fed beef, raised in stalls that restrict movement. Also, mature ducks having more nutritional value than baby ducks.

Taking this unavailable data into consideration, we can assume that most animal products would move up a few spots. This is because most plants have limited amino acids and fatty acids, and the vitamins found in vegetables must be converted or activated.

Without further ado, the ranking of nutrient density averages for the food groups:

1.) Organ Meats and Oils
2.) Herbs and Spices
3.) Nuts and Seeds
4.) Cacao
5.) Fish and Seafood
6.) Pork
7.) Beef
8.) Eggs & Dairy
9.) Vegetables (raw & unprepared)
10.) Lamb, Veal, and Wild Game
11.) Poultry
12.) Legumes
13.) Processed Meat
14.) Vegetables (cooked, canned, blanched, pickled)
15.) Plant Fats and Oils
16.) Fruit
17.) Animal Skin and Feet
18.) Grains and Pseudocereals (cooked)
19.) Refined and Processed Fats and Oils
20.) Grains (canned)
21.) Processed Fruit

Many people will be surprised by how low grains appear on the list. The nutrient value of raw grains would place them in the top 5. However, our bodies cannot digest raw grains. Taking nutrient loss during cooking and expansion of grains (1/4 cup raw rice = 1 cup cooked rice) into account, their value decreases dramatically.

I was quite surprised to see herbs, spices, and cacao near the top of the list. I always considered these foods to be enjoyable additions to a healthy diet, but not the most valuable sources of nutrients.

Two final notes regarding this list:

It is not a requirement to eat the most nutritious foods all the time. Certain nutrients, such as activated vitamin A (retinol) and selenium (abundant in Brazil nuts) are actually toxic in high doses.

Second, as previously mentioned, this rating system only looks at essential nutrients. Many vegetables contain antioxidants and fiber that can improve health, even though they are non-essential for life.

I would recommend consuming foods higher on this list and keeping your meals full of vegetables.
For Mat Lalonde’s complete presentation, follow this link to YouTube.

Matheiu Lalonde has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and a postdoctoral degree in Inorganic Chemistry from Harvard. He teaches, lectures, and is the Science Safety Officer at Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. I have to give him credit for the motivation behind, and information in, this post.

I hope this sets aside all confusion of what is best to eat.

Keep in mind that human-run studies can be flawed, correlations from epidemiological studies can be weak, and research can be conducted to prove a point, rather than discover the truth, but the actual make-up of foods cannot be disputed!