Dr. Rodney Ford: Zero Gluten, Worldwide

dr. rodney ford
Dr. Rodney Ford. © Dr. Rodney Ford

New Zealand pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. Rodney Ford believes gluten is unhealthy for almost everyone, and predicts most health-conscious individuals will come around to his way of thinking eventually.

"There will be zero gluten worldwide in a couple of generations," he says. "In New Zealand, in about five to 10 years, cigarettes will be banned from shops — New Zealand will become a smoke-free country.

Gluten causes equally as many health problems as cigarettes. In a generation or two, any discerning consumer is going to be gluten-free."

Dr. Ford hypothesizes that gluten harms people — those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity alike — through a direct effect on the neurological system, which he terms "the gluten syndrome."

As one of the most outspoken proponents of the idea that gluten harms far more people than just those who have celiac disease, Dr. Ford published a study in 2009 outlining his gluten syndrome neurological hypothesis. He also has published a book called The Gluten Syndrome: Is Wheat Causing You Harm?

I had the chance to talk with Dr. Ford recently about gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and his thoughts on current research. His views on the prevalence of gluten sensitivity and on gluten's neurological effects are far from mainstream, and as such haven't been accepted by mainstream medical professionals, but that doesn't deter Dr. Ford — he says he's just ahead of his time.

Here are some of the questions I asked him, and his answers:

How did you first realize gluten might be a problem for some of your patients?

I began medicine in pediatrics, and I often saw children with sore tummies, eczema and irritability. In a normal population, experts expected about 10% of children to be like this, and it was regarded as normal.

I was not happy with this answer. I noticed a lot of these children had food-allergic troubles. A lot of the children were reacting to eggs and dairy.

The next step for me was in 1990 there was a new test promoted by the celiac doctors — the anti-gliadin antibody blood test — and when that test came out we began to do it on a lot of children.

One little child — Elizabeth — had severe reflux disease. I organized a third endoscopy for celiac disease [Elizabeth already had had two endoscopies looking for celiac], which she did not have. Then I did that test, and it was high. I prescribed a gluten-free diet, and her mother came back to me and said, 'Dr. Ford, it's a miracle, Elizabeth is better!' She was happy and smiling, and she had never been better. She's now in her 30s, and whenever she gets gluten she gets sick ... but she doesn't have celiac disease.

I began to put more and more people on gluten-free diets, but found some doctors opposed it. It's the strangest thing to me — it's interesting how physicians are quite happy to have children on egg-free and dairy-free diets, but there's fixation that celiac disease is the only condition caused by gluten. I've been arguing with people — why can't wheat proteins cause a wide variety of conditions, just like cow's milk?

I can't see why they would deny someone the opportunity of a diet that makes them feel better, but they're happy to give them medications.

What effects does gluten have in someone with gluten sensitivity? How does this differ from celiac disease?

Gluten will do several things. In people with the appropriate genetics, it will stimulate villous atrophy and celiac disease. It also will act as a neurotoxin in various ways. Gluten also can trigger autoimmune diseases — about one in four people develop an autoimmune disease. It's been shown that gluten is part of that trigger for autoimmune disease. Once you've got an autoimmune disease, you can't stop it by avoiding gluten.

If you want to avoid triggering autoimmune disease, you have to give up gluten now.

Dealing with celiac disease, in the 1960s, the first biopsies were done. The medical profession is very keen to get histological diagnosis of anything. In the 1970s, celiac disease was diagnosed as villous atrophy on endoscopy. That's still the definition, even though it's been modified slightly. Gastroenterologists are hanging onto this idea that the only way you can diagnose celiac is through endoscopy. If you don't have villous atrophy, you don't have celiac disease.

With gluten sensitivity, we've got a diagnostic problem. There is no satisfactory blood test for gluten sensitivity. The only test that is available is the AGA-IgG antibody test, but that test has been abandoned by just about every lab because it's not useful for diagnosing celiac disease.

Do you believe wheat is bad for everyone, or just for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity?

Should anyone eat wheat? My goal is a gluten-free planet. There's enough evidence now to show most people would be better off not eating gluten. It's possible to find food with no detectable gluten if you choose produce and meats at farm markets, but as soon as you go through a food processing facility, then you are liable to get gluten cross-contamination.

The argument is, it's not practical to have zero gluten and to ask manufacturers to be zero gluten. I would argue the other way around: if you demand zero gluten — if you demand food that's made in processing plants that do not have wheat at all, and you give that demand to the manufacturers — then the manufacturers are going to come up with zero gluten products. If you raise the bar, the manufacturers will come through.

I have suggested several times that labeling should be a three-stage process: gluten-containing foods, foods that have "low gluten" — below 20 parts per million — and foods with zero ppm.

I think the population is going to demand zero gluten. I don't think it's fair to have the [food processing] system on the side of the manufacturer — I think it ought to be on the side of the consumer. I think cross-contamination is a huge problem, and that is an area we have to get a handle on.

What do you recommend that your patients eat?

Most of the children I deal with get better on an almost zero gluten diet. The parents can't be expected to be zero gluten in the household. Many in the household, particularly the dads, don't want to do that.

I tell them to avoid cookies and chips — all the things with additives in them. It's a 'no packet' diet. If people would eat meat, fruit and vegetables with a little bit of grain, it would be a perfect diet. If they remain sick, it would be my advice to go to 'no packet' food [i.e., no processed foods] and to a gluten-free household.

How do you diagnose children with gluten sensitivity?

First of all, I look for celiac disease. I'll still do an endoscopy and go through the current medical guidelines [for diagnosing celiac]. If that's negative, I'll do the AGA-IgG test. If that test is positive, then I will suggest a gluten-free diet for three months for a trial. It always takes a couple of months to get into the gluten-free swing of things.

I do IgG tests on everyone with chronic symptoms, but a lot of people with negative IgG antibodies will still react. Blood tests are not yet accurate enough to include or exclude people with gluten syndrome.

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