Wheat is a highly controversial food these days. It has long been a dietary pariah for the millions of people who have jumped on the low-carb-diet bandwagon or who think they’re allergic (or, at least, sensitive) to the grain. Now, even more people are hesitating about eating wheat after reading the claims made by William Davis, M.D., a cardiologist and author of the bestseller Wheat Belly, which is subtitled “Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health.”
“Not only does wheat make us fat”, Dr. Davis says. “It is addictive and causes everything from heart disease, diabetes and obesity to arthritis, osteoporosis, cognitive problems and cataracts.” In fact, he claims it has caused “more harm than any foreign terrorist can inflict on us.”
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a single villain behind the chronic health problems plaguing us, and if all it took to reverse them was to stop eating wheat? It’s true that those with celiac disease, which causes symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, cramps, weight loss, fatigue and more, do have good reason to avoid wheat. But for the rest of us, there doesn’t appear to be one sole dietary scoundrel.
Well, one inescapable fact is that humans have been consuming wheat, in one form or another, for thousands of years. It is an old food and most diet-related diseases are relatively new. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to blame old wheat for these new health problems.
However, it’s important to realize that wheat today is not the same as it was a thousand, one hundred or even 60 years ago.
Wheat is processed and prepared differently these days, which makes it less nutritious and more harmful than traditionally prepared wheat.
Modern wheat was introduced around the year 1960. It was developed via cross-breeding and crude genetic manipulation, which changed the nutrient and protein composition of the plant.
Modern Wheat and Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. When people with this disease eat wheat, the immune system in the gut mistakenly assumes that the gluten proteins are foreign invaders and mounts an attack.
However, the immune system doesn’t only attack the gluten proteins. It also attacks the gut lining itself, leading to degeneration of the intestinal lining, leaky gut, massive inflammation and various harmful effects.
Celiac disease has been on the rise for decades, increasing about fourfold in the past 45 years. Right now, about 1% of people have celiac disease. Another condition, called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is believed to be much more common, perhaps afflicting around 6-8% of people.
Gluten is actually not a single protein, it is a family of different proteins and only some of them are recognized by the immune system of celiac patients. One of the gluten proteins that seems to be problematic is called Glia-α9. One study found that the amount of this protein is significantly higher in modern wheat.
Therefore, many researchers have speculated that modern wheat, due to its higher amount of problematic glutens, may be worse for celiac patients than older varieties of wheat. Relative to older wheat varieties, modern wheat has adverse effects on cholesterol, blood mineral content and inflammatory markers, potentially contributing to disease.
There have been claims that wheat is the main culprit behind the obesity epidemic and has played an outsized role in surging rates of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic disorders. There’s no evidence that wheat bears special blame for these. Wheat is a staple in most parts of the world, and there’s little or no correlation between regional intakes (as a proportion of daily calories) and rates of obesity. Blood sugar does rise after eating bread, pasta and other wheat products. But that’s true of any foods containing carbohydrates—even those in gluten-free products—especially if the grains are refined.
The effect of carbohydrate-rich foods on blood sugar, which is ranked by the “glycemic index” (GI), depends on many factors including how much fiber is in the food, how the food is processed and prepared and what else is in the meal. Wheat ranks moderately high on the GI. But research looking at the effect of a high-GI diet on weight control and the risk of diabetes and heart disease has had inconsistent results.
Refined wheat, like other starchy or sugary foods, can also have adverse effects on blood cholesterol and triglycerides—for instance, increasing levels of the small, dense LDL (low density lipoproteins) cholesterol particles that are most damaging. To avoid this, you needn’t avoid all wheat or go on a very-low-carb diet. Just choose other whole wheat products such as bulgur or barley which are minimally refined or unrefined, and don’t go overboard.
There have also been more claims that whole wheat isn’t much better than refined wheat so, overweight people and those with chronic diseases should avoid it as well.
Many studies have linked higher intakes of wholegrains, including whole wheat, with a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, as well as improvements in blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar control. Other studies have found that whole wheat can help people control their weight and/or lose body fat, especially when they eat it in place of refined-wheat products. Thus, the American Heart Association, many health organizations andmost nutrition experts recommend foods made from 100