Sub-Clinical Gluten Sensitivity May Trigger Addictive Cravings, Obesity and Diabetes II in African-Americans

A plethora of theories have emerged in recent years in an effort to account for the dramatic rise in obesity and Type II Diabetes among African-Americans.  The dominant arguments are socio-economic, looking at the limited food choices available in impoverished communities.[0] However, two recent studies refute the “food desert” premise, in which the growing obesity problem among minorities is blamed on the preponderance of fast food establishments and convenience stores in predominantly black and poor neighborhoods.  Research findings published by Roland Sturm, Ph.D. and Ruopeng An, MPP, in a February 2012 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine resonated with an independent study carried out by Dr. Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California, which drew similar conclusions.  These researchers found no evidence that fresh vegetables at reasonable prices were unavailable to residents of impoverished neighbors.[1]  But neither did these studies offer persuasive alternative theories. Thus, public health researchers continue to flounder for answers to the  skyrocketing weight-gain crippling the lives of many blacks.  However, it might be the historical record itself, which promises to offer the most penetrating insights into the nature and etiology of the obesity problem in the African-American community.    

Not only do blacks suffer from the highest rates of obesity in the United States, but a July 2009 issue of the Centers for Disease Control Weekly reported that African-American women have a fifty-one percent greater change of being overweight than their white counterparts.[2]  The earliest statistical indication of a weight problem within this minority group goes back to the 1960s, a moment in time that also happens to coincide with radical shifts in African-American dietary patterns. That is, the successes of the Civil Rights Movement caused growing numbers of newly-arrived middle class blacks to shift away from the traditional black diet of gumbos, cornbread and herb-seasoned stews served over rice.  They had come to associate these types of meals with poverty.[3]  More mainstream American dietary patterns were adopted instead, dominated by gluten, which included sandwiches, hamburgers, pizza and baked goods.[4]

However, a careful reading of slave literature hints at a hidden obesity problem among blacks that goes all the way back to the Antebellum South, at least within one occupational class, that of the “black mammy.”  A contemporary repugnance for this racialized, female caricature of the loving and loyal, slave cook, nurse and nanny are more than justified.  However, rejection of the stereotype should not obscure an empirical detail, which may prove of incalculable value in unraveling the present-day problem of black obesity.  Most plantation slaves who labored in the cotton or tobacco or rice fields were malnourished, subsisting on rice, cornmeal, vegetables from truck gardens they kept, and occasional pieces of pork.  The domestic female slave, that is the “mammy,”  on the other hand, ate scraps and leftover chicken breaded in flour, rolls and pies from the meals she prepared for the plantation owner’s family.   And as literary references to the slave cook confirm, she ballooned in size. While a generation of scholars have dismissed the  over-large proportions of the so-called mammy as pure caricature, the robust physiology of the slave women who cooked the white families’ meals and ate their gluten-containing leftovers, is in all probability the only part of the mammy stereotype that was real.[5]  

But does it matter that these  female domestics  sought shelter from the misery of bondage  in the kitchen and the leftover baked goods from the whites’ meals?  It does, if the mammy’s obesity derived from addictive cravings for foods that remained alien to the diet of most blacks until the middle of the twentieth century.  That is, a well-established medical literature already exists on the differential effects of introducing certain complex organic compounds to population groups, who had previously been unfamiliar with them.[6]  The starkest example was the devastating effect alcohol had on Native Americans, the Southern African Khoisan,  Australian aboriginals, and other traditional hunter-gatherer groups.  Their bodies did not possess a gene that would allow them to produce sufficient amounts of the alcohol-dehydrogenase enzyme, used in the metabolism of alcohol. On the other hand, Europeans and the West African ancestors of American blacks came from farming societies.  Because cereal-grains constituted the core of their ancestral diets, the consumption of alcohol played a familiar role in their digestive chemistry.[7]However, one crucial food element did distinguish the diet of blacks from that of whites.  The grains cultivated in West Africa – rice, millet, sorghum and cassava – did not contain gluten, while European crops of wheat, barley, and rye, did.

 Gluten has been shown, in recent medical reports, to trigger a sub-clinical but nevertheless, intense food craving in some individuals, which is not unlike the alcoholic’s response to grain ethanol and often leads to obesity.[8]   The body’s  reaction  to gluten in this case is not, however, as severe as the well-studied  symptoms of celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder of the small intestines of genetically predisposed individuals.  However, no clinical studies have yet looked at gluten sensitivity, vulnerability to gluten addiction, and gluten-fueled obesity  as a function of ethnic ancestry.  The need for these types of studies are urgent as even federal nutritional guidelines encouraging all Americans to eat more whole wheat rather than white bread could be contributing to the obesity problem.  


