Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Daniel Plan: Gluten, Wheat, & Celiac

Daniel 10:3 - "I ate no rich food. No meat or wine crossed my lips, and i used no fragrant lotions until those 3 weeks had passed." (NLT)

I've been a fan of Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church for a number of years. His book A Purpose Driven Life guided my post-graduate degree decisions back in 2003. So when I found out he was publishing a "40 days to healthier living" book, I ordered it so I could continue to grow both spiritually and healthy. Being a Registered Dietitian, I have a weakness for these types of books, my shelves are cluttered with them. When it arrived, I of course went first to the "Foods to Lose" chapter which I opened with trepidation because I truly wondered which foods readers were going to be advised to "lose".

As a farmer, I'm a stickler for facts about agriculture and am tired of folks not in farming, spouting half truths and outright lies about agriculture to further their own agenda or line their own pockets. . If the book misfires in "foods to lose", then its pretty much over...

and indeed, it was over for The Daniel Plan.

Here is why professionally as a farmer and an RD, I'm returning The Daniel Plan.

"The heirloom biblical wheat of our ancestors is something modern humans never eat. Instead, we eat dwarf wheat, the product of genetic manipulation and hybridization, that created short, stubby, hardy, high-yielding wheat plants with much higher amounts of starch and gluten."

This is flawed for a couple of reasons:

1. USDA researcher Donald Karsada published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and analysis of historical wheat protein data which show that there has been no significant increase in wheat gluten.His research publication is linked here: Can an Increase in Celiac Disease Be Attributed to an Increase in the Gluten Content of Wheat as a Consequence of Wheat Breeding? Since 1925 to current data, wheat protein has averaged 10-18%.

NPR featured a show on this topic back in the fall which can be found here: Doctors Say Changes In Wheat Do Not Explain Rise Of Celiac Disease

2. USDA's National Small Grains Collection reports that both heirloom and modern wheat varieties have straw lengths ranging between 12" and 60" in length.

Some other facts about wheat, wheat intake, and gluten:.

In fact wheat consumption has declined from 2000 to 2012.

Source: USDA Wheat Year Book, Table 29

In addition, the premise that wheat consumption has contributed to obesity is also flawed. The table below shows peak wheat consumption  in the late 1800s, when, if wheat caused obesity, we would have been at our heaviest.
Source: Kasarda DD J Agric Food Chem. 2013 Feb 13;61(6):1155-9.

So what's the real cause of our obesity crisis? Calories! We're eating over 600 calories a day more than we were 4 decades ago!

Source: Dr. Julie Miller Jones
So look again, the first chart is USDA data showing the decline of wheat consumption and the 3rd chart is showing increasing calories since 1970. Still think its wheat?

Research shows whole grains have been associated with lower abdominal fat. The Framingham Heart Study (n=2834) compared visceral adipose tissue (VAT) to whole grain consumption and found that whole grain consumption lowered the amount of visceral fat. Visceral fat is the "cushion" around your vital organs but also is the fat that accumulates in excess in your abdominal area (think apple versus pear shaped). So think about the difference between whole grain and refined grain products. The difference in refining isn't changing the gluten in the wheat, it is changing the fiber content, while the processing into cookies, donuts, etc... adds fat and calories.

Source: McKeown et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2010; 92:1165-71
The lowest visceral fat noted in the front center column are those people who at 2 enriched and 3 whole grains daily.

But here was the refund real clincher for me - The book then goes on to say:

"The dwarf wheat grown in the United States has changed the quality and type of gluten protein in wheat, creating much higher gluten content, and creating a super-gluten that causes celiac disease and autoimmune antibodies."

Let me repeat that - the books specifically says "creating a super-gluten that causes celiac disease" (page 123)

I was done. I closed the book and was so utterly disappointed that Pastor Warren would associate himself with such misguided medical information. i couldn't even read the rest of the book. Chapter 4 closed the book for me because of a simple but very wrong medical statement.  I GET that he wants his congregation and himself  to get healthy. I applaud their success and their efforts BUT hear me when I say GLUTEN DOESN'T CAUSE CELIAC DISEASE!

The National Institutes of Health - Digestive Diseases Center states that celiac is a genetic autoimmune disease. 97% of people with celiac disease have the HLA-DQ-2 or the HLA-DQ-8 gene which predisposes them to celiac. This does not mean they necessarily develop celiac but usually have some triggering event such as surgery, pregnancy, viral infection, etc... It is detected by a blood test and confirmed by an intestinal biopsy. Less than 1% of the US population has celiac disease. Additionally, there is wheat allergy which less than 1% of people have and gluten sensitivity which afflicts approximately 6% of the population.

Source: WSJ: Clues to Gluten Sensitivity

Different from the many gluten-free fad diets, celiac is a very serious medical condition requiring the elimination of gluten from the diet. But the gluten-free market is a $3 billion food market. Books like The Daniel Plan and others that misrepresent celiac do true disservice to the medical condition.

