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The other day on the subway, I looked up and was surprised to see a woman reading the book Living Wheat-Free for Dummies. It served as a reminder of how disconnected we are from our food sources. And, as we become increasingly ignorant, multinational corporations are making decisions on our behalf about what we eat, and how our food is grown and produced.

Thanks to gluten sensitivity, I developed an awareness about food politics and our food supply.

I’ve been living with variable commitment to eating wheat-free for about 15 years now. My sister has celiac sprue, the end of the line in a spectrum of gluten-related disorders. Celiac sprue is a disease in which the lining of the small intestine becomes so irritated and damaged that it cannot absorb food.

Gluten is the irritant that causes this condition. It is a protein that gives dough its elasticity, helps bread rise and hold shape, and makes it chewy. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats. Of the grains that contain gluten, wheat is the most prominent in the American diet and therefore, gets the bulk of attention around eating gluten-free.

Because celiac disease is a genetic disorder, my sister’s diagnosis indicates that I, too, may carry the gene that confers a higher risk. Nutrigenomics—the study of the effects of foods and food constituents on gene expression—is beginning to demonstrate that repeated exposure to certain foods increases my risk of developing celiac sprue.

Basically, it’s in my best interest to stay away from gluten.

I’m not alone in this. Fully 10 percent of the population descended from Europeans are genetically predisposed to celiac disease. Many people of African descent, whose ancestors did not evolve eating wheat, also have difficulty digesting and assimilating gluten; others with various genetic backgrounds are in a similar boat.

Wheat is prevalent in a myriad of prepackaged products and prepared foods. It’s used as a thickening agent and, in soy sauce, as a fermentation catalyst. If you’re not cooking at home, wheat and gluten are pretty much everywhere — and the wheat that we eat has gotten steadily more damaging to our health.

Modern varieties of wheat irritate the intestinal wall in far more than 10 percent of the Euro-American population. More and more, across ethnic backgrounds, people are developing problems tolerating gluten.

How did this happen?

Modern agriculture is all about monoculture. Previously, polyculture and crop rotation were common practices, and for very good reasons. Certain species of plants grown together or in rotation help one another to be healthier. Plants and animals living together create their own ecosystem of health and efficiency.

But over the past century, as our food supply streamlined and mechanized, agricultural engineers selected certain species of plants for their ability to thrive in the homogenous environment of monoculture. For example, corn, wheat, and soy are mainstays of American agriculture. In recent years, corporations have introduced genetic modification and systemic pesticides to make these grains even more resilient to pests and drought — but these modern varieties of wheat appear to be more irritating to the intestine than older ones.

Read part II of Erica’s story, “How I Made Gluten-Free a Way of Life.” 

Erica Mather, M.A., E-RYT 200, is a lifelong teacher. She has been teaching yoga in New York City since 2006. Erica created “Adore Your Body,” a Signature System for addressing body image challenges, and is the Founder of The Yoga Clinic NYC. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

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