Ok, so perhaps the title of this post is a bad play on words. My apologies to Shakespeare! To be fair, the consumption of wheat and other gluten containing grains sparks a lot of debate among health conscious consumers these days. One side of the debate says that gluten is the root of all kinds of health problems. The other side says that gluten sensitivity is not real, and that “gluten free” is just a health fad that will soon fade away. In the meantime, the food industry has jumped into the tide and is riding the wave of the new gluten consciousness by offering an increasingly wide array of products emblazoned with “Gluten- Free!” on the packaging.
Indeed many people have realized significant improvements in their health from reduced digestive issues, to weight loss, to better energy, to clearer skin, and even a reduction of depression and brain fog, just by removing wheat from their diet. It would be easy to say “That’s it! Gluten is the culprit! Case closed!” Unfortunately, when it comes to our bodies, and our food, it is not that simple.
Is there more to wheat than just the gluten? Let’s explore.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I teach about something called “bio individuality,” which is just a fancy way of saying we are all different. We all have different genetics, different food histories, different activity levels, different food sensitivities and different metabolisms. There is no such thing as a diet that is perfect for everyone.
Having said that, there are foundational nutritional needs that we all share. Your body is a magnificent, complex organism with specific fuel needs (nutrients), to build, protect and maintain itself and to keep it running efficiently. We eat to give our bodies that specific fuel, and we also eat because it gives us pleasure. Ideally, the food choices we make will meet both of these criteria by being both nutrient dense and tasty!
The reality is that we tend to think about our food choices only in terms of taste, craving, convenience and habit. Unfortunately, thanks to processed foods, we are surrounded by convenient food choices that may be exciting to our taste buds, but are extremely lacking in nutrients, and even worse, are full of harmful and even addicting added ingredients. We need to rethink our relationship with food and consciously choose foods which are nutrient dense.
Before I go too far down that rabbit hole, let me explain how this relates to wheat:
FOODS MADE WITH WHEAT ARE ALMOST ALWAYS, HIGHLY PROCESSED, NUTRIENT POOR FOODS!
Wheat as we consume it today, usually comes in the form of processed wheat flour. During the processing of wheat, most of the nutrients and beneficial fiber are removed, leaving a nutritionally deficient product. Manufacturers are required to “enrich” the processed flour to return some of the nutrients lost in the refining process. This is done with synthetic vitamins and minerals which are inferior in their availability to the body. In addition, bleaching introduces potentially toxic by-products to the flour.
The grain from which we process wheat flour is quite different than the wheat commonly consumed just a few generations ago. Modern wheat has been subjected to selective breeding and hybridization many times over in the name of increased crop yield, and desirable characteristics for processed goods. The resulting wheat strain has a different gluten protein makeup than the wheat your great grandmother baked with.
Why is this an issue? Wheat contains about 10-15% protein. Gluten, or more specifically glutenins and gliadins, make up about 80% of the proteins contained in wheat. New hybrids of wheat contain more of these proteins and a larger variety of these proteins than heritage strains. Gliadins are the proteins that produce an immune response in an individual with Celiac disease. It is estimated that 1 in 133 Americans suffers from Celiac disease and as many as 30-50% may have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The reasons for the increase in diagnosis of those with adverse reaction to gluten/gliadin may be due to better testing or more awareness, but it may also be due to the change in gluten exposure available through every day modern wheat products.
Going Wheat free
Many people who avoid wheat have not been diagnosed for sensitivity through testing. For these people, they have simply made the decision to eliminate wheat and other grains from their diet, either as part of a dietary protocol, or as a way to self-experiment, and have concluded that they feel much better without the wheat. For those individuals, we cannot jump to the conclusion that it is the gluten that has made a difference.
What are some other reasons that eliminating wheat may lead to better health outcomes?
Phytates, Oxalates and Lectins, Oh My!
Beside the gluten proteins, wheat contains several other problematic substances including phytic acid, oxalic acid, and lectins. These are components of the grain are essential to the health and protection of the plant itself, but are less friendly to the predator who eats them (that’s us!) The primary reason that phytic acid and oxalic acid are a problem is their ability to bind to minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and others, preventing them from being absorbed through digestion. So while it is true that grains contain beneficial minerals, those minerals are not available to us because of the presence of these mineral binding acids. They instead pass through our digestive tract. This can cause mineral deficiencies to develop as a result of a diet high in grains.
Lectins are especially unfriendly. Their job is to protect the whole grain from being digested so they can live another day to reproduce. I guess grains don’t really want to be eaten! Lectins protect the grain by interfering with the absorption of nutrients through the lining of your intestinal tract. For this reason they are called “anti-nutrients”. Lectins and gluten proteins can work together to damage the intestinal lining and cause increased intestinal permeability in a condition referred to as “leaky gut.” Leaky gut causes immune disruption and inflammation. It has been implicated in the development of autoimmune conditions.
Lectins can also interfere with insulin and leptin receptors on your cells. These two hormones control the storage of fat and hunger/satiety respectively. When insulin reception is disrupted, and when satiety signals are not heard, body fat storage will increase.
Jump aboard the carb/sugar roller coaster
What a minute, I thought we were discussing wheat, not sugar!
Hang in there with me, I AM talking about wheat, but now I’m talking about the carbohydrate component of this food. Wheat contains a specific carbohydrate called Amylopectin A. When broken down by digestion, this carbohydrate is rapidly converted to glucose (simple sugar) in the body. It rushes to the blood stream and sends your blood sugar soaring, similar to the effect of having eaten a candy bar or other sugar laden snack.
