Writing about nutritional choices is tricky. One author recently compared our dietary choices as being like our own personalized religion. We’re all born into certain dietary patterns. Then as we grow, we either accept or modify these choices based upon our own belief as well as our own personal preference. Unfortunately today, many of the fad diets are like dietary cults—people not only want to make their own choice but they encourage others to embrace their decision as well. Unfortunately, most of these popularized diets are based upon scientific rhetoric. They often use encouraging language and small bits of science (often taken out of context) to try to create a compelling message. They want you to join them. As a scientist and a as a physician, I find this troubling because it often has a negative impact upon the care of my patients. For example, let’s consider gluten.
Gluten is a combination of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, oats and various other grains. It has become a very prominent part of our diet because these proteins help dough to rise and retain their shape in baked goods. Although gluten has been vilified by some recent nutritional gurus; many foods that contain these proteins have major health benefits. These whole grain foods are attributed with a lower risk of developing obesity, diabetes, heart disease and various types of cancer. It is estimated that about 1-2% of us may have a true allergy or autoimmune disease (Celiac disease) as a reaction to these proteins. So let’s consider the possible health benefit for the other 98% of the population.
Gluten is also a prebiotic. Prebiotics are the nutrients necessary to help the healthy bacteria thrive within your body. A common reason that many people today are taking probiotics is because their diet is not providing these healthy bacteria the nutrients that they need to survive. However, taking a probiotic is not sustainable without feeding these healthy bacteria so they can thrive. There is also evidence that gluten can be an immune booster.
Natural Killer cells (NK cells) are part of your body’s immune system. Despite their ominous sounding name, they serve a sort of security role. They are responsible for identifying and eliminating dangerous invaders like virus infected cells and potential tumor cells—they keep you healthy. Ironically, they also serve a critical role in promoting pregnancy. When functioning properly, they enhance the ability of an embryo to implant and thrive. New studies are now demonstrating that gluten can actually facilitate healthy NK cell activity. Whatever the reason, there is convincing evidence that gluten containing whole grains are associated with higher pregnancy rates in patients that are trying to conceive.
Patients undergoing IVF provide a unique opportunity to study interventions in a closely monitored setting. Recently, the impact of eating whole grains was investigated at Harvard University as part of the Environment and Reproductive Health (EARTH) study. In this study they were tracking whole grain content by following the diets of women going through IVF treatment. They found that women that were eating more whole grains had a higher pregnancy rate and a higher live birth rate (53% vs. 35%) than those eating little or no whole grains. In fact, at least one serving per day of a whole grain food was able to boost the odds of success by about 33%. Another recent study that was looking at comprehensive dietary patterns and success during Advanced Reproductive Treatment (ART) found that women eating whole grain cereals had about a 30% greater chance of fertilization and early embryo development and an almost a 60% greater chance of becoming pregnant. Finally when researchers measured the urine for a marker of whole grain food consumption in a healthy population of fertile women they found that those eating more gluten containing foods took fewer months to conceive naturally. Taken together, it seems that we should encourage women that are not truly allergic to gluten to eat more whole grain as part of their fertility boosting diet.