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Grains and Health: Separating the Myths from the Facts

Bread valley

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Ontario Grain Farmer magazine.

There is no shortage of opinions when it comes to what diet is the best to follow for weight loss and overall healthy eating. From fat-free to low carb to gluten-free, each diet trend has taken its turn in the spotlight with celebrity promoters and a mass following among consumers.

In recent years, the gluten-free trend has received much of this attention and its popularity has increased the demand for products on grocery store shelves that are labelled gluten-free.

However, some scientists and food experts are speaking out against the need for the vast majority of people to become gluten-free and are in fact highlighting some of the dangers that could result from adopting this diet if it isn’t medically necessary. Dr. Julie Miller Jones, a board certified nutrition specialist, certified food scientist, and licensed nutritionist (MN), is one of them.

Miller Jones received her bachelor of science degree from Iowa State University and her Ph.D. in Food Science and Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. Currently, she is a professor emerita and distinguished scholar at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.


“One per cent of the population has celiac disease and only one in 4,700 are diagnosed,” says Miller Jones. “Celiac disease is an inappropriate immune response in genetically susceptible individuals. People with celiac must avoid all forms of gluten for the rest of their lives as they have an adverse reaction to the protein. Gluten proteins cause the intestine to flatten and prevent the absorption of any nutrients. It is an intolerance, not an allergy.”

Miller Jones says there is another segment of the population who may also have cause to avoid gluten.

“Four to six per cent of the population claim to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity; however, there is no specific diagnostic test for this.”

Even though only approximately six per cent of the population has a medical reason to avoid wheat and gluten, Miller Jones says surveys show about 30 to 40 per cent of the population now avoids gluten.

Why do so many people believe that going gluten-free has made them feel better and been the solution to their weight loss?

“Losing weight helps improve many conditions that a gluten-free diet claims to improve,” explains Miller-Jones. “Carbohydrates don’t cause weight gain, calories cause weight gain. Cutting gluten from your diet can reduce your calorie intake by 400 to 600 calories per day.”

This is significant when you consider that if you eat 440 calories a day more than you need, you would gain 46 pounds in a year.


However, according to Health Canada, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Food Guide, 45 to 50 per cent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. Wheat is a carbohydrate.

Dietary fibre, calcium, magnesium, and folate are listed by Health Canada as nutrients of concern — those that the average person consumes far below the recommended level. Dietary fibre, magnesium, and folate are found in wheat.

Less than five per cent of the population meets their recommended fibre intake. But it isn’t difficult to achieve. Miller Jones says 100% bran is the best source, and raisin bran is another good source. One slice of whole wheat bread has the same amount of fibre as one medium raw carrot and half a cup of cooked broccoli (two grams).

“We need to get people to eat more whole grains. The average consumption of whole grains is under a serving a day and a lot of people never knowingly pick a whole grain,” says Miller Jones.

And as a result, they are missing out on some powerful health benefits.

“Whole grains are associated with a reduction in disease, including coronary disease, and obesity. Folate fortified grains have resulted in a decrease in birth defects,” explains Miller Jones. “Cereal fibre is shown to reduce gastric cancers — including small intestinal cancer and colon cancer. Eating whole grains also decreases the risk of Type 2 diabetes and studies have shown that those with pre-diabetes, which are those at risk of developing diabetes, had a 35 per cent decrease in risk if they ate whole grain.”


Wheat-free and gluten-free diets are not more nutritious and may be less nutritious than a balanced diet which includes whole grains.

“Gluten-free food doesn’t have the folic acid, it is often made with other starches which aren’t enriched or fortified. We see problems in people with celiac who must eat this way — we are very concerned about low folate, anemia, and very worried about low fibre,” says Miller Jones.

She says the average person on a gluten-free diet consumes just six grams of fibre per day versus an average Canadian diet of 12 to 16 grams per day (both are below the recommended 25 to 38 grams per day).

Other concerns that Miller Jones has are the high number of calories from fat and meat and the low intake of B vitamins. And she points out the high cost people are paying for less nutrition — the average gluten-free diet is 163% more expensive than a balanced diet.

While Miller Jones uses science and her knowledge of nutrition to combat claims made by promoters of gluten-free diet, she knows that they too claim to have science on their side. However, much of the support for a gluten-free diet is based on claims that wheat has been changed over the past century. Miller Jones says those are just claims which are not supported by credible, current scientific evidence. Studies by the USDA and at the University of Saskatchewan have shown that the height, gluten proteins, and starch content of ancient wheat are the same as modern wheat.

Whole grains are a critical part of a balanced diet and an essential component of Health Canada’s Food Guide. These simple facts are important for grain farmers to understand and share in order to maintain the trust of consumers.

Dr. Julie Miller Jones was a featured speaker at Grain Farmers of Ontario’s 2015 March Classic.