Finally, what is NOT covered in this "Foods to Lose" chapter is the fact that barley, rye, and triticale also contain gluten. One of the chapter's subtitles is "Is Wheat Dangerous? The Problem With Gluten" but then makes NO mention of the other grains with gluten. So is the problem gluten, or is the problem wheat? Because you can't talk about one without the other and then leave out other grains that contain gluten. This type of misinformation does the reader a real disservice.

I applaud Pastor Warren and the Saddleback congregation for their weight loss and their efforts to grow healthy and spiritually. We Christians are told in the Book of I Corinthians 6:19 & 20 that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that we don't own them, that we received them from God and should honor God through how we treat them. Each of our approaches may be different through diet, exercise and other choices we make that honor or dishonor God with the way we use our bodies. But we also honor God with the truth, and the truth is, there are too many factual errors about wheat, gluten and celiac disease in The Daniel Plan. It was truly disappointing for me as a fan of Rick Warren.

Biblical Daniel did not give up wheat or other whole grains. He did not go gluten-free.

Many thanks to Dr. Julie Miller Jones, PhD, LN, CNS for contributing her assistance and information to this blog. 


  1. I recently heard about "the Daniel plan" and this sheds a great deal of light on the subject. Your expertise as a farmer and a dietitian make you aware of factual issues that would escape others. Thanks for taking the time to write it and honor God with the truth.

    1. Thanks Barbara, I was so hopeful that this book would be a solid guide to healthful and spiritual living but sadly, it is too inaccurate on the health and nutrition side for me to keep. It may very well have some excellent spiritual guidance but there are plenty of other books out there that can do the same without misguided nutrition recommendations.

  2. Great blog, Jennie. I recently found the Karsada article from J Agric Food Chem and it is excellent.

    1. Thanks Neva, I just recently found it as well. It was pretty eye opening too when you look at long term wheat consumption data and weight trends that they are inverse.

  3. Thanks for delineating the facts and the truth so well, and for the excellent references, Jen! I've met a few fellow Christians who have been raving about this plan -- folks who've been following it to lose the 5-8 odd lbs they've gained in their middle years -- and then spouting all kinds of Biblical 'truth' associated with their 'holy diet', and I tried to get them to tell me exactly what they were doing and why, and, naturally, they couldn't really explain, but I had NO idea it was based on this book from Rick Warren! I did reply to these folks that I'm happy they dropped their weight and feel better, but, that it was probably more due to coincidentally omitting or decreasing their hi-sugary, hi-fat foods and beer intake than to the 'evil hi-gluten' foods, and that their need to lose 8 lbs is different from the needs of a 50+lb obese, compulsive eater with other complex issues and (patho)physiology, but, per usual, they were only interested in their own fervor about 'seeing the light'! Such a dangerous disservice done with this book! I, too, am weary with 'whomever' coming out with half-truths and simple solutions in order to ride a wave of fame or fortune.

    1. Thanks MJ. There are other Daniel based books out there of varying popularity. It really does come down to the choices we make in our food selections and the volume of some of those selections. But sadly, this book can't redeem itself from statements such as "gluten causes celiac".

  4. Love this article (hope you don't mind if I use it as a reference for a future blog post!). Any surprise that he's included "Dr." Oz as part of his team on this? Oz is known for spreading ridiculous lies. No wonder Rick got it wrong.

    1. Don't mind at all. I don't think Pastor Warren meant to make such factual medical errors but was given very poor advice and didn't do the necessary research to verify what was published... at least that's what I hoped happened!

  5. I'm currently reading The Daniel Plan for review purposes, but I have other interests too. I am a special education teacher and I often wonder about diet with my students. Then on page 119 the authors mentioned a link between gluten and autism which kind of got me thinking. Also, being a Type II diabetic, I have been mulling much of what is said about wheat and other aspects of my diet.

    I may have a newer edition because on page 119, the authors do mention that gluten is found in 'wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats.' I don't know if that matters or not. I think it would be terribly difficult to eliminate all wheat from the diet, but your post has encouraged me to to worry about it so much. Thanks for writing.


    1. It does say that on page 119 but you wouldn't know that from the heading on page 122. If gluten is the problem, then it should not be titled "Is Wheat Dangerous". Really for me, the fact that Rick Warren, a pastor I respected, was part of this book really saddened me. Whole grains are excellent for folks with T2D. Whole grains are excellent for kids with autism. Whole grains are excellent for regularity, weight control, cancer risk reduction, cholesterol reduction and a plethora of other benefits. Chapter 4 demonizing whole grains is truly disappointing. Thanks for your comment.

    2. I hope you didn't take my comment as negative. I was encouraged by your OP. What bothers me about the book, and frankly what bothers me about a great deal of Warren's writing, is the way he uses Scripture. To be sure, the book of Daniel has *nothing* to do whatsoever with diet, health, and exercise. I suppose that's another post, for another time. Anyhow, thanks for the post and the reply.


  6. What an excellent article. I shall repost it and link you to my own site:

    What do you think of Dr. William Davis's work on Wheat Belly?


  7. Very interesting looking post and I must appraise your efforts to write this post.
    Click Here : 2006 Cat 140H (616) w/10365 Hrs For Sale at $98k