[0] For more than three decades, educational and income inequalities have been identified in the medical literature for lack of access both to preventive health care and healthy foods.  See Robert J. Blendon, Linda H. Aiken, Howard E. Freeman, and Christopher R. Corey, “Access to Health Care for Black and White Americans: A Matter of Continuing Concern,” Journal of the American Medical Association 261 (1989): 278-81 and M. W. Herndon, “The Poor: Their Medical Needs and the Health Services Available to Them,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 399 (1972): 12-21. On the economic dimensions of obesity indicating that the quality of diets is higher and the incidence of obesity lower in the upper income and wealth groups, see A. Drewnowski and S. E. Specter, “Poverty and Obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 79 (2004): 6-16, A. Drewnowski and N. Darmon, “”The Economics of Obesity: Dietary Energy Density and Energy Cost,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Volume 82, Number 1 [Supplement] (2005): 265S-273S.
[1] Roland Sturm, Ph.D. and Ruopeng An, MPP,  “School and Residential Neighborhood Food Environment and Diet Among California Youth,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 42, Issue 2 , Pages 129-135, February 2012.  A study by Dr. Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California drew similar conclusions.“The role of local food availability in explaining obesity risk among young school-aged children,” Social Science & Medicine, Volume 74, Issue 8, April 2012, Pages 1193–1203.

[2] Kumanyika S: “Obesity in black Women,” Epidemiology Review, 1987; 9:31-50.
[2] Centers for Disease Control Weekly;  July 17, 2009, 58 (27);  “Differences in Prevalence of Obesity Among Black, White, and Hispanic Adults --- United States, 2006—2008.”
[3] Author Elisa Janine Sobo, describes in the following incident in One Blood: the Jamaican Body, State University of New York at Albany, Albany (NY), 1993, p.91:  I remember one mother scolding her daughter for eating a dinner of steamed rice by the roadside instead of behind the house; any passersby might look into the dish and see all she had provided for her child was ‘so- so’ rice—poor folks’ food.”
[4] Andrea Freeman, “Fast Food: Oppression through Poor Nutrition,” California Law Review
Vol. 95, No. 6 (Dec., 2007), pp. 2221-2259.  The black obesity issue has been researched as a function of fast food restaurants, which also began to proliferate in the 1960s.  African-Americans faced the same economic and time constraints as whites.  However, the emphasis in such research has been on the unhealthy nature of fast food, rather than a particular food substance, such as gluten.
[5] An interesting descriptive account of “the mammy” appears  in a January 1867 speech entitled:  “Changes Wrought by the War,” in which the author, Zebulon Baird Vance,”  opines:   “Who can forget the cook by whom his youthful appetite was fed. . . and then too, plainest of all, I can see the fact and chubby form of my dear old nurse, whose encircling arms of love fondled and supported me from the time whereof the memory of this man runneth not to the contrary. All the strong love of her simple and faithful nature seemed bestowed on [Pg 364] her mistress’ children, which she was not permitted to give to her own, long, long ago left behind and dead in “ole Varginney.”  [Accessed June 2012]/

[6] NUTRITIONAL ADAPTATION:  [Accessed June 2012]

[7] "Alcohol and Tolerance". National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), Alcohol Alert (28). April 1995.  [Accessed June 2012]
Also see, Osier M.V., Pakstis A.J., Soodyall H., Comas D., Goldman D., Odunsi A., Okonofua F., Parnas J., Schulz L.O., Bertranpetit J., Bonne-Tamir B., Lu R.B., Kidd J.R., Kidd K.K.(2002): “ global perspective on genetic variation at the ADH genes reveals unusual patterns of linkage disequilibrium and diversity,” American Journal of Human Genetics no 71: pp 84-99.
[8]  Fukudome, S., Yoshikawa, M., January 1993, "Gluten Exorphin C: A Novel Opioid Peptide Derived from Wheat Gluten," FEBS Letters, 18, 316(1), 17-9. Food Craving and Food
As early as 1979 medical researchers had begun identifying proteins (peptides) capable of acting like the body’s own narcotics. Gluten exorphins are peptides isolated from pepsin hydrolysates of wheat gluten. They have morphine-like opioid activity and can act like the body's own narcotics, the endorphins; see Zioudrou C, Streaty RA, Klee WA (1979). “The Exorphins,” Journal of Biological chem. 254:2446-2449.


Popular Posts