Whoever it was who first sung the virtues of a gluten-free diet never tried to do it while travelling through Italy. I’ve been stuck on this gluten-free thing for only a brief period, and already, I feel like giving up and throwing in the napkin.
Gluten-free is really a fancy way of saying no-wheat. And there is no country in the world where they use wheat as imaginatively as they do in Italy. Giant pizzas stare invitingly out from restaurant windows. At lunch, I have to hold my nose and try not to be tempted as they shower slice after slice of white truffle on plates of pasta. Even the breakfast tray becomes a grenade that they hurl into your room each morning: little cakes, fluffy clouds in the shapes of buns, crusty brown bread…
But try as the Italians might, I have clung on to my no-gluten diet, forsaking all temptation, even when it comes coated with white truffles. The way I see it is: if I can resist wheat in the land of pasta and pizza, then I can stay off wheat anywhere. But why, I hear you asking, am I doing something so strange? It is okay to give up meat or onions or garlic or even alcohol. But surely wheat is harmless? No one has ever died from eating one chapati too many.
Or have they?
Now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain. Giving up wheat is the new trendy nutritional thing to do. Apparently, 29 per cent of all Americans have either given up wheat or say that they would like to. The big diet bestseller of the last few months is Wheat Belly by Dr William Davis, a book that argues, basically, that wheat is poison. Not only does it lead to Celiac disease (a condition of the small intestine that is often misdiagnosed in India but which is on the rise all over the world) but it can also cause heart attacks, severe addiction and God alone knows what else.
Plus, says Dr Davis, here’s the big one: give up wheat and you will lose weight. The pounds will just drop off once you have been off wheat for three weeks or so. So here’s the new fad wisdom: give up wheat and become thin. Keep eating wheat and, well, die!
Yes, I know. It sounds like another of those American fads. But there is, at the very least, some background to this one. Long before Wheat Belly hit the bestseller lists, doctors had concluded that gluten could be bad for some people. As you probably know, wheat is mostly starch. Make some atta and you’ll find that you have lots and lots of starch plus two proteins. The first and lesser known of these is gliadin. This is the stuff that causes Celiac disease and has been linked to everything from IBS to cancer. Though gliadin is probably the big baddie, it is gluten that gets the rap. Everywhere you go, you’ll find foods, marked as gluten-free and many celebrities, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Novak Djokovic, claim that their vitality stems from their refusal to eat gluten.
But because it’s not always gluten that is to blame, ignore the huge range of gluten-free products. If you really want to avoid all the negative effects – or alleged negative effects, I should say – then you are better off just giving all wheat a miss.
In the West, where wheat is the basis of the fast-food industry (pizzas, doughnuts, hamburgers, sandwiches, fried chicken, pancakes, waffles etc.), this is incredibly difficult to do. And if you travel through Italy, as I’m currently doing, then a wheat-free diet seems like a real imposition.
For Indians however, I don’t think it is such a big deal. South Indians don’t eat that much wheat anyway and nor, for that matter, do most Bengalis. The ones with the most to lose are North Indians: no rotis, parathas, naans, phulkas, pooris, samosas. But even that, I don’t think is that much of a nuisance. There are many substitutes, mostly drawn from the South: rice on its own, dosas, appams etc. And though the West needs wheat for fried foods (such as fried fish, or Kentucky Fried Chicken) Indians usually manage with besan. So we can continue to make pakoras on a wheat-free diet.
But, regardless of how easy it is, why should we give up wheat? The William Davis hypothesis is controversial, which is why despite selling so many copies, his book has been largely ignored in the mainstream Western press. Or all the publications I’ve read, only American Vogue seems to take it seriously, so perhaps Anna Wintour is a fan. Broadly put, Davis has two legs to his argument. The first is pure weight loss. He dresses it up with many references to the glycemic index etc., but basically, his point is that wheat (maida or whole wheat – he does not think it makes a difference) spikes your blood sugar. So you end up storing the calories in wheat as fat and you quickly get hungry again.
This may or may not be scientifically valid. But it is not new. All low-carb, high-protein diet books (Atkins, Montignac, etc.) make the same point: if you give up wheat you will lose weight. This is certainly true though many people argue that by giving up wheat, you narrow your range of options (as I’ve discovered in Italy) and so you consume fewer calories. And this is the real cause of weight loss on a wheat-free diet.
Well, maybe. But what nobody can deny is that the American obesity epidemic of the last two decades parallels the rise of the wheat-based fast food industry. So even if giving up wheat does not mean you will lose weight, eating lots of wheat will certainly make you fat.
The second leg of Davis’s hypothesis is the controversial one. He draws on the experience of Celiac disease patients to argue that wheat causes problems in the small intestines of most people. These problems manifest themselves as bloating, upset stomachs, fatigue, depression, dizziness and pretty much anything else he wants to add to the list. Eventually, he even tries to find a link between wheat consumption and heart disease and cancer.
The obvious flaw in this hypothesis is that if it were valid, Western civilisation would have collapsed a long time ago. Wheat is an integral and essential component of the diet of Europe and America. And if it was so bad, then those societies would have died out by now and we would all be ruled by rice-eating Chinese. (Actually, come to think of it…)
Davis has anticipated this objection. So his explanation is that the wheat we eat today is not the wheat our forefathers ate. Somewhere in the second half of the twentieth century scientists tinkered so much with wheat (to increase yields, for instance) that it went from being a benign grain to becoming a danger to public health.
This is dodgy stuff. Davis implies that wheat was genetically altered, which is not true. Yes, new strains of wheat have been developed over the decades India’s Green Revolution was based on one of these strains) but that’s not unusual. New strains of rice, corn and all other grains have also been developed. The history of cultivation is the history of man trying to adapt crops to feed himself better.
In view of all this, you may well ask the obvious question. If I’m not convinced that wheat is the silent killer that William Davis thinks it is, then why am I torturing myself while travelling through Italy, refusing to even look a biscotti in the eye?
Well, it is a long story. But when I started on the wheat-free diet some weeks ago, it was in India where the diet poses no great challenge. Italy was never on the agenda. I was due to go to Iceland where whale meat can be haute cuisine so giving up wheat seemed easy enough. Then, my plans changed. And here I am, looking away as bowls of pasta with plump fresh porcini are carted past my table.
On a more serious note though, I think that I do feel better on a wheat-free diet. I’m not much thinner or anything. But I feel lighter and more energised. And if I’m also doing my digestion a favour, as Dr Davis claims, well then, that’s just a bonus.