Wheat, Meat, Dairy, and Diet Soft Drinks: The Problem Foods for Paleo Dieters


One of the more attractive selling points of the Paleo Diet is that it isn't necessary (as a group of young Paleo Diet eating enthusiasts in Manhattan actually did)  to hang an elk in your kitchen to slice off raw meat three times a day. The Paleo Diet allows everyone to eat modern foods, as Dr. Cordain puts it, you can hunt and gather  in modern markets, and even allows for 20% of meals, about three meals a week, to consist of foods that aren't on the diet.

If you are addicted to bagels and cream cheese, or if you just have to have that weekly doughnut, or you don't want to be left standing at the side of room during an ice cream social, Dr. Cordain's diet plan lets you occasionally eat like a modern human.

We think that's where most Paleo Diet dieters go wrong, especially if they have any kind of chronic digestive disorder. If you've got a problem with your gut (other than just extending over your belt or girdle), then chances are the problem is with wheat or dairy, which aren't allowed when you following the Paleo Diet, or meat or diet soft drinks, which are.

What Is the Problem with Wheat?

Every Paleo Diet dieter knows that wheat is a no-no for weight loss. Refined wheat products typically have a high glycemic index, that is, our digestive tracts quickly turn them into glucose, the primary bloodstream sugar.

Foods made with white flour, foods made with  whole wheat or whole meal flour, and even cracked whole wheat “berries” also quickly become sugar. The pancreas releases insulin to keep the concentration of glucose in the bloodstream low so it does not “catch fire” while it is still in circulation, and fat cells greedily absorb simple sugars that they quickly convert into “fire-proof” triglycerides for long-term storage. Consuming antioxidants(which are essentially “fire extinguishers” that act on a molecular level) in plant foods slows down this process, but as long as the pancreas is releasing insulin to regulate blood sugar levels, excess calories only go into fat cells. They can't come out.

Keeping your fat cells from stuffing themselves 24 hours a day is what the Paleo Diet does that helps you lose weight. If you cut out the wheat in your diet, you reduce the sugar, and insulin, in your bloodstream. (Or, if you happen to be a type 1 diabetic, you reduce the amount of insulin you need to inject.) But a lot of the damage wheat does occurs while it is still being digested.

Celiac Disease, Much More Common Than Most People Realize

About 1 in 3000 people in the US and UK is diagnosed with a condition called celiac sprue, or celiac disease. In this truly awful condition, the immune system of the gut responds to a protein in wheat (and a few other grains) called gliadin. This is the “stretchy” protein that makes gluten sticky. It's a component of gluten, but not the only protein gluten contains. The immune system's helper-T cells attack the wheat protein as if it were a germ.

This immune system dysfunction is very big deal for the gut.  And the inflammation generated by gluten sensitivity far exceeds the inflammation generated by the immune system's response to infection.

How much more inflammation is generated by celiac disease than the flu?

It takes just 1 to 10 particles of certain viruses to trigger stomach flu. The lining of the intestine can launch a vigorous defense against these 10 particles, generating antibodies that smooth out the lining of the intestine so the virus stays out of the body. This also keeps water and digested food out of the body, and the watery mass causes diarrhea.

The process of inflammation flattens out millions of tiny, finger-like projections on the lining of the intestine called villi. When the villi are flattened out, the intestine can't absorb nutrients. The villi are so numerous that if the intestine were to lose all of its villi, between 97% and 98% of its ability to absorb nutrients would be lost.

In most cases, the damage is not this severe. It's more like 30% to 70%. But if just 10 viral particles can cause this kind of disturbance to the lining of the gut, imagine what tens of billions of gliadin molecules can to do to the lining of the gut each and every time the celiac sufferer eats wheat.

Do You Have Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is only diagnosed in about 1 in 3000 people. It's relatively more common in people of Irish or Basque descent, affecting possibly 1 in 50. Because doctors take an “all or nothing” approach to diagnosing the disease, very few people who have anything less than completely disabling symptoms get any kind of treatment at all. But just as really bad celiac disease can make you emaciated, relatively mild celiac disease can keep you fat.

And your Paleo Diet won't work if you eat wheat during any of those three meals a week you get to “cheat.”

How does mild celiac disease trigger a condition Dr. William Davis calls “wheat belly?” (His fascinating book by the same name is available here.) There is constant release of sugar feeding fat cells, particularly the belly fat cells that have the ability to generate hunger hormones.

But in at least 1 in 100 people, many researchers now believe, the process of inflammation that can cause full-blown celiac disease in the intestine can cause chronic inflammation in belly fat. The fat cells around your waist constantly generate inflammation. The inflammation sends out an SOS to the immune system.

Defensive cells known as macrophages, which ordinarily float around the bloodstream like killer whales, race to the fat to fight germs that aren't there. They get stuck, and to get them out, the immune system sends still more macrophages. In short order, as much as 30% of the mass of “fat” around the waist can actually be misplaced immune cells, all answering a distress signal triggered by wheat.

Even worse, you can experience:

  • Bloating
  • Cramps
  • Especially odorous flatulence
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Brittle bones (due to the body's inability to absorb vitamins D, K1, and K2, which should be taken as supplements if you react to gluten)
  • Acne
  • Impotence in men
  • Amenorrhea in women of reproductive age, hot flashes in women who have past menopause

If you're one of those people, you really can't be eating wheat on those days  you stray from your Paleo Diet. But how can you know whether you are immunologically sensitive to wheat?

The test for gluten and gliadin sensitivity costs no more than you'd pay for a few diet book. It”s something you only need once in your lifetime, and it is a good indicator of whether your family members might have the same kind of issues with wheat and weight control as you may have yourself. Early in your experience with the Paleo Diet, it is a good idea to get testing for antibodies to wheat proteins. No blood draw is required for the test. Just spit into a tube and mail the tube back to the lab.

You can get the gluten sensitivity test through your doctor at about $350 for the test and probably $250 to $350 for the consultation. Or you can get a simple saliva test (no blood sample is required) online from Cyrex Labs for $169. You have to have consumed gluten at least 6 times in the previous 2 weeks for the test to work, so it's a test you should take at the very beginning or before you start a Paleo Diet.

What Can the Spit Test for Gluten Sensitivity Tell You?

This simple saliva test reveals:

  • Whether your body makes antibodies to wheat protein and therefore
  • Whether eating wheat will undo all your efforts on the Paleo Diet, and
  • Whether the rest of your family should also be tested.

Of course, if you test negative for gluten and gliadin antibodies, you will know that you just have run of the mill issues with wheat, and it's not a toxin for you. This will also be a good indication that other members of your family won't have gluten sensitivity.

But if you find out that you have an immune system reaction to wheat products, probably no other piece of information about yourself will tell you more about how to plan for diet success. And you can save yourself a lifetime of completely avoidable digestive issues.


About Andy Williams

Andy Williams has a Ph.D. in biology and a strong interest in health and nutrition. The Paleo Gut web site was created to explore the health benefits of the Paleo diet and see how it is changing lives. Also, get our free daily Paleo Gut newspaper delivered to your inbox.

Please feel free to contact me and let me know about your Paleo experiences or favorite recipes.

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