Skeptical Grain Brains

What does a healthy day of eating look like to you? Maybe whole grain toast with peanut butter for breakfast…. A quinoa salad for lunch…. Perhaps grilled fish and brown rice for dinner?

Dr. David Perlmutter, author of the New York Times bestseller Grain Brain, begs to differ. An excerpt from his website reads, “Carbs are destroying your brain. And not just unhealthy carbs, but even healthy ones like whole grains can cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, and much more.” He ardently argues in favor of a revolutionary diet that mimics the “eating habits of early man, a diet generally thought to be about 75% fat and 5% carbs.”

Perlmutter suggests that the various forms of sugar derived from carbohydrates lead to systemic inflammation and the all-encompassing “metabolic disorder,” and – directly or indirectly – contribute to most of our modern maladies. His solution is to eat almost entirely meat, healthy fats, and vegetables – a daunting task, he realizes, explaining that, “The exact parts of the brain that allow people to become addicted to narcotics are stimulated by gluten…People absolutely go through withdrawal from gluten. It takes a couple of weeks.”

Naturally, with such radical claims, Perlmutter has been met with a deluge of critics and naysayers. Most of these critics don’t argue with the notion that diets high in carbohydrate consumption are unhealthy for the brain and the body in general, nor do they dispute that “very low carb (VLC) and ketogenic diets can be effective therapeutic tools for treating many neurological disorders.”  However, as Chris Kessler points out, “It’s important to realize that just because a low-carb diet can help treat neurological disorders, doesn’t mean the carbs caused the disorder in the first place. While I don’t argue with the idea that refined and processed carbs like flour and sugar contribute to modern disease, there’s no evidence to suggest that unrefined, whole-food carbohydrates do. In fact, there are three compelling reasons why this is not the case.” He goes on to argue that 1) Human bodies have evolved to the extent that we can effectively digest carbohydrates, 2) Certain cultures exist (such as the Hadza of north-central Tanzania) whose diets consist almost entirely of carbs, and yet they are extraordinarily healthy, and 3) Eating “safe” carbs, such as fruit, is more beneficial to the body than it is harmful.

Moreover, Dr. David Katz is skeptical of Perlmutter’s claims due in part to the perhaps biased manner in which he conducted his research. Katz says, “You’re only being a good scientist…if you say, ‘I’m going to try to read the literature in as unbiased a manner as I possibly can, see where it leads me, and then offer the advice that I have based on that view from an altitude.’ I don’t see that going on here, and again, I think it’s kind of sad because I think the public is being misled.” Still others are concerned that “Readers may interpret his book as a green light to load up on meat and dairy instead, a choice that has its own well-documented cardiovascular heart risks.”

So what is the reader to do when faced when this body of conflicting evidence? One thing is for sure: “When a person advocates radical change on the order of eliminating one of the three macronutrient groups from our diets, the burden of proof should be enormous.” Perlmutter is the prosecutor who holds this burden, and the jury is still out.

– by Betty Vine

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