For years, film production designer Siddharth Sirohi struggled with stomach issues. Doctors were of little help. Then, last year, he began to do his own research, connecting with foreign experts over the internet. In January, he began experimenting with his diet, eliminating wheat and sugar among other things. Since then, he’s been feeling much better and now plans to continue avoiding refined flour. “I’ve found I’m sensitive to it,” he said. “Rice is easier to digest.”
For decades, urban Indians were told to swap rice, especially the white variety, for chapatis. The trend was driven initially by the weight conscious -with a generation of gym-instructors inflicting a two-roti ration -and spurred by the diabetes epidemic. Today, however, concern about gluten in wheat is pushing some urban elites to choose rice over chapatis -including the long-vilified white rice. Some who’ve eliminated wheat on their daily plate say they feel better or are losing weight.
Such anecdotes appear to contradict conventional wisdom and run counter to broader trends. (Rice consumption has stabilised in Asia and wheat has caught up; over consumption of refined cereals remains a key issue for most Indians.) So how scientifically sound is this anti-wheat, pro-rice niche trend?
As with most nutrition science, the answer is annoyingly complex.
Most nutritionists say whole-wheat chapatis are healthier than white rice -and that gluten-free is just another internet-spread fad. “It’s become almost fashionable today to say `I am gluten intolerant’,” says south Mumbai dietician Niti Desai. However, only a tiny percentage of people have celiac disease; these people can’t tolerate even traces of gluten. Another small number, including some with irritable bowel syndrome, may be sensitive to gluten, feeling bloated after eating wheat. “But most of us need not avoid wheat,” she says.
Evidence about gluten is still evolving, says US obesity researcher and neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet. So far data suggests most people who feel better without gluten are experiencing a placebo effect. Also many foods containing gluten -pastries, cakes, biscuits -are unhealthy in other ways. “Foods made from flour are some of the most fattening, unhealthy items in our diets,” he notes.
Dr Ronesh Sinha, an internal medicine specialist in Silicon Valley, has a slightly different take. He used to think the anti-gluten theory was a fad but has since seen many of his Indian patients respond well to eliminating wheat, especially those with inflammatory or thyroid conditions. “South Asians tend to have digestive issues,” he says.
Gluten is not the only objection to wheat. In line with a new skepticism about the Green Revolution, some like Sirohi believe that modern wheat strains are not as healthy as ancient ones.
The perception of rice has also become more complicated. Although white rice is notoriously bad for diabetics, a 2012 study of 235 rice varieties found that some strains scored low on the glycemic index (a measure of how fast your blood sugar spikes after eating a food). Sinha says some of his diabetic patients have found both wheat and rice leading to an equal rise in glucose levels.
And while whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat are undoubtedly healthier, being less glycemic, more fibrous and with higher vitamin and mineral content, they do have a downside.Phytic acid in the husk hampers absorp tion of certain minerals including calcium, iron and zinc.
So what’s a health conscious person to do? Variety is the solution, says dietician Desai. She advocates consuming more nutritious grains like millets as well as broken wheat or daliya.
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