Gluten and Cherry Picking: A Response to a Seriously Oversimplified Argument Put Forth by Bodybuilding.com
Recently, two Bodybuilding.com writers, Parker Hyde, CISSN and Krissy Kendall, Ph.D published an article titled “Gluten-Free Diets: Real Science Vs. Bro Science.” In this article, these two writers spoke of what they believe are overblown claims about gluten and its effects on health and fitness. I want to begin this article by noting that I am not some gluten free zealot, nor am I saying that you should not eat gluten. Nevertheless, like anything we do, eating foods with gluten has both its positive and negative effects, and to be fair, Hyde and Kendall acknowledge that there are people who should not eat gluten. If Dr. Kendall and Mr, Hyde are going to call their way the “scientific” way and characterize others as “bro scientists,” we should probably examine some of the shoddy science they use to come to their conclusions about gluten and whether or not we should eat it. In fact, what we will see is that they systematically ignore or exclude information that suggests that most people should not eat gluten, and when they do mention it, they themselves revert to overly simplistic and seemingly childish explanations for two people with this many letters after their names.
As we shall see in this blog, rather than siting the best arguments for a gluten free lifestyle and creating an outstanding argument for why gluten might not be so bad, Hyde and Kendall picked the weakest evidence gluten free advocates have to offer, making their own argument weak in return. There is a lot of gluten free crap out there these days, and many do unnecessarily choose the gluten free lifestyle, but there are also many reasons why some of us should choose a gluten free diet. This includes the fact that statistics are showing that there are many of us who may have gluten sensitivities without having celiac disease (as much as 1 in 3 of us). For those of us with this sensitivity, eating gluten can raise our total body chronic inflammation, giving rise to the symptoms of autoimmunities if we have them, brain fog, fat build up, heart disease, and greater potential for the development of cancer. I don’t want some poorly written article with shoddy evidence intimidating any of you out of something that could well help be healthier, think better, perform better, and avoid disease (for great references see the books Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter and The Blood Sugar Solution by Dr. Mark Hyman).
Let’s systematically go through the points that Hyde and Kendall make in their article:
1. The Claim that Gluten Free Diets could be Nutritionally Deficient
Dr. Kendall and Mr Hyde write, “First and foremost, gluten isn’t some crazy, artificial ingredient. It’s a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and many other whole grain foods. Removing these foods, which are rich in vitamins and minerals, from your diet may actually increase your risk for nutritional deficiencies.”
I have to say that when I first saw this article, I was excited to read it because I am always looking for disconfirming evidence that could call my own views into question. This is how science works, you always try to falsify your own theories, and if the falsification fails enough, then you know you have a pretty good theory. After reading the statement above, however, my jaw just dropped in disbelief of the shear ignorance of the writers. To say that excluding grains from your diet is to say that they are probably very nutritionally dense in relation to other foods, right? Well, lets take a look. Mike Sheridan recently published an article containing Harvard Researcher, Matt Lalonde’s, Nutrient Density Value chart. Here’s a little data that could put some things in perspective:
|Food||Nutrient Density Value|
|Organ Meat and Oils||17|
|Herbs and Spices||17|
|Nuts and Seeds||10|
As Mike Sheridan writes, “I’m not sure about you, but this chart leads me to believe that if I was concerned about nutrients, I should prioritize organ meat and nuts and seeds.” The claim that one could become nutrient deficient by excluding whole grains is shoddy scientific thinking and completely absurd. Don’t eat junk, whether its gluten free or full of wheat, but understand what junk is. Living off of gluten free cookies and baked goods is not healthy. Eat vegetables, moderate amounts of organ meats, nuts, and seeds. Pack your diet with real micronutrients and avoid over filling yourself with calories. When the evidence is considered, there are many foods that beat out grains when it comes to micronutrient density, and making these choices will lead to a healthier lifestyle.
2) There is too little evidence to suggest that gluten causes weight gain
The authors write “At this point, there is too little evidence to suggest that eating gluten will lead to weight gain in a healthy individual. While anecdotal accounts may exist, this is more likely due to a heightened awareness of people’s foods and macronutrient compositions after taking control of their diets. Although researchers did find a reduction in fat mass in mice following a gluten-free diet, we cannot simply infer that the exact same result will be observed in humans . . . Excess calories and physical inactivity will lead to weight gain, not gluten.”
Here the authors are half correct. More research needs to be done. Nothing should be held as truth in a truly scientific community. However, the black and white nature of their last statement “Excess calories and physical inactivity will lead to weight gain, not gluten” is particularly troublesome given that their audience is bodybuilding.com, a community of people who are already likely to be fit and active. Additionally, the study they mention demonstrated the gluten could affect weight gain independent of calories through disruption of hormonal processes. This is one study, and of course its findings should not be taken as law, but the evidence it presents does demonstrate some negative effects of gluten consumption for the general population. The scientific mind does not just throw this evidence out and say something like “gluten does not cause weight gain” and present this as fact. Rather, the truly scientific mind simply suggests that gluten might have a deleterious effect and that one should monitor their own body for signs like stubborn weight loss, gut issues, and fat build up to determine whether gluten is right for them or not.
