'Gluten Lie' an enlightening look into confused world of nutrition

by Josh Sosland
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Who was Jerome I. Rodale, and what is his connection to “Wheat Belly” author William Davis?

Mr. Rodale’s most famous and final moment came in 1971 as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show. A publisher and author, Mr. Rodale in 1968 wrote “Natural Health, Sugar and the Criminal Mind,” a book advocating healthy eating and blaming sugar intake for everything from rape to the rise of Nazism.

In his interview by Mr. Cavett, Mr. Rodale said he would live to be 100. Moments later he died of a heart attack onstage. Just as many of the myths he espoused survive, Mr. Rodale’s business Rodale, Inc. lives on. In addition to such magazines as Prevention, Men’s Health and Rodale’s Organic Life, Rodale has published a number of best-selling books, including “Wheat Belly.”
"The Gluten Lie - And other myths about what you eat" by Alan Levinovitz, PhD.

Mr. Rodale and Dr. Davis are but two of dozens and dozens of personalities filling the pages of a brilliant new book by Alan Levinovitz, “The Gluten Lie — and other myths about what you eat.” The book is replete with tales of individuals familiar and forgotten. Their stories are informative and often shocking, filled with greed, sex and deception.

Weaving together the stories of these figures and dozens of others, “The Gluten Lie” offers readers the necessary perspective to judge the current fad of gluten avoidance, among others. At the same time, Mr. Levinovitz does not hesitate to offer his own forceful and colorful assessments, including judgements about the authors of “Wheat Belly” and “Grain Brain.”

“Make no mistake: despite their credentials, these men are sensationalists, not scientists,” Mr. Levinovitz says. “Citations and jargon notwithstanding, their books are filled with slick, manipulative, unscientific hyperbole, designed to scare the crap out of you and make their authors money. What’s shocking isn’t their theories — it’s that so many people take them seriously.”

Mr. Levinovitz distills in a brief sentence his approach to judging books like “Wheat Belly,” “Grain Brain,” and the myriad titles that preceded and will follow these.

“In science, exaggeration is a flat-out lie,” he says.

And there is an endless roster of liars in Mr. Levinovitz’s book, which is organized around major chapters specifically dealing with gluten, fat, sugar and sodium.

Science, rigorous, sound science, is the single guiding light that carries throughout “The Gluten Lie,” and in many respects, Mr. Levinovitz seems an unlikely standard bearer for science.

Alan Levinovitz, author of “The Gluten Lie — and other myths about what you eat.”

Mr. Levinovitz is an assistant professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University in Harrisburg, Va. He effectively applies his background in religion through much of “The Gluten Lie.” Just as certain themes and stories recur over and over again in ancient literature (e.g., the flood story from the Bible is very similar to numerous other ancient tales, including the Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamesh”), archetypal myths may be found in dieting as well.

One recurring pattern in fad dieting is the embrace of a diet from times in the past.

“The myth of paradise past is one of many irrational beliefs that recur across cultures and generations, including our attitudes toward food,” he says. Rejecting a food also has been seen throughout history as a way to “define your membership in a superior group,” he says. Expressions like “cannibals,” “pork eaters,” “turtle eaters,” “locust eaters,” “elephant eaters,” and so on have been identified by anthropologists as prevalent insults at different places and times in history.

To help the reader understand the recurrent nature of these myths, Mr. Levinovitz begins the book with discussion of an ingredient that decades ago generated a fearful response similar to what gluten evokes today — monosodium glutamate. Even to someone too young to remember the early years of the M.S.G. scare, now nearly 50 years old, the story in its small details sounds eerily familiar, especially books that implausibly blamed the additive for a host of deadly diseases.

Why is it that so many people take these kinds of books seriously?

“The Gluten Lie” is harsh not only on the media, a scientific community that exaggerates its findings and doctors willing to publish sensationalist books preying on fears. The book also is tough on a public forever enthusiastically willing to take the bait.

“When it comes to food sensitivities, people are incredibly unwilling to question self-diagnoses,” he says. “No one wants to think that the benefits they experienced from going gluten-free or eliminating M.S.G. might be psychological.”

Gluten

In a chapter specifically dedicated to questions about the healthfulness of gluten, Mr. Levinovitz says celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity don’t begin to explain the “astonishing prevalence” of anti-gluten sentiment, estimated at about one third of the public.

He blames a surge in interest in gluten-free dieting on “the massive influence” of Dr. Davis and David Perlmutter, the neurologist who wrote “Grain Brain.” Their books make the case that mainstream doctors and the U.S. Department of Agriculture “have been complicit in the greatest health scandal since tobacco” with bread more accurately characterized as the “staff of death” than “the staff of life,” Mr. Levinovitz says.

Noting the similarity between the explosion in gluten fear and what happened with M.S.G., Mr. Levinovitz mourns, “We should know better.”

