Beware, Indians, Gluten Sensitivity is a Desi Thing Too
Camera: Abhishek Ranjan
Animation and Editing: Puneet Bhatia
Everyone is obsessed with the big-G. Wheat is slowly making its way away from our shelves and is being replaced by gluten-free products. The shift is jarring for many in India who are used to having the grain as a staple.
According to the 68th National Sample Survey, an average urban Indian eats 4 kgs of wheat every month. The number is 4.3 kgs for a rural Indian. In 2018, India’s total consumption of the grain was 95,000 metric tonne.
We are also the second largest producer of wheat in the world. We are talking A LOT of wheat.
Let’s first begin with understanding the origin of the newest health trend.
What is Gluten?
To break it down, gluten is simply a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Sometimes it’s even added to food items to increase their protein content. Now, as is true of many food items, some people are sensitive to this protein and it is manifested as either Celiac disease or as non-Celiac gluten sensitivity.
Busting the myth that it is largely a white man’s disease was an editorial in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in 2011 that termed Celiac disease an “impending epidemic” and added that “what we see clinically is the tip of an iceberg that threatens to grow bigger”. ( Dr BS Ramakrishna, Professor and Head, Department of Gastroenterology, CMC Vellore)
Further, Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS) says that more than 10 percent of Indians have gluten intolerance. It’s more common in north and east India than its primarily rice-eating southern parts.
And then according to AIIMS, celiac disease affects close to six-eight million people in India, yet both the disease and the gluten-sensitivity remains heavily under-diagnosed. Their manifestation is similar since both cause intestinal damage.
Symptoms are linked to digestion and the gastrointestinal tract and can sometimes go as far as triggering asthma, and even anxiety and depression, among others. They both require genetic predisposition and have the same treatment as well - going off gluten.
But Our Parents and Grandparents Always Ate Wheat...?
Well, that was a different kind of wheat altogether. Quite literally. Over the decades, there has been a change in the variety of wheat grown. The three types so far have been:
This transition has been cited as a reason for the increase in gluten insensitivity. Hexaploid wheat is believed to stimulate the production of antibodies in the body thereby causing the auto-immune disorder that is Celiac disease.
What to Eat, What Not to Eat?
Someone who is sensitive to gluten should stay away from:
- Wheat (no brainer)
- Hing (asafoetida)
So what on earth can you eat for carbs you ask?
And Before You Go, There’s More...
There’s another side to the whole conversation. Of about 87 percent people in the US who believed they were intolerant to gluten were actually tolerant (according to a study by NCBI).
Less than one percent people in the US have Celiac disease, the number has been stable over the last couple of years, according to a JAMA Internal Medicine study.
Be it India or outside, the number of people who are actually allergic to it is way smaller than those who believe they are.
People who eat whole grain foods are better protected against heart disease, diabetes and some kinds of cancer. In fact, a gluten-free diet may leave you with low levels of vitamins and nutrients that include iron, calcium, fibre and folate, according to this report.
Unless you truly are allergic to gluten, you might actually be harming yourself by being on a gluten free diet. If you have tested positive for the sensitivity, gluten goes out of the window for you. If not, there’s no reason you give up wheat. Do examine the source of it, opt for organic variety, and don’t make it your go to for every single meal.