Like sugar, this results in a strong insulin response to attempt to store the excess glucose. Unless there is an immediate need for stored glycogen, storage defaults to the fat cells. In the case of Amylopectin A, this storage usually collects as a dangerous type of visceral fat (abdominal fat). When this spike in blood sugar happens repeatedly during the day, and then is repeated day after day, week after week, insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity (particularly abdominal fat), heart disease and even cancer risks go up too.
How about some Agricultural chemicals with that bowl of Wheaties?
Non- organic farmers use pesticides and herbicides on their crops to prevent damage from insects, to kill weeds and occasionally as a desiccant to dry out the crop for easier harvest. Traces of these chemicals remain in the harvested grain, and I, for one, am not convinced that these chemicals are safe in any quantity. They were not used a few generations ago.
I have no clinical evidence to prove the theory, but I cannot help but be curious about the rise in wheat sensitivity at the same time there is a significant rise in the use of agricultural chemicals.
So, what is a bread lover to do?
If you are trying to make changes in the way you think about food, and choose foods based on how they fuel your body, you need to make nutrient dense choices. This article has described reasons that conventional, food industry wheat products, are a nutrient poor and potentially damaging choice.
But are there ways to mitigate some of the negative aspects of this beloved food? Can wheat still be a choice for me?
First, know your own body. We talked about the incidence of gluten sensitivity. Are you one of the people affected by gluten grains? Do you even know? You can do a simple elimination of all gluten containing foods for a period of 3-4 weeks, carefully observing how you feel. You may initially experience feelings of achiness, lethargy and irritability because you may literally going through a mild withdrawal. You have probably heard someone jokingly say “I’m addicted to bread!” There is actually some truth to this. Wheat triggers some of the same receptors in the brain as drugs.
After the initial days of elimination you may experience more energy, a reduction of digestive discomfort, and a reduction of other symptoms that you didn’t know could be related to wheat consumption. At the end of your trial period, you can choose to add wheat back to your diet and again observe if symptoms return, or you can decide to leave it out because you like the way you feel!
If you do not notice a significant difference with or without wheat, and genuinely desire to leave it in your diet, let’s talk about other ways to make wheat a healthier choice .
Bake with Ancient Grains
If you do your own baking, try using flour from an ancient variety of wheat such as Einkorn. Because this strain of wheat has not been subjected to changes in protein makeup due to hybridization, it lacks some of the problematic gliadins that are specifically implicated in celiac immune response. Some non-celiac gluten sensitive people can actually tolerate Einkorn. Jovial Foods produces Einkorn general-purpose flour which can be found at certain natural foods markets. *Celiac patients should still be cautious. The safety of Einkorn wheat for celiac patients has not been established conclusively, and cross-contamination with other glutens in the manufacturing facility is still a possibility. I am not recommending Einkorn wheat to those who suffer from Celiac disease.
Choose Unbleached, Organic, Sprouted Whole grain and/or Traditional Sourdough preparations
Organic grains are produced without the use of toxic agricultural chemicals. Enough said.
Sprouting and fermenting whole grains helps to neutralize some of the phytic acid and lectins in the grain. This improves the availability of the minerals and makes the product more easily digestible. Sprouted grain breads are becoming more popular and more available in the market. Sourdough is a form of fermentation or natural leavening without the use of yeast. The process produces a characteristic “tang”.
For both sprouted grain breads and sourdough or naturally leavened breads, you must read the labels carefully. Most sprouted grain breads include added wheat gluten for texture reasons. Sprouting does not reduce gluten content in the grain, so if you are gluten sensitive – steer clear.
Sourdough bread is also tricky. Do not assume that because the label says “sourdough”, that it is a naturally leavened product. Some manufacturers use yeast and flavor the product to give it a tangy sourdough like flavor, then label it sourdough. Real sourdough will have starter culture listed as an ingredient instead of yeast.
If you can find an artisan bread baker who uses organic sprouted grains, some ancient grains and natural leavening to produce their breads – that’s a definite win! There is such a baker in my hometown and it is worth an occasional splurge.
What about all those “Gluten-Free” products?
For the purposes of this article, I have focused my attention on wheat. Note that most of the information I shared can also apply to other cereal grains. Hopefully, by now I have convinced you that gluten is not the only downside to wheat and other grains.
Most gluten free replacements for breads, crackers, pasta, cereals, cookies, muffins, etc. are also highly processed, nutrient poor, blood sugar spiking foods! Don’t be lured into thinking that “gluten free” equals “healthy!” Come on! A cookie is still a cookie, and Gluten free Cocoa Pebbles are still junk food!
If you are gluten sensitive, and even if you are not, consider taking a break from regular consumption of grain foods. There is a whole world of other delicious healthy choices out there. Introduce yourself to the produce aisle!
Fruitsand Vegetables anyone?
Jayson Calton, Ph.D., and Mira Calton, CN, The Micronutrient Miracle. (New York, NY: Rodale, 2015)
William Davis, MD, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back To Health. (New York, NY: Rodale, 2011)
David Perlmutter, MD, Grain Brain (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company 2013)
Sally Fallon, Mary G. Enig, Ph.D., Nourishing Traditions. (Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, Inc., 2001)