Wheat and grain-based foods are all around us. We love our bagels, pasta, bread, and breakfast cereals. For many, the thought of eliminating these staples from our diets seems wholly unreasonable, if not ludicrous. But a growing number of people are switching to wheat-free diets — and for very good reason. As science is increasingly showing, eating wheat increases the potential for a surprising number of health problems. Here's why you should probably stop eating wheat.
Without a doubt, wheat plays a major role in our diets. It supplies about 20% of the total food calories worldwide, and is a national staple in most countries.
But as is well known, some people, like those with celiac disease, need to stay away from it. The problem is that their small intestine is unable to properly digest gluten, a protein that's found in grains. But wheat is being increasingly blamed for the onset of other health conditions, like obesity, heart disease, and a host of digestive problems — including the dramatic rise in celiac-like disorders.
So what's going on? And why is everybody suddenly blaming wheat?
The answer, it appears, has to do with a whole lot of nastiness that's present in grain-based foods. Wheat raises blood sugar levels, causes immunoreactive problems, inhibits the absorption of important minerals, and aggravates our intestines.
And much of this may stem from the fact that wheat simply ain't what it used to be.
Indeed, today's wheat is a far cry from what it was 50 years ago.
Back in the 1950s, scientists began cross-breeding wheat to make it hardier, shorter, and better-growing. This work, which was the basis for the Green Revolution — and one that won U.S. plant scientist Norman Borlaug the Nobel Prize — introduced some compounds to wheat that aren't entirely human friendly.
As cardiologist Dr. William Davis noted in his book, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health, today's hybridized wheat contains sodium azide, a known toxin. It also goes through a gamma irradiation process during manufacturing.
But as Davis also points out, today's hybridized wheat contains novel proteins that aren't typically found in either the parent or the plant — some of which are difficult for us to properly digest. Consequently, some scientists now suspect that the gluten and other compounds found in today's modern wheat is what's responsible for the rising prevalence of celiac disease, "gluten sensitivity," and other problems.
No doubt, gluten is a growing concern — and it's starting to have a serious impact on our health, and as a result, our dietary choices.
Gluten is a protein composite of gliadin and glutenin that appears in wheat as well as other grains like rye, barley, and spelt. It's also what gives certain foods that wonderful, chewy texture. Gluten also helps dough to rise and keep its shape.
The problem, however, is in how it's metabolized. According to Alessio Fasano, the Medical Director for The University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research, no one can properly digest gluten.
"We do not have the enzymes to break it down," he said in a recent interview with TenderFoodie. "It all depends upon how well our intestinal walls close after we ingest it and how our immune system reacts to it." His concern is that the gluten protein, which is abundant in the endosperm of barley, rye, and wheat kernels, is setting off an aberrant immune response.
Specifically, the gliadin and glutenin are acting as immunogenic anti-nutrients. Unlike fruits, which are meant to be eaten, grains have a way of fighting back. They create an immunogenic response which increases intestinal permeability, thus triggering systemic inflammation by the immune system — what can lead to any number of autoimmune diseases, including celiac, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and so on. And this holds true for people who don't have celiac disease.
Davis also believes that gliadin degrades to a morphine-like compound after eating, what creates an appetite for more wheat; his claim, therefore, is that wheat actually has an addictive quality to it.
Gliadin, what scientists call the "toxic fraction of gluten," has also been implicated in gut permeability. When someone has an adverse reaction, it's because gliadin cross talks with our cells — what causes confusion and a leak in the small intestines. Fasano explains:
Gliadin is a strange protein that our enzymes can't break down from the amino acids (glutamine and proline) into elements small enough for us to digest. Our enzymes can only break down the gliadin into peptides. Peptides are too large to be absorbed properly through the small intestine. Our intestinal walls or gates, then, have to separate in order to let the larger peptide through. The immune system sees the peptide as an enemy and begins to attack.
The difference is that in a normal person, the intestinal walls close back up, the small intestine becomes normal again, and the peptides remain in the intestinal tract and are simply excreted before the immune system notices them. In a person who reacts to gluten, the walls stay open as long as you are consuming gluten. How your body reacts (with a gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy or Celiac Disease) depends upon how long the gates stay open, the number of "enemies" let through and the number of soldiers that our immune system sends to defend our bodies. For someone with Celiac Disease, the soldiers get confused and start shooting at the intestinal walls.
The effects of gluten and gliadin clearly vary from person to person. But as a recent study showed, nearly 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, and another 1.4 million are likely undiagnosed. And surprisingly, another 1.6 million have adopted a gluten-free diet despite having no diagnosis.
In addition, it's estimated that about 18 million Americans have "non-celiac gluten sensitivity," which results in cramps and diarrhea.
Wheat also raises blood sugar. As Davis notes, the glycemic index of wheat is very high (check out this chart from Harvard to see how various foods rank). It contains amylopectin A, which is more efficiently converted to blood sugar than just about any other carbohydrate, including table sugar.
Consequently, two slices of whole wheat bread increases blood sugar levels higher than a single candy bar. Overdoing the wheat, says Davis, can result in "deep visceral fat."
Wheat can also trigger effects that aren't immediately noticeable. Small low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particles form after eating lots of carbohydrates — which are responsible for atherosclerotic plaque, which in turn can trigger heart disease and stroke. And in fact, it has been shown that a wheat-free diet can improve glucose tolerance in individuals with ischaemic heart disease.
Lectins, which are a class of molecules, can be found in beans, cereal grains, nuts, and potatoes. And when consumed in excess, or when not cooked properly, they can be harmful.
Now, most lectins are actually quite benign, and in some cases they can even be therapeutic — like fighting some forms of HIV.
But the problem with some lectins, like the ones found in whole grains, is that they bind to our insulin receptors and intestinal lining. This increases inflammation and contributes to autoimmune disease and insulin resistance. It also facilitates the symptoms of metabolic syndrome outside of obesity.
Phytates are also a problem, a compound that's found within the hulls of nuts, seeds, and grains. Phytic acid cannot be digested by humans. And worse, it binds to metal ions like calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron. In turn, these minerals cannot be properly absorbed after eating.
Consequently, any minerals that might be provided by consuming grain-based foods are not well metabolized. So phytates, combined with gluten, make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients — which can lead to anemia and osteoporosis.
Lastly, a common argument in favor of continuing to eat whole grains is that they provide necessary fiber. This is actually a bit of a myth. As nutrition expert Mark Sisson has noted, "Apart from maintaining social conventions in certain situations and obtaining cheap sugar calories, there is absolutely no reason to eat grains."
And indeed, we can get adequate amounts of insoluble fiber simply by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Images: Top Morgan Lane Photography/Shutterstock. Inset: Zeljko Radojko/Shutterstock, JulijaSapic_Portfolio/Shutterstock, MedicineBulletin.