Some of you, reading these blogs and my forthcoming book, Grain of Truth, out in May from an imprint of Penguin/Randomhouse, may mistake me for a gluten apologist—someone who refuses to acknowledge the alleged harmful effects of wheat on our mind and body. Not so. I thrive on a diet of skepticism, not to be confused with cynicism. One physician I quote in my book, Dr. Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance, told me among his colleagues there is a simple guiding philosophy: "In God We Truth. For Everything Else, Show Us the Data."
If it's not real science, it may not be entirely horse pucky, but it's also not sufficiently reliable to pass scientific analysis . That pretty much sums up my take on much of the evidence against gluten. The skeptic in me operates as a kind of sifter— raw unsubstantiated opinion falls into this pile, factual evidence into that pile. I love opinions, including my own. I just don't take them seriously about serious matters unless they're reinforced by proof. One thing I know for sure, as I detail in my book: you and I have not been told the whole story by gluten's most prominent adversaries. And I mean "whole" as in 100 percent whole wheat and 100 percent whole truth. There's a lot of cherry-picking of research beholden to confirmation of bias. Ideally, you form ideas by examining and testing research results. You don't parse the results to choose those that support your idea. Ideally, but frequently not in the real world, and not in the case of gluten.
Fermentation methods and other processing techniques play a vital role in determining whether wheat is healthful or potentially harmful to the 99 percent of us who do not suffer from celiac disease. You won't find space devoted to these methods in Wheat Belly or Grain Brain. Nor will you find any real distinction between whole and refined wheat flour. They are lumped together as twin evils. Not so: 100 percent whole wheat may well help extend your life and keep your heart pumping like the toned muscle it's supposed to be.
Which brings me to Harvard University's School of Public Health. We all know whole grains are better for us than processed grains, whose nutritional bran and germ have been shipped off as animal feed. But how much better? Harvard in early 2015 reported that a daily serving of whole wheat or other whole grains lowers our risk of dying from heart disease by close to 10 percent, and our risk of dying from anything by 5 percent. Not huge percentages, maybe, but I'll take them anyway. Because I trust them. They're nobody's opinion. They're based on examining 74,000 women and 44,000 men between 1984 and 2010. All 118,000 men and women were healthy and free of cancer or heart disease at the beginning. All were regularly examined over the years and agreed to have their medical records open for scrutiny.
"These findings further support current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing whole grain consumption to facilitate primary and secondary prevention of chronic disease and also provide promising evidence that suggests a diet enriched with whole grains may confer benefits toward extended life expectancy," the Harvard team wrote. It was definitely eating bran, the outer layer of the wheat and other grain kernels, that seemed to keep people healthier, the research team added. Whole wheat, brown rice and whole oats are the most common sources we eat. The Harvard team also recommends replacing one serving of red meat or refined grains with one serving of whole grains as a way to lower cardiovascular disease mortality.
In Harvard's data I trust. In the bran-less, gluten-free section of my grocery market I don't, because no one has yet to prove to me that the refined tapioca, potato and rice starch in most of those GF products have any health benefits or bear any resemblance to real food, the whole stuff I hope to still be eating on my 100th birthday.