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Pillar-1 Food: Gluten, soy & salt

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May 5, 2024, 8:01 AM IST 

Gluten: Is it unhealthy?

The belief that gluten is unhealthy has been debunked by numerous plant-based whole food (PBWF) doctors. This myth, along with

the misconception that carbohydrates are detrimental to health and contribute to diabetes, has persisted in various forms for decades. The media, including bestsellers like *Wheat Belly* and *Grain Brain*, and articles in Indian media predicting the obsolescence of chapatis, have fueled this narrative. However, one might wonder why wheat, a staple for over 10,000 years, has suddenly been deemed unhealthy.

Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, affects fewer than one in a thousand people annually. Those diagnosed with this condition should avoid gluten, but for most, gluten poses no health risk.

It’s true that most wheat grown in America has been significantly modified, resulting in a higher gluten content, which may cause sensitivity in some people. However, many who experience issues with American wheat report no problems when consuming wheat in Europe or India.

The issues often attributed to gluten are more closely related to industrial farming practices. For example, combine harvesters used on these farms cannot process green, unripe wheat, so fields are sprayed with a chemical called Roundup to dry the crops uniformly. Roundup, commonly used for weed control, has been linked to several health issues, including cancer, and has led to numerous lawsuits. The company has lost several lawsuits and many are pending in higher courts.

Many who believe they are sensitive to gluten are likely experiencing the Nocebo effect rather than an actual reaction to gluten. This was supported by a recent international, multicentre, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published on PubMed (ID# 38340757) titled “The effect of expectancy versus actual gluten intake on gastrointestinal and extra-intestinal symptoms in non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” The study concluded that symptoms were influenced more by the expectation of gluten intake rather than by gluten itself.

Furthermore, the low-carb movement (including the Atkins Diet and books like *Wheat Belly* and *Grain Brain*) often spreads confusion and misinformation. These diets, heavily promoted by the meat, poultry, and dairy industries, advocate for high-protein, low-carb eating, aligning with interests in the animal food industry, which is inherently low in carbohydrates.

Such diets are not only misleading but potentially harmful in the long run. For instance, Dr. Atkins, who launched the low-carb trend with his book in the 1970s, reportedly suffered from several health issues related to his diet and weighed over 300 pounds at his death.

Soy or not?

A common question relates to consuming soy products. The market offers a variety of soy products such as edamame, soybeans, soy sauce, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, soy nuggets, soybean oil, and soy protein powder. Of these, soybean oil and soy protein powder should be avoided, while others can be consumed in moderation.

Soy milk 

Making vegan milk at home is a good option. While store-bought vegan milk might contain preservatives, it’s still preferable to dairy. Everyone has different tastes, and it’s important to find the type you enjoy most. For those with children who love milk, consider making two different varieties to avoid over-reliance on soy milk.


Due to societal biases towards protein, as previously discussed, it has become fashionable in restaurants and homes serving vegetarian food to include paneer, tofu, and soy nuggets. There’s a prevailing belief that vegetarian meals must include additional protein-rich foods like paneer or soy; otherwise, the meal is considered incomplete. At Indian parties, for instance, you’ll commonly find dishes like Paneer Tikka, Saag Paneer, Mutter Paneer, and Malai Kofta. I’ve attended Indian parties where the only vegan options were daal, which typically includes ghee tadka.

The situation with tofu is similar in Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants, where vegetarian or vegan dishes predominantly feature tofu, driven by the misconception that a vegan meal without tofu is incomplete—even master chefs share this myth.

Soy was not traditionally part of the Indian diet, which favored daal, rajma, and chole. Soy was introduced to India in the late 1960s. Globally, most soy is used as animal feed or for biodiesel. In the United States 70% is used for animal feed and 5% for biodiesel, with all soy produced being genetically modified (GMO). Scientifically, soy is controversial, but the consensus is that it’s harmless in small amounts. There is nothing wrong with eating tofu in moderation—only consume it if you enjoy it, not because it’s considered a health food. Personally, I prefer edamame (fresh soybeans); they make a great appetizer.

How much salt? 

There is considerable confusion regarding the role of salt in maintaining good health, fueled by conflicting studies. However, beneath the surface, there appears to be some consensus. The views of Dr. John McDougall, one of my mentors, help to clarify this issue:

“Many doctors conveniently scapegoat salt, attributing numerous chronic problems to the consumption of excessive salt.”

Historically, salt has been a crucial part of our diet. Slaves were often traded for salt. The word “salary” also originated from the term for salt, leading to the idiom “not worth his salt.”

Salt consumption varies widely around the world – from less than 200 mg daily among the Yanomamo Indians in the Amazon Basin of Brazil to 27,000 mg among farmers in Northern Japan. The average American consumes about 3,500 mg of salt a day.

People who adhere to a natural, plant-based, whole food diet generally maintain their health regardless of salt intake. Research indicates that these individuals, when relocated to urban environments and subjected to a modern Western diet, develop hypertension and other chronic diseases.

The human tongue is naturally inclined to seek out sugar and salt, with these taste buds located at the very tip of the tongue. Fortunately, the human body has a natural ability to regulate salt through the intestines—which can increase or decrease sodium absorption—and through the kidneys, which adjust the amount of salt lost in urine and sweat.

Recent large-scale studies from the past decade have found a low correlation between salt intake and cardiovascular disease, and there might even be an inverse correlation. Among individuals with hypertension, reducing salt intake as a means to lower blood pressure may actually be associated with higher rates of cardiovascular diseases.

So, what is the real issue?

The problem lies in the company that salt keeps. Processed foods such as bacon, ham, salami, chips, fries, pizza, bagels, cheese, ice cream and Haldiram’s namkeen (in India), are the true culprits. In the US, 75% of dietary salt comes from processed foods.

It is nearly impossible to maintain a low-salt diet if you consume a standard diet based on animal products. Meat does not taste good without salt, and most poultry sold has been injected with saline water. Try eating salt-free cheese or boiled lamb, pork, or chicken—it’s difficult to swallow. Animal-based foods are so bland that they require significant amounts of salt to be palatable.

When you eat fruits, vegetables, beans, rice, nuts and seeds, minimal salt is needed to enhance the flavor of the food. This is the secret: We should avoid processed and refined foods and stop worrying about salt. Keeping a salt shaker on your dining table won’t hurt.

In conclusion, it’s important to be critical of dietary trends that seem too aligned with commercial interests or that promise quick fixes. As the saying goes, “We love to read good things about our bad habits.” I urge everyone to approach such claims with skepticism and to prioritize well-rounded, plant-based-whole-food nutrition.

To Read this article on Times of India click here

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