Additionally, as the authors claim that excess calories are a cause of weight gain, they should highlight the evidence presented in the section above this one, which suggests that grains and foods containing gluten are higher in calories and less nutritionally dense than many foods, which could also lead to weight gain. Again, Hyde and Kendall chose to disregard disconfirming evidence to their argument and did nothing but present their own agenda.
3) Gluten does not lead to autoimmune disease
They’re correct. Gluten does not lead to autoimmune disease. Rather, it helps to exacerbate and multiply the symptoms by raising levels of total body chronic inflammation is those of us with gluten sensitivities, which may be as high as as 1 in 3 people in the United States according to some statistics. Nevertheless, here, the authors are particularly pompous and immature: “Come on FoodBabe-get out of here with that! Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is inherited by genetics. No, you won’t magically get an immune disorder by eating products containing gluten.”
While eating gluten does not give you an autoimmune disease, it would probably be very beneficial for you to understand that most of us who have autoimmune diseases don’t know that we have them until the symptoms become very bad. As someone who suffers from ulcerative colitis, and who once consumed a typical bodybuilding diet that was laden with gluten, I can tell you this from experience. I did not see a doctor until I was losing so much blood from my rectum that I was anemic. Of course, this is anecdotal evidence from my own story, but the evidence suggests that the numbers of people who suffer from autoimmune disorders are skyrocketing according to the Benaroya Research Institute. Given that these authors are speaking to a population of people with a “get big and leave a huge corpse” mentality, we might want to highlight these facts before calling people “foodbabe” and dismissing these ideas.
4) Gluten does not increase the risk of heart disease.
Again the authors make statements not befitting the letters after their names, “(talking about the idea that gluten increases the risk of heart disease) This makes as much sense as trying to teach abstract algebra to a third grader. Want to know what causes heart disease? Inflammation . . . If you’re allergic to gluten, then yes, eating gluten on a daily basis would most likely put you at a higher risk for developing heart disease due to chronic inflammation. If you were allergic to peanuts and ate them on a regular basis, you would be at an increased risk for developing skin rashes, digestive problems, or even suffer from a heart attack. But I don’t hear too many people advising individuals without a nut allergy to avoid peanuts.”
I’ll let the fact that peanuts are not a nut and actually a legume go for now as I want to get right into the meat of the argument. As Dr. Kenneth Fine reports, 1 in 3 Americans could be gluten intolerant. Additionally, as Spreadbury (2012) demonstrates, wheat and grains contain many pro-inflammatory compounds that leave behind unfriendly bacteria after they’re broken down in the gut. Hence, eating grains could cause inflammation in all of us. Again, take all of this with a grain of salt, and monitor your own body’s processes, but don’t let a nutritionist and a Ph.D downtalk you out of doing something that could be vital for your health and wellness.
5) There is no evidence to suggest that gluten causes cancer
I wonder where these people got their degress. Seriourly. Here is what they write, “Really? What doesn’t cause cancer these days? . . . Currently, the only research linking gluten-free diets to a reduced risk of cancer are in individuals with celiac disease. Note that studies have found an association between removing gluten from the diet and reduced risk of cancer, but there is no research to support the notion that consuming gluten will increase one’s chances of developing cancer. Again, eating gluten does not cause cancer in healthy individuals!”
Here the authors are tap-dancing around the evidence. What is a healthy individual? Are you a healthy individual? Have you had your inflammatory markers tested? Do you know the results of your last hemoglobin A1C test? Do you have cancer in your family? Lets come up with some solid parameters here before we dismiss good research that’s been done to promote our own agenda and increase our bodyspace score on bodybuilding.com. As the authors note, the evidence suggests that removing gluten from your diet will reduce your risk of cancer. If you have a slice of bread one or two days a week, will this lead to cancer? No. Could reducing your overall intake of gluten make you more fit, healthy, and leaner? Yeah, the evidence suggests that it could. If we use logic and reason over black and white emotional statements we end up with a less extreme argument and a much more sound approach. Know yourself by monitoring yourself.
I am not completely gluten free. I like to have a piece of cake every once in a while, and I am a fan of italian food including pasta. Neverthless, I do not include gluten in my diet on a regular basis, and during those times I perform better, think better, and look better. My suggestion to you is, regardless of the series of letters behind an authors name, take a good look at the evidence for yourself. Above all analyze yourself and determine how you react to your own food. Try avoiding the bodybuilding literature as much as possible. You’ll learn much more by examining scientific articles, diabetes research, and books about the human body and anthropology. Dr. Kendall and Mr. Hyde are not evil, but they are ignorant and they are caught in the trap of promoting their own agenda at the expense of disregarding disconfirming evidence to their proposed argument. As such, take caution in heeding their advice.
Hyde, Parker and Krissy Kendall. 2015 “Gluten Free Diets: Real Science VS Bro Science” Bodybuilding.com
Soares et al. 2013 “Gluten-Free diet reduces adiposity, inflammation and insulin resistance associated with the induction of PPAR-alpha and PPAR-gamma expression” Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry
Spreadbury, Ian. 2012. “Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity” Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome, and Obesity: Targets and Therapy