New Research Says Gluten and Carbs Damage Your Brain, But is it True?
If you’re getting all excited or annoyed (depending on which side of the fence you sit) about the prospect of reading yet another carbohydrate-bashing opinion piece, you will be disappointed.
I favor neither the tired and potentially biased government dietary guidelines, nor the dogmatic Paleo and gluten-free diet attitudes. To be honest, I’m pretty well sick of the whole carbohydrate-health discussion.
However, the issue has resurfaced again, this time with brain health at the forefront, after the release of a provocative interview with Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain, soon to be published in the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies.
As you can infer from the title of his book, Dr. Perlmutter is a firm believer that gluten and carbohydrates are the root cause for many degenerative diseases, particularly neurological diseases such as ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease.
Whilst he makes many thought-provoking and valid points, there are many of us, I’m sure, that would disagree. I felt the irrational need to clarify a few things.
Carbs and brain cognition
The hypothesis that high carbohydrate food consumption affects our memory has gradually emerged due to the increasing rate of dementia (all forms) and a Western societal diet which makes it increasingly simple to eat them. Humans never used to eat much gluten, and dementia was uncommon (presumably), thus the assumption is made that our recent high-carb diets may play a big part.
“The reality is that, for 99.5% of our time on this planet, we did not eat much in the way of grains,” says Dr. Perlmutter. “We were eating a gluten-free and low-carbohydrate/high fat diet, and that is the environment in which our genome perfected itself.”
Now whether this is a valid point to make is debatable:
- Since the birth of modern agriculture, humans have thrived (too well it seems), and the average life expectancy in Western societies has never been higher. Of course, that can be attributable to better health care or living standards, which again emphasizes that comparing human lifestyles and diets between hundreds of thousands of years is never going to be solid proof. It’s not even worth discussing the average lifespan of our ancestors of whom Dr. Perlmutter mentions followed “a gluten-free and low-carbohydrate/high fat diet.”
- Over the past 10,000 years, humans have become the only mammals to retain the enzyme lactase – the enzyme required to break down lactose, the sugar in breast milk – after weaning. Perhaps a similar beneficial adaptation in our genetic code is happening too for gluten digestion? Or perhaps it’s going backwards. The point is that the human genome will always adapt to its environment, and has already done so in our short, recorded history.
Peer-reviewed journals have begun publishing findings that higher levels of blood glucose (sugar in the blood) may be damaging to the brain, specifically the hippocampus which mediates memory function. Many studies are also observing that those with high-carbohydrate diets have significantly increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, an age-related cognitive decline with no known cure.
But there’s a glaring problem in the evidence.
Gluten and carbohydrates are NOT the same
These studies don’t separate carbohydrates containing gluten from those that don’t.
What seems to get lost in translation in publications such as Grain Brain is the fact that not all carbohydrates contain gluten. If gluten consumption is in fact the underlying cause of many chronic and degenerative diseases, then that actually means high-carbohydrate foods such as fruit, rice, corn, lentils and potatoes are totally in the clear. They’re all naturally gluten-free.
Asian countries in which rice, tubers and fresh fruit are the staple have historically always had far lower rates of dementia, despite the ratio of carbohydrate-to-fat in their diets being at the extreme end. (Of course today their dementia rates are also rapidly on the rise, given the adoption of Western lifestyles and diets.)
What’s more, the studies linking high-carb diets with neurological decline or dysfunction are only observational (not proving cause and effect), and could in fact be detecting that gluten-rich carbohydrate foods are the issue.
Suggested dietary approaches
With all this conflicting evidence, what are we to do?
Keep it simple.
First and foremost, remember many carbohydrate foods are already gluten-free. Cutting out rice, fruit, tubers and lentils is simply unfounded.
Second, acknowledge that gluten intolerance and celiac disease (they are clinically slightly different) are very real health issues, and very likely can affect other aspects of your health, including cognitive function in old age. By seeking medical advice, with the possibility of trialling a strictly guided gluten-free diet, you may notice improvements in your health. (Note that going gluten-free is not an effective way to tackle weight loss.)
Dr. Permutter recommends that “clinicians learn about this approach and recognize that this simply follows what current science is supporting. Clinicians can recommend stopping consumption of gluten-containing foods and monitor what happens with patients.” In the end, there is no danger to cutting out gluten from your diet, especially if just for a trial period.
At the end of the interview Dr. Perlmutter does acknowledge that adopting a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet is not the ideal solution for everyone, but could be the solution to more health concerns than we realize. “Any issue in human pathophysiology that relates to inflammation might well have its origin in gluten sensitivity.”
What are your thoughts on the gluten-free/low-carb diet ideologies? Have you got a personal gluten-free experience to share?
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