Careful to delineate differences between M.S.G. and gluten, Mr. Levinovitz notes gluten threatens the health of those with celiac and no definitive scientific conclusions have been reached, affirming or disproving, the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

“Anyone who says N.C.G.S. doesn’t exist is as much a liar as the authorities of ‘Wheat Belly’ and ‘Grain Brain,’” he says.

Mr. Levinovitz says the link between fad diets and religious cults is not difficult to find. While the writings of Dr. Davis and Dr. Perlmutter are filled with scientific citations that most readers don’t have time to examine, their claims invariably feature an element long a fixture of false prophets — promises of miraculous cures, he says.

He cited remarks by Dr. Davis in a recent radio debate: “I’ve seen… people come back from the brink of near death, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. People who throw away their wheelchairs, crutches and walkers. People who throw away insulin and three diabetic drugs, throw away three drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, their two inhalers for asthma.”

Mr. Levinovitz has no patience.

“This is predatory marketing at its worst,” he says.

Fat

While the gluten issue may be front and center in media coverage, many questions regarding gluten and health have yet to be fully explored, which Mr. Levinovitz readily acknowledges. More fully baked are his debunking concerns about three other dietary villains: fat, sugar and sodium.

When it comes to dietary fat, Mr. Levinovitz says an association between elevated intake and poor health is false and may be blamed on another simple and enduring myth — you are what you eat.

He cited the American Heart Association as a group holding typical views of the perils of saturated fat intake.

“Decades of sound science have proven (saturated fats) can raise your ‘bad’ cholesterol and raise your risk for heart disease,” he says, summarizing the A.H.A. position.

Mr. Levinovitz says flatly, “The A.H.A. is wrong,” that sound science has proven no such thing.

“The closest thing we have come to a truly unanimous consensus on fat is that if you eat an excessive amount of calories you will gain weight, and fat has lots of calories in it,” he says. “But we’re nowhere near that kind of certainty when it comes to pinpointing the effects of saturated fat on heart disease … or obesity rates.”

The idea of you are what you eat dates back at least to the second century C. E. when the Greek physician Galen said obese people should eat only the meat of wild animals and should avoid milk and cheese, animal organs (brains, intestines, liver…), plant bulbs and snails.

“Wild animals are leaner than domesticated ones, and those that live on mounts are leaner still,” he says. “Eat lean, stay lean. Eat fat, get fat. Plant bulbs are bulbous. Snails resemble fatty tissue.”

Mr. Levinovitz credits the 19th century physician William Wadd for recognizing that the type of food consumed is of secondary importance when trying to understand the causes of weight gain. Obesity had emerged as a problem in the 1700s, and Dr. Wadd observed that his heaviest patients indulged in “fat animal food” and then lost weight when they adopted a vegetarian diet. But he later observed numerous cases of obesity in Italy where the “chief food costs of vegetable production” and among Chinese slaves who grew fat “without any other sustenance than the ripe sugar cane.”

He differed with his colleagues who favored one type of food over another and instead concluded “quantity” was the principal determinant of whether one became overweight.

“That should have been that,” Mr. Levinovitz says. “You are what you eat isn’t true; you are how much you eat is the real equation.”

Instead, “experts” in the 19th century doubled down on the notion that you are what you eat. Influential among these was Sylvester Graham, the creator of the graham cracker, who believed meat consumption was responsible for much more than weight gain.

Mr. Graham advocated a vegetarian diet both to cure chronic disease and to curb violent tendencies and excessive sexual desire.

“Just as eating fat makes you fat, eating animals exacerbates your animal instincts, in turn increasing your appetite for food and sex,” Mr. Levinovitz says, summarizing the Graham philosophy.

“Properly weighting the effects of diet on health is tremendously difficult,” Mr. Levinovitz says. “Too often, ‘established facts’ like the dangers of saturated fat are not facts at all but intuitively plausible conjectures.” He continued, “Public health advocates must learn to be humble.”

Sugar

In a chapter on sugar, the book cites sugar historian Sidney Mintz, who wrote that the popularity of sugar as a “condiment” took off in the 17th century with the rising popularity of three new “bitter stimulant” beverages: coffee, tea and chocolate. Concern about sugar began to emerge in this same period. In 1633, sugar was attacked as a poor substitute for honey. In the 18th century, sugar in tea was blamed as the “cause of many distempers.”

“Sugar was a strange, modern food, and it fit the ever-recurring myth of modernity as evil and the past as good,” Mr. Levinovitz says. So sugar became the scapegoat for the intractable illnesses of the time. Instead of obesity and diabetes, it was blamed for scurvy, weak nerves and sexuality.

Fueling the belief as unhealthy were concerns about its immoral production methods, Mr. Levinovitz says.

“At the time, sugar was the fruit of slave labor in the West Indies,” he says. “Abolitionists called on all Christians to boycott ‘products defiled with blood.’”

He says even today, vestiges of this thinking are evident in the approach taken by anti-sugar advocates. The 2014 documentary film “Fed Up” cites higher rates of obesity among black children versus white, and a book by Michael Moss suggests sugar affects minorities disproportionately. The evidence is thin, Mr. Levinovitz says.

