If you are enjoying Sean Croxton’s Paleo Summit and compelled by dramatic stories of health improvements from eliminating wheat, but are not looking forward to giving up your bread, pizza, beer, and sourdough forever, then I’ve got good news for you.
Who can and who cannot eat wheat
Becuase the Paleo diet is wheat free, many people with celiac disease find it an easy way to recover from their symptoms while enjoying great meals. People with celiac disease have antibodies to their own tissues that have developed after their bodies confuse wheat gluten with pathogenic bacteria. Until their immune system can recognize and correct the error, eating wheat triggers intestinal and joint inflammation and fatigue. I describe how processed food promote celiac disease and how to prevent or even reverse celiac symptoms in the video at this post.
If you have not been formally diagnosed with Celiac but had digestive troubles for which you tried eliminating wheat and now you find yourself feeling better, you may wonder if you need to make avoiding wheat a permanent change. To decide, you should assess to what degree you have also eliminated processed foods (including vegetable oils) and reduced your total intake of carbs. These factors alone will generate significant health gains and in the absence of a firm diagnosis of celiac you may try sticking with the low carb, vegetable oil free diet and adding back wheat that has been prepared in a traditional manner.
If you don’t have celiac symptoms and are following the Paleo diet for other reasons, but are now missing your favorite foods, there’s absolutely no reason not to add them back.
Everyone adding back wheat should be aware that by adding back wheat you can easily consume too much carb and don’t want to exceed 30-100 gm total carb per day–the wide variation depends on your activity level.
Why I do not advise everyone avoid wheat
Wheat gluten may have been prematurely blamed for the current emerging epidemic of celiac disease in the same way that, back in the 1960s, choleseterol was prematurely blamed for the then emerging epidemic of heart attacks. I am confident that, upon further scientific study, we will find celiac can actually arise from other factors that have less to do with the native (existing in the form in which nature made it) wheat gluten molecule and more to do with the molecular changes to gluten that result from the processing of wheat gluten, and not the wheat gluten per se.
And this brings up an important issue. People are using the Paleo diet to accomplish different health goals. Some, to alleviate food allergies, others for weight loss, and still others for body building. This is one reason why we find different variations of the Paleo diet. Another has to do with the fact that we have is limited evidence to inform us on the details of a true Paleolithic-era diet, and so for the most part we’re using our imaginations and different people make different educated guesses.
I see all versions of the Paleo diet as a great way to make first steps towards a truly traditional diet. These days anyone can easily find many healthy and delicious recipes in Paleo cookbooks and blogs to make the transition from a SAD diet to a better one as tasty and as easy as possible.
Still, because the Paleo diet is not directly informed by existing traditions, there are some important missing pieces and even potential pitfalls I think everyone should be advise of.
Adapting Paleo to Your Life: The Good, the Bad, and the Silly
Paleo programs value grass fed, pasture-raised, humanely treated animal products: meats, eggs, and dairy. These are far superior to products from animals raised on monoculture grains in filthy conditions and are healthier for us for innumerable reasons. Paleo diets also steer us clear of hydrogenated and otherwise processed vegetable oils containing toxic trans and Megatrans fats that promote inflammation and DNA damage in every tissue of the body.
Other elements of the Paleo diet that will introduce you to important principles of all successful traditional diets include the use of:
- Fat-rich tropical fruits including coconut and avocado and their oils: medium chain saturated fatty acids
- Fresh nuts and seeds: fiber, insoluble and soluble, and minerals
- Fresh vegetables and seasonal berries: vitamins, especially heat sensitive vitamins, and insoluble fiber
- Nut flours: when fresh ground at the time of use these make for great low-carb baking
Because the Paleo diet provides far more protein than the standard American diet (SAD), it is a particularly powerful tool for recovering from emotional disturbances (most brain neurotransmitters are derived from amino-acids) and for rebuilding weakened muscle and bone.
As a diet based on pre-history, by definition the Paleo diet is not informed by any living tradition and sometimes suffers from lack of attention to traditional cooking methods. While the concept of avoiding industrial foods makes sense, it seems unnecessary to go so far back in time that we have little idea of what life was like, especial if it means ignoring traditional culinary techniques with thousands of years of successful use, for example fermenting and sprouting grains.
Particularly problematic is the fact that some Paleo programs I’ve encountered emphasize lean meats, fruits and tubers, and store bought nut flours. Lean meats combined with foods that raise blood sugar may block your fat-burning enzymes. In addition, abrupt increase in protein intake without increase in fat intake can increase your uric acid level and trigger joint and muscle paina or kidney stones. Finally, nut flours can undergo rapid oxidation and are going to be far less nourishing than the intact nuts, unless you grind your own.
I advise caution with the following Paleo-compatible recipes
- Fruit smoothies
- Dishes based on sweet potatoes or store-bought nut flours
- Skinless, boneless meats
Any recipe that generates odd adaptations of familiar foods might be fun, but some get carried away. The silliest Paleo recipe I’ve seen is “pizza” lacking cheese or crust and made out of ground beef shaped into triangular piles. Another unnecessary complication is the use of flours for reasons other than better flavor or reducing carbohydrate intake. If you like spelt or coconut or almond flour, by all means enjoy them. But if you don’t, or you like wheat flour better for certain recipes, then use wheat flour.
Finally, Paleo is on-again-off-again with dairy. Some practitioners exclude it altogether based on the idea that animal domestication only occurred after the Paleolithic era. (I discussed my take on the importance of dairy to early human health previously). Others exclude it based on a misunderstanding of the cause and implications of lactose intolerance (I will focus on lactose intolerance in a future post.) Still others include ghee but exclude butter and cream. Ghee is butter that has been heated to coagulate the proteins which then get separated and discarded. Not only does this waste perfectly good protein, heat destroys the heat senstive omega-3 and conjugated linoleic fats and is less nourishing than fresh butter.
Traditional use of wheat
When people first began eating wheat thousands of years ago there were no such thing as flour mills. That means whole wheat flour was non-existent. What did people do to make their daily bread? They first germinated the grains and used the softened seeds to form a dough that could be further transformed by yeasts and other micro-organisms and eventually baked into loaves. Sprouted and fermented foods are one of the Four Pillars of World Cuisine, and we explain why sprouting and fermenting grains makes them healthier in Chapter 7 of Deep Nutrition.