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Worried About Gluten? This Is Your Brain on Journalism

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"This Is Your Brain on Gluten," an article written by Dr. James Hamblin in The Atlantic, has enjoyed many likes and shares. We are captivated and intrigued by the controversy among medical professionals as to whether carbohydrates, and grains in particular, are safe for consumption. We are also confused.

The article features an interview with Dr. David Perlmutter, author of the bestselling book, Grain Brain: The surprising truth about wheat, carbs, and sugar; your brain's silent killers. Dr. Perlmutter asserts consumption of grains and other carbohydrates causes chronic diseases such as Alzheimer's, heart disease, and cancer.

It also includes the comments of Dr. David Katz, a leader in the field of integrative and preventative medicine and the founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Dr. Katz is scornful of the claims advanced by Dr. Perlmutter:

"'I also find it sad that because his book is filled with a whole bunch of nonsense, that's why it's a bestseller; that's why we're talking. Because that's how you get on the bestseller list. You promise the moon and stars, you say everything you heard before was wrong, and you blame everything on one thing. You get a scapegoat; it's classic. Atkins made a fortune with that formula. We've got Rob Lustig saying it's all fructose; we've got T. Colin Campbell [author of The China Study, a formerly bestselling book] saying it's all animal food; we now have Perlmutter saying it's all grain. There's either a scapegoat or a silver bullet in almost every bestselling diet book.'"

Dr. Katz has described what Michael Pollan calls our "national eating disorder." In Pollan's words, "What is striking is just how little it takes to set off one of these applecart-toppling nutritional swings in America; a scientific study, a new government guideline, a lone crackpot with a medical degree can alter this nation's diet overnight."

Toward the end of "This Is Your Brain on Gluten," Dr. Hamblin (the article author) laments, "I hope people don't give up on nutrition science, because there is a sense that no one agrees on anything. An outlier comes shouting along every year with a new diet bent on changing our entire perspective, and it's all the talk. That can leave us with a sense that no one is to be believed. The scientific community on the whole is not as capricious as the bestseller list might make it seem."

I find it telling that in this article, the author of Grain Brain, Dr. David Perlmutter, mischaracterizes the findings of a recent study that demonstrates the correlation between small rises in blood sugar and dementia. Dr. Perlmutter fails to mention that the average age of study participants at the outset was 76. (The original New York Times article that reports on the same study buries this key fact in the fifth paragraph under a simplistic, sensational headline: "High Blood Sugar Linked to Dementia.") The point is that the study doesn't conclude anything about other age cohorts. Apparently for the sake of simplicity (a generous interpretation), Dr. Perlmutter and the New York Times article both obscure this basic fact of the study's design. So, too, does Dr. Hamblin in his failure to clarify the relevant facts.

I don't mean to say how many carbohydrates we should consume or whether grains damage our brains. Rather, I mean to show that among the many negative influencers of our diet and health stands shoddy, profit-driven journalism, and we need to be extremely, relentlessly skeptical of what we are told.

This post originally appeared on newfoodculture.com, where Leo Brown writes about food, nutrition, and health.

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