Science-based organization fights anti-wheat hysteria

‘Wheat belly’ and gluten-free diets are all the rage, and a new bestseller recommends 
cutting carbs to ward off dementia, Alzheimer’s and depression

What do you say to someone who has read the bestseller Wheat Belly and believes wheat is the new evil?

Stick to the facts, says Christine Lowry, a dietitian and policy analyst with the Healthy Grains Institute — a year-old organization set up “to dispel myths around whole grains.”

“We’re really making sure that we’re surrounded by science and we’re fact based,” Lowry told FarmTech attendees.

Although its membership consists of bakers, millers and farm groups such as the Alberta Wheat Commission, the institute only provides information vetted by an independent scientific advisory council, composed of three nutrition experts from the universities of Toronto, Saskatchewan and St. Catherine (in St. Paul, Minn.)

“We’re really making sure that we’re surrounded by science and we’re fact based,” said Lowry. “It’s a funny area because it’s not just nutrition or cereal science. It’s not just human medicine. I’ve never seen an issue that cuts across so many disciplines.”

Despite popularity of various ‘wheat belly’ diets as well as gluten-free products, a host of studies have shown eating whole grains reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, colorectal and prostate cancer. Studies have also found people who eat whole grains are more successful in controlling their weight.

And while celiacs must avoid gluten, only one to two per cent of the population suffers from this condition. Another small segment — possibly as much as six per cent of the population — show signs of gluten sensitivity. But no one knows because there are no clear clinical guidelines for diagnosis. For example, headaches are one symptom but there could be many other causes.

And excluding whole grains from your diet can be bad for you, said Lowry.

“The unsupervised adoption of a gluten-free diet can have adverse health effects because it is low in fibre and certain nutrients,” she said.

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But Lowry warned that people who have decided to shun whole grains often rely on unsubstantiated information. Although wheat has been a staple food for centuries and has earned the moniker ‘the staff of life,’ many believe today’s varieties are nutritionally different even though “there is no evidence that selective breeding of wheat has had detrimental effects on the nutritional properties of wheat,” she said.

The good news is that farmers remain a trusted source of information, she said.

“The farmer seems to be someone who everybody trusts and so in years to come, we will utilize the farmer as the person who is delivering the messages from the Healthy Grains Institute,” she said.

The institute has fact sheets (available at www.healthygrains.ca) to help farmers spread the truth about grains. It also ran a campaign during the recent release of a new anti-grain book Grain Brain (subtitled The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, And Sugar — your Brain’s Silent Killers), which argues a nearly carbohydrate-free diet can prevent or greatly lower the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s and depression.

“We need to know the science behind the allegations (being made) against grains,” said Lowry. “It’s very easy to make the allegations. It’s harder to have to go back and look at the science and substantiate it. That takes a bit of time.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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