Are we shortchanging ourselves by complete elimination of potentially allergenic or sensitizing foods like wheat, peanuts, or dairy? Do we become even more sensitive to “bad” foods by avoiding them entirely? This question stems from two things I recently encountered. The first was a recent rewatcing of The Princess Bride. The second was the recent peanut allergy study.
If you haven’t watched The Princess Bride yet, go do it (the book is also good) because a small spoiler is coming. The hero Wesley spikes the wine he and the villain Vizzini are sharing with iocane powder, a fictitious ultra-lethal poison that kills instantly. But because Wesley has spent the last several years ingesting incrementally-larger doses of the poison, he has complete resistance to its effects. Both men drink. Only Vizzini dies. What else can this apply to? I wondered.
Then there was the study last week describing a new way to prevent food allergy in kids: feed them the offending foods during infancy. For years, we’ve been told to avoid potentially allergenic foods when introducing solids to our babies. Stick to supposedly safe stuff, like rice cereal. But this paper, and several other recent findings, turns that old advice on its head. Exposure to peanuts before turning one appears to confer protection against allergies later on, even with subsequent peanut avoidance. This has also been strongly suggested for other commonly allergenic foods like eggs, wheat, white fish, sesame seeds, and yogurt. In that study, breast-fed infants who were regularly exposed to allergenic foods in the first year of life were less likely to be allergic at age 3, compared to exclusively breast-fed infants with no exposure to allergenic foods.
We aren’t infants. If any of you are, incredible. I’d love to hear how you learned to read at such an early age, assuming you can also use a keyboard to type. But for the rest of us, that developmental window in which future desensitization is established has passed. We can’t return to the breast. We can’t recapture that magic time when our immune systems are being primed for the rest of our lives.
But is it possible that we can still benefit from exposure to certain non-Primal foods?
Certain sensitivities can definitely be overcome with exposure to the food. With dairy, for example, we can change our ability to digest lactose with careful consumption of fermented dairy because fermented dairy contains the very same probiotic bacteria that can digest lactose. That’s how dairy ferments—the bacteria consume the lactose. If you want to try this, start small. Eat a tablespoon at a time and check for symptoms. Any discomfort—gas, bloating, diarrhea—means you’ve passed the threshold of tolerance. But it’s not going to hurt you, just feed your bacteria and toilet bowl, and the next time you eat yogurt or drink milk you (and your bacteria) should be able to handle a little bit more without crossing the threshold.
Introduction of specific bacteria (whether through yogurt or probiotics) who set up shop and digest the food component responsible for your sensitivity clearly works, but that’s a specific example. Any others?
Milk and egg allergy can be treated, too. In one study, children who were otherwise intolerant of milk and eggs were given milk and eggs that had been subjected to extensive heating. Not only did they tolerate the baked milk and eggs, the baked milk and egg diet accelerated the children’s development of regular milk and egg tolerance. Overall, researchers find that most kids intolerant of milk and eggs can tolerate heated milk and eggs. Between 69% and 83% of milk allergy patients can eat baked milk. Between 63% and 84% of egg allergy patients can tolerate baked eggs. They have to start with a modified (heated) version of the foods but can eventually graduate to normal versions.
Consumption of problematic compounds that can negatively affect everyone, not just the allergic or intolerant, might also confer benefits.
4-HNE is a toxic byproduct of oxidized linoleic acid implicated in oxidative stress and found in arterial lesions. French fries cooked in refined seed oils are probably the best (worst?) source, having up to 32 micrograms of 4-HNE per serving. Large concentrations of 4-HNE and other similar toxins are responsible for tissue damage stemming from ischemic heart attacks, but low concentrations of 4-HNE activate NrF2, the same resistance pathway activated by phytonutrients like blueberry anthocyanin. In the right dose, 4-HNE actually primed cardiac cells to develop resistance against the damaging effects of 4-HNE and increased glutathione synthesis. More glutathione improves your overall ability to deal with oxidative damage and inflammation, including the inflammatory effects of eating refined seed oils.
Your gut bacteria can learn to break down the phytates found in grains and other foods, thus liberating any bound minerals and creating helpful new compounds in the process. Certain gut flora actually turn phytic acid into inositol, a nutrient involved in mood regulation and insulin sensitivity (one of my favorites, in fact). The more phytate-rich foods you eat, the better your gut bacteria get at breaking it down.
What about wheat?
