Even people who have no idea what a sensitivity is. Especially people who have no idea what a sensitivity is. The incentive for this blog post came from a comment on a non-naturopathic Facebook page that I follow. It was a post about gluten-free cupcakes and someone commented – “people who don’t eat dairy and gluten have to take supplements to stay healthy.” And I screamed a little inside (maybe outside) and didn’t engage because if someone wants my opinion about what they should eat they are perfectly welcome to come into the office and pay for it (except you, lovely reader, I’m going to tell you anyway) – but I immediately started spinning out this post.
To start – DAIRY IS THE BREASTMILK OF ANOTHER SPECIES!!
It makes absolutely no evolutionary sense for part of our nutritional requirements to come from the breastmilk of another species. We don’t even ingest our own mother’s breastmilk past early childhood. Cow’s milk (granted the full-fat variety) also takes a calf from 85 lbs to 700 lbs + in one year – why should we assume that the same milk is good for us? And the whopper, countries with very little dairy intake have lower incidence of bone fracture. The research on the benefits vs risks of dairy consumption is inconclusive, to say the least – this article from The Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health gives a good overview of the pros and cons : www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/calcium-full-story/#calcium-from-milk.
And gluten. Gluten is one of the proteins found in certain grains – wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut and oats. It is a big and gluey protein, that for many causes intestinal inflammation, which in turn can cause a myriad of health problems. We have become a one grain culture. It is not rare for a new patient to list a wheat product in three meals a day on their initial diet diary. Think about it – cereal or toast for breakfast, a wrap for lunch, pasta for dinner. Now, let’s list the (uber nutritious) grains that don’t have gluten: brown rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, teff, amaranth, sorghum… The notion that if you take out gluten containing grains your diet will somehow be lacking is preposterous. The issue arises when someone takes gluten out and starts eating a lot of highly processed gluten-free foods – breads, bars, muffins, crackers, etc… To make these palatable, they are high in nutritionally void starches (white rice, potato/corn starch, arrowroot, tapioca) and sugar. But, a serving of brown rice with dinner? Quinoa salad for lunch? Bob’s Red Mill Creamy Buckwheat hot cereal for breakfast? Those are all nutritionally dense choices – probably more so than all of the processed wheat.
Food allergy vs. food sensitivity.
A food allergy is a very specific immune reaction, that occurs when someone ingests the protein of certain foods. They can be life threatening (anaphylactic reactions to peanuts) or fairly mild (itchy lips after eating strawberries) – but they are all specific antibody reactions. The IgE antibody. These can be tested by an allergist, usually using the skin scratch method.
A food sensitivity, which is what I’m discussing here, is not an IgE reaction, but it can be severe and life altering. Many food sensitivities are as a result of a different antibody reacting to the proteins in food – the IgG antibody. But not all. Some are enzyme deficiencies (i.e., lactose intolerance). Some are reactions to the byproduct of the substance’s breakdown (the free glutamic acid in MSG or hydrolyzed yeast). Some are… unknown, really. The symptoms of a food sensitivity can vary – from digestive disturbances to joint pain, from mental/emotional difficulties to ADHD, from eczema to autoimmune thyroiditis. These can be uncovered by an elimination diet and certain blood tests (for the IgG antibody).
What about celiac disease?
Celiac disease is one end of the gluten enteropathy (meaning causing damage to the cells of the intestines) spectrum. And there is the notion in conventional medicine that if you have tested negative for celiac disease and do not have a wheat allergy, then you will have no problem with gluten containing grains. But my clinical and personal experience, as well as a slew of research about non-celiac gluten sensitivity, says otherwise.
So, should everyone be gluten and dairy free?
Kidding. Probably not really. Some genetically gifted folks seem to have no problem with dairy or gluten containing grains. But, I truly believe that everyone should try a two or three week wash-out period of being gluten and dairy free to see how it makes them feel. So many people carry around symptoms that they consider “normal” that shouldn’t be. Bloating, fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, eczema, asthma, GERD, diarrhea, menstrual pain, attention deficit-like symptoms – I have seen all of these symptoms improve for people who have simply removed the offending foods. And while I have focused this post on dairy and gluten – there are other common culprits such as corn, soy, eggs and peanuts.
And, even if you find out that you do have a food sensitivity – it doesn’t mean that you can never have that food again. It means that you’ll have to explore your tolerance – once a week might be fine, but more than that and symptoms starts back up – and/or weigh the risk/reward – “I really want a piece of pizza. I know that means tomorrow I will probably have to stay a bit closer to a bathroom, but dammit, it’s worth it”. But that decision will be up to you. Because it’s your health. And you should know as much about it as possible.