In an age where much of our food seems to make its way to our plates with a giant, fuzzy question mark hovering uncertainly over it, many of us have decided to take our health into our own hands and choose which foods we should abstain from, and which ones to try and incorporate into our diet on a regular basis. While the list of ‘superfoods’ flourishes, two popular foods that have come under fire semi-recently are dairy and gluten.
Although dairy has been considered shady for quite some time now (not only in its questionable health benefits or detriments, but also where environmentalism and animal welfare is concerned), gluten is one food that has become a hot topic only in the last few years, because of its mass modification and its newly appointed status as an allergen. (It now sits pretty on processed food “allergen” labels next to peanuts, egg, and soy.)
So, which food wins the more-harmful-to-our-health game of dietary roulette: dairy or gluten?
No Dairy? No problem. Literally—less dairy equals less problems.
Dairy has been a major player for decades. (I was personally diagnosed with being lactose intolerant back in 1986.) In laymen’s terms, we are all intolerant to dairy, because we are not cows. We are the only species that drink other species’ milk. There are proteins and other nutrients that make up cows’ milk that human beings are just simply not designed to digest. While some can get away with consuming it and not showing symptoms of their intolerance, many of us swiftly pay for our dairy vices. Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include stomach pain, excessive gas, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, and behaviour abnormalities.
The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation estimates that lactose intolerance affects (meaning people who show signs or symptoms) over 7 million Canadians. While this number sounds big, it’s not inclusive. Many people who react to dairy products don’t know they’re intolerant. Some have been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, and many just ignore their symptoms and decide to live with the consequences.
Aside from health issues that dairy contributes to for humans, there is also the much larger picture to consider. It’s such a crazy thing to see people quick to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, when a greater segment of the planet is more obviously intolerant to dairy; and as far as environmental or cruelty to animals go? There’s no comparison. Abstaining from dairy has the most impact all around the board. Environmentally speaking, the dairy industry is responsible for approximately 250 million cows, which equals an insane amount of methane gas being released unnecessarily into our environment. It also contributes to mass water pollution (cow manure runs into our waterways), and destructive land conversion.
There’s also the issue of animal cruelty. In order for cows to make milk, they must have babies. Because of this, dairy cows are kept perpetually pregnant for the sole purpose of humans being able to take their milk meant for their calves. These calves are often taken from their mothers within hours of being born, and fed artificial nutrients from a bottle instead of being permitted to nurse naturally. Just the act of separating mother and baby is incredibly cruel—humans are not the only species to feel emotional and maternal ties to their offspring. Many dairy cows only live for a few years, and suffer chronic mastitis infections. To treat the inevitable health issues that dairy cows experience, they are given regular doses of antibiotics. (This also poses a whole new problem for humans that consume cow’s milk, because we are developing antibiotic resistance, one cheese string at a time—but that’s a whole other blog post.)
So What’s Wrong with Gluten?
Dairy argument aside, there are good arguments against the huge amounts of modified wheat we eat. Let’s begin with the wheat itself. Wheat, of course, contains gluten. (As does barley and rye.) Gluten is a protein that acts as a binding agent, and it gives wheat and other grains a chewy texture. People who are sensitive to gluten can either have an intolerance to gluten, or Celiac disease. While gluten intolerance is just that, the latter is a whole other ball game.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the consumption of gluten causes an autoimmune response within the body, and a subsequent inflammatory reaction within the intestinal tract. Over time, the small intestine becomes damaged to the point that it can no longer absorb nutrients, and sufferers begin to show signs of malnutrition. Celiac disease has a genetic component, and can be fatal if not treated with a life-long gluten-free diet. (On a personal note, my paternal grandfather’s autopsy report concluded that his mid-sixties death was indeed a result of Celiac disease.)
Symptoms are very similar to those of lactose intolerance, and often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome. Additional symptoms include weight loss, decline in dental health, aching joints, and headaches.
Gluten intolerance is on the mild end of the spectrum when compared with Celiac disease. Symptoms can be detected quickly (after eating a meal containing gluten), as opposed to the sometimes less-obvious symptoms of Celiac disease. The main difference is the severity of the result of consuming gluten. With a simple intolerance, sufferers experience uncomfortable symptoms somewhat immediately. With Celiac disease, the results are compounded until the sufferer becomes quite ill (in terms of nutritional deficiencies) or gives up gluten in their diet (in which case the damage is reversible).
The second issue with gluten is its presence in food that has been genetically altered. Genetically modified foods (GMOs) have had their genes manipulated in artificial circumstances to make that food more desirable to either the producer or consumer. (Or both.) For example, wheat is often modified so that it lasts longer without spoiling, and so that the actual plants grow in a way that provides farmers with better crop outcomes. Sounds great, but the long-term effects of GMOs on humans aren’t yet known, and the studies that have been concluded on rats show unfavourable outcomes. (Tumours, anyone?) GMO’s aren’t specific to wheat products; unless organic, dairy (and other animal products) contains genetically modified organisms that the animal itself has been sustained on. (Mostly GM corn and soy.)
As far as environmental and animal cruelty impact goes, a gluten-free diet doesn’t really make much of a difference here; especially when compared to the Land of Dairy. No animals were harmed by growing foods that contain gluten, and wheat doesn’t produce methane the way cattle do.
The very best way to help the environment, animals, and yourself is to adopt neither a strictly dairy nor gluten-free diet, but a whole food, plant-based diet that doesn’t include gluten. (If you’re gluten-sensitive.)
The fact is, almost all processed foods and/or animal products contain elements derived from either wheat or dairy or both. Ingredients such as casein, lactose, and whey are abundant in these types of convenience foods. This presents a pretty strong case for ceasing the consumption of processed foods and animal products altogether.
By adopting a whole food, plant-based diet, we inadvertently remove most hidden allergens (such as dairy and gluten) that live in processed foods and animal products, as well as fillers, additives, preservatives, and other artificial ingredients. When we start becoming aware of what we are eating, and companies properly label food and cut out unnecessary fillers and common allergens, we all win.
So: dairy-free, gluten-free, or whole food, plant-based? It’s up to you—you know my opinion.