Anecdotes abound of lifelong wheat eaters going gluten-free or Primal for a year, having a bite of bread one day, and feeling like they’re hit with a ton of bricks. I’m sure many of you reading this have experienced the same thing. I was like that in the early days of the Primal Blueprint. I’d figured out the grains were largely responsible for my decades-long battle with irritable bowel syndrome, so I gave them up and remained strict for a year or two. Felt great. When I decided to see how it felt to eat wheat again, I was destroyed. Headache, diarrhea, all that good stuff came roaring back. But in the last five years or so, I’ve been more lax on occasion. If I’m in the mood, maybe I’ll have a crust of bread at a restaurant. I’ll nibble on dessert at a friend’s dinner party. I don’t worry about getting gluten-free tamari at sushi joints. And those periodic dalliances never bother me. I seem to have built up a tolerance.
There’s some indication that how and what you eat can affect your response to wheat. There’s the most obvious one: sourdough. The fermentation process makes gluten somewhat less allergenic, depending on the sourdough cultures used and the duration of the fermentation. Though I’m not sure if eating sourdough can help you adapt to non-fermented wheat.
There’s the fact that gluten-degrading bacteria exist in the mouth and survive passage into the duodenum (first part of the small intestine) where they may reactivate and continue acting on gluten. Those same bacteria may even colonize the duodenum itself, where they can work on any gluten that passes through. Many other species that live in human guts show potential as gluten degraders or mitigators. This is just preliminary, of course. Most research concerns farming those bacteria for gluten-cleaving enzymes to be used in celiac drugs. But the anecdotes are numerous and compelling. Once I started using probiotics and resistant starch and other prebiotics regularly, my tolerance of wheat seemed to increase.
The nocebo effect.
You read how grains contain harmful lectins, mineral-binding phytates, and are far less nutritious than we’ve been led to believe. You catch up on the latest data about gluten sensitivity and the problems with modern wheat. You read how superior organic produce is and how some of the pesticides in non-organic produce really do matter. You stop eating pasta and bread. You cook all your meals and switch over to grass-fed meat and leafy green vegetables. You do everything right, and you feel fantastic. The weight melts off, your energy levels skyrocket, you get stronger and think quicker. Given the powerful evidence for the deleterious effects of many non-Primal foods, you can think of no good reason to eat them ever again.
When you do encounter a slice of cake or crust of bread, you’re convinced it’s “bad” for you. You take a bite and imagine the gluten molecules entering and perforating your gut lining, leaving you vulnerable to all manner of dangerous pathogens and compounds. You go out for fast food and can’t help but notice that the fries smell really, really good, so you order another lettuce-wrapped burger to keep you from eating any oxidized PUFA-laden potatoes. You’re at your kid’s friend’s birthday party and get a cold sweat at the thought of eating the cake.
The placebo effect describes our ability to derive medical benefits from inert compounds or therapies through sheer belief. If a doctor gives you a sugar pill and tells you it’s an anti-hypertension drug, it may very well lower your blood pressure. If an orthopedic surgeon puts you under for knee surgery but doesn’t actually cut into your knee, studies show your condition will improve.
The nocebo effect is like that but flipped around: a mostly innocuous intervention harming your health because you think it will. Many of those non-Primal foods are problematic, particularly if consumed on a daily basis. That’s the standard Western diet, a chronic load of inflammatory foods and dietary toxins. Eating non-Primal foods every once in awhile is a different thing. I don’t just recommend the 80/20 principle for fun and flexibility. Those are major reasons why it’s important to let loose, but I also want to avoid people turning their way of eating into a pathology. I want people to make choices without feeling guilty about it.
So listen up: you’re going to be okay. I’m serious. You’re probably fine.
Eat the slice of birthday cake the cute towhead with freckles and a My Little Pony shirt offers you. Unless you’re celiac or full-blown gluten-sensitive or treating a known autoimmune disorder, you won’t be undoing all the good your normal Primal diet confers.
Have a couple fries when you’re at happy hour after work and your manager offers. Maybe the small dose of 4-HNE will upregulate glutathione synthesis!
If you plan on getting into any battles of wits with balding evil geniuses, build up resistance to the tasteless, odorless poison of your choice.
Mostly, know that—absent blatant allergy or intolerance or active/serious autoimmune condition—consumption of these foods is not a death sentence. You’re not letting yourself or anyone down. You’re not a failure. And you might just help solve the problem preventing you from eating them in the first place.
What do you think, folks? What’s your experience with non-Primal foods?
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