Beware the Anti-Nutrient

April 7, 2011

in Science

By Rob Schick, PhD

Can it really be true? Wheat can be bad for me? “No way”, you say, “what about healthy whole grains?” Well, it really is true. Not only do people not need to eat grains to survive, wheat and other grains actually can be bad for you.

This is for two reasons. First, plants, like you and me, don’t want to die, and if you eat them, they die. Many plants have developed compounds that are toxic to people. Some, like strychnine, can kill you, while some, like phytic acid, can just be midly harmful. Phytic acid, found in wheat, is what’s known as an “anti-nutrient.” Since plants can’t move, they can’t escape the reaper. Most plants have dealt with this by building up these anti-nutrient compounds. Traditional cultures have addressed this toxicity by soaking or pre-fermenting their grains, a practice largely absent from today’s kitchens. The soaking starts a chemical reaction in the grain that helps break down and lower the phytic acid content. Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions cookbook discusses ancestral treatment of grains in detail.

The second reason is that wheat, and many cereal grains, contain gluten – itself a combination of a prolamin called gliadin and a glutelin called glutenin. Gliadin peptides make their way to the small intestine where they are digested by enterocytes, but your body has a difficult time digesting these proteins properly. The degree to which these proteins are digested is individual, and the body’s response ranges across a spectrum from low-level inflammation to a full-blown immune response. Many people experience low-level gut disfunction or “leaky gut” as a result of the gliadin peptides and lectins in grains. However, for people who have celiac disease, intestinal permeability increases, and your immune system mounts a response against the enterocytes. (For a nice technical description of this, listen to the Paleo Solution Podcast – Episode 68 with Mat Lalonde, starting at 16:07. Or check out an article from Scientific American on Alessio Fasano’s work on celiac.) Essentially, a cascade happens where the body perceives a foreign body that is formed in response to an undigested protein, and mounts its own response against it. For people with celiac disease, the end of this cascade results in the body attacking its own enterocytes. As the enterocytes are damaged, your gut function is worse and worse, and your nutrient uptake suffers.

Gluten is undeniably bad for people with celiac, and it can be bad for the general population. Many people, increasingly, are gluten-sensitive but without full blown celiac. And recent research, again by Fasano, has shown that the immune response pathways in gluten sensitivity are different from those in celiac, thus making the case they are different “clinical entities.” (Even if you are not gluten-sensitive at all, a case can be made that cereal grains just aren’t that nutritious.) How do you find out if you are gluten-intolerant? Well you can have a blood test, or (ouch!) an intestinal biopsy. But a less invasive test checks for the presence of antibodies to gluten in the stool. That is, evidence that your body recognizes gluten as foreign and toxic, and is mounting an immune response to it.

The research from Entero Lab, one lab that specializes in this diagnostic stool test, suggests that this assay is more specific than blood tests, and will alert you much earlier to gluten sensitivity than a biopsy that is testing for damage to your villi – a point you don’t want to reach in any case. It also suggests that many people in the general population are sensitive to gluten, but would be sub-clinical via normal testing. (See an excellent post here at Stephen Guyenet’s blog.)

The test itself returns your gluten sensitivity score from 0 to 500, with “sensitive” threshold at 10, and the average positive score at 45. So what does it mean if you score higher than 45? If you want to avoid the negative side-effects of gluten, then don’t eat it – ever again.

Is this a pain? Undoubtedly. Will it endear you to your dinner party hosts? Not likely. Will you feel better, and overall be healthier? Definitely.

Check out Three Squares recipes for gluten-free meals and snacks – everything featured on the site is gluten-free.

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