“Shredding wheat” (Gluten hysteria)


In the mid-1940s, Dutch pediatrician Willem-Karl Dicke examined children who were suffering from diarrhea, anemia, poor appetite, abdominal pain, bloating, and stunted growth. That, plus having to deal with occupying Nazis. Rough childhood.

A couple of years later, the Netherlands experienced a shortage of bread and other foods. Consequently, most people in the country were in declining health, but the sick children Dicke had observed began to thrive. He eventually became the first person to diagnose celiac, a disease that causes an intense autoimmune reaction in the intestine, and which is traced to gluten.

So the children who had celiac, which was unknown to exist until Dicke discovered it, became pain-free and started doing better when gluten by happenstance was removed from their diet. But the idea that everyone needs to do the same is an extreme overreach. Alas, the alternative medicine and pseudoscience communities seldom fail to take advantage of extreme overreach opportunities.

The most prominent promoter of this hysteria is cardiologist William Davis, who wrote Wheat Belly. In it, Davis described wheat as a modern poison and a “Franken-grain.” However, wheat today is nearly identical to what it was when the last sabre-toothed cat was roaming about doing frightening feline stuff.

Davis commits garden variety correlation-causation errors, such as writing that 200 million Americans eat wheat daily, then noting that 100 million of them experience some type of adverse health effect. Another correlation-causation error is at the center of his thinking. Celiac sufferers are unable to tolerate gluten, but Davis flips this to assert that gluten causes celiac. If this were true, there would be far more celiac sufferers than the 3 million now in the U.S.

He also regularly embraces pseudoscience in the form of exaggerated claims such as this doozy: “Wheat has killed more people than all wars combined.” These folks must be suffering a long, painful death because in the last century, the average lifespan has more than doubled. Another exaggerated claim is that a non-celiac person can experience 24 hours of diarrhea if they eat a piece of cake. It would take your best birthday present ever to make up for that.

While Davis conducted no research, his book contains pages of endnotes that reference studies and seem to give Wheat Belly a scientific backing. However, a closer inspection reveals the medical mirage. He misuses the studies, even including ones that contradict each other in the same paragraph if it supports his agenda. Blogger and celiac sufferer Peter Bronski details examples of this.

Davis also cherry picks, such as when he fishes for studies that will support his conclusion that wheat is addictive. He asserts that if someone has a pretzel, their brain and body will demand more and more, then revolt if their need for knotted dough goes unmet. But the study he cites to support this was done on the brains of dead rats. There are no human studies suggesting the existence of wheat addiction.

Davis said his health improved after he forsook gluten and his book is full of such anecdotes. He writes of a patient who said he felt better after giving up grain and reports that is one of 2,000 such cases. But this many anecdotes does not equal one piece of data.

Maybe patients did report getting better, but they may have undertaken other lifestyle changes as well. Perhaps some had a pain that was at its greatest when gluten was exorcised, then the hurt coincidentally went away as happens with fluctuating conditions. Perhaps an equal number of patients reported no change or a worsening, but bias caused Davis to dismiss or forget these. This is why when it comes to determining evidence, we rely on double blind studies, clinical trials, and peer review, rather than anecdotes, sweeping generalizations, and trying to boost book sales.

Davis blames celiac for autism, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease, obesity, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and fibromyalgia. Many of these are common and even includes the number one killer, heart disease. Everyone is going to know someone who died from these conditions and by tying it to gluten, Davis can convince more people to commence with a French toast and linguini hiatus. But the only persons who need to give up gluten are those with celiac and possibly a few other conditions. For instance, going gluten-free may help with irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, type one diabetes, and psoriasis.

In grand pseudoscientific tradition, Davis offers a flattering self-portrayal of a man fighting against a malevolent trio of Dr. Frankensteins, Big Ag, and complicit government agents. “I’m waging a war against misinformation in health,” he boasts.

Those who follow his advice and go anti-gluten may experience harm beyond the loss of fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. Persons who have a condition they wrongly suspect is caused by gluten will think giving up crackers and Cheerios will fix it while the real problem goes unchecked.

Those with authentic adverse reactions to gluten have mixed feelings about the hysteria. On the plus side, there are many more food options than before. Imagine trying to find a gluten-free cake mix in 1987. On the other hand, they also experience an increasing number of rolled eyes and condescending remarks from those who think they are following a misguided fad when they, for years, have been doing it out of necessity.

It’s possible that gluten may be causing conditions we don’t yet know about. And it’s possible some persons may be having a negative reaction to another wheat component. Certainly, there are some who say these situations describes their situation, though there’s no evidence for it now. There are no gluten sensitivity tests and these claims are limited to anecdotes and self-reporting. But even if this is eventually proven, that’s no reason for all of us to cut out gluten any more than we should eliminate dairy on the chance there might be undiscovered negative reaction to milk not caused by lactose. And persons certainly shouldn’t self-diagnose these conditions unless they are a gastroenterologist. 

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