AS many as one in three Americans tries to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten-free menus, gluten-free labels and gluten-free guests at summer dinners have proliferated.
Some of the anti-glutenists argue that we haven’t eaten wheat for long enough to adapt to it as a species. Agriculture began just 12,000 years ago, not enough time for our bodies, which evolved over millions of years, primarily in Africa, to adjust. According to this theory, we’re intrinsically hunter-gatherers, not bread-eaters. If exposed to gluten, some of us will develop celiac disease or gluten intolerance, or we’ll simply feel lousy.
Most of these assertions, however, are contradicted by significant evidence, and distract us from our actual problem: an immune system that has become overly sensitive…
… Overlooked in all this gluten-blaming is the following: Our default response to gluten, says Dr. Jabri, is to treat it as the harmless protein it is — to not respond.
So the real mystery of celiac disease is what breaks that tolerance, and whatever that agent is, why has it become more common in recent decades?
An important clue comes from the fact that other disorders of immune dysfunction have also increased. We’re more sensitive to pollens (hay fever), our own microbes (inflammatory bowel disease) and our own tissues (multiple sclerosis).
Perhaps the sugary, greasy Western diet — increasingly recognized as pro-inflammatory — is partly responsible. Maybe shifts in our intestinal microbial communities, driven by antibiotics and hygiene, have contributed. Whatever the eventual answer, just-so stories about what we evolved eating, and what that means, blind us to this bigger, and really much more worrisome, problem: The modern immune system appears to have gone on the fritz.
Maybe we should stop asking what’s wrong with wheat, and begin asking what’s wrong with us.