“Difficult though it may be, good science requires us to distinguish between moral evil and physical evil,” he says. “When we fail to make that distinction, the result is oversimplified myths and cherry-picked facts.”

As the term “addiction” began to be used with alcoholism, anti-sugar advocates appropriated this language. The discussion intensified in the 1800s with the emergence of popular new sources of sweets — candy shops and ice cream soda fountains.

“While indigestion and general ill health numbered among the (alleged) negative consequences of consuming candy, ice cream and soda, most frightening to Puritan anti-sugar advocates was sugar’s potential to inflame sexual desire, particularly in the weakest members of society: women, children and the poor.”

While it may seem farfetched today, Mr. Levinovitz says the advent of ice cream parlors and candy stores inspired wild tales of promiscuous women.

Mr. Graham and another major figure in grain-based foods history, John Harvey Kellogg, featured prominently in this scare.

Mr. Graham took the view that sweetened foods prompted women and children to masturbate.

“Candies, spices, cinnamon, cloves, peppermint and all strong essences powerfully excite the genital organs and lead to the (solitary vice),’”he said.

Rather than combating these myths, food makers have compounded matters, Mr. Levinovitz says. In particular, he criticized advertisements featuring “women feasting on chocolate in paroxysms of delight.” The campaign of “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” was preceded by others showing children crazed in their desire for sugar.

Much of the sugar chapter deals with “Fed Up,” which starred news anchor Katie Couric and prominently featured the well-known sugar critic Robert Lustig.

A professor at the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Lustig drew attention in 2009 with a lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” that went viral on YouTube.

“In the video, Lustig pronounces the scientific evidence decisive,” Mr. Levinovitz says. “Sugar is ‘evil,’ ‘toxic,’ and ‘addictive.’” He specifically attacks the effects of fructose intake.

With obesity rates rising and foes armed with conclusions like those of Dr. Lustig, momentum against sugar intake has built. Efforts by sweetener companies to present scientific findings showing no correlation between sugar intake and obesity did not help, Mr. Levinovitz says.

While accusing large sweetener suppliers of “unconscionable corporate manipulation” (without, it must be noted, much evidence), Mr. Levinovitz makes a key point — “Just because Big Sugar says the science isn’t settled doesn’t automatically prove the opposite.”

The chapter features interviews with prominent, independent scientists who describe theories about the toxicity of fructose as “interesting but not nearly as convincing” as Dr. Lustig and others suggest. Another questions those who suggest it has been conclusively demonstrated that sugar is addictive.

“It is simply false to assert sugar’s role in diabetes, addiction and obesity has been settled,” Mr. Levinovitz says. “A late 2013 state-of-the-field piece in the journal Metabolism by three Harvard endocrinologists examined the evidence to date about the health effects of sugar. Their conclusion? ‘Much more research is … needed.’

“Now that’s real science.”

From sodium to goji

For bakers, the chapter on sodium will be of considerable interest. One central character in this chapter, Walter Kempner, a cult figure associated for many years with Duke University, ranks as perhaps the creepiest character in the entire book. And “The Gluten Lie” sets the bar for that
distinction quite high. Dr. Kempner’s rice diet contained almost no sodium. “The Gluten Lie” makes a strong case that a recommendation by the American Heart Association to limit salt intake to 1,500 mg per day is impractically low and that the A.H.A. and others continue to ignore the legitimate and important scientific debate under way when it comes to the health effects of sodium.

“The Gluten Lie” warns about the rush to superfoods like goji berries.

Another chapter in the author warns about fad diets of all kinds. In addition to lambasting fear mongers like Dr. Davis and Dr. Perlmutter, “The Gluten Lie” also warns about the rush to superfoods like goji berries.

“With every so-called superfood, it’s always the same story: overhyped, under researched, superstitious nonsense hidden under scientific rhetoric.”

Mr. Levinovitz lumps Mehmet Oz in a group of gurus and fear mongers who make the world of food rules “confusing and cacophonous.”

For example, Dr. Oz declared himself a fan of a recent documentary advocating the rejection of animal-based and processed food, Mr. Levinovitz says.

“Strangely, Dr. Oz also endorses ‘Wheat Belly’ and ‘Grain Brain,’ books that argue the opposite,” Mr. Levinovitz says.

While the documentary advocates eating whole grains as part of a healthy diet, the two books rejects these foods as “addictive toxins,” responsible for everything from obesity to Alzheimer’s.

“Veganism, fat-free, salt-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, Paleo, juicing, cleansing — these offer false promises built on myth and superstition, covered over with a layer of scientific rhetoric,” Mr. Levinovitz says.

The embrace of superfoods or avoiding salt or high-fructose corn syrup may appear benign among consumers looking for more natural foods.

“It’s not so funny when people avoid unnatural vaccines,” Mr. Levinovitz says. “All the while, we forget to be grateful for what is without question the healthiest period in the history of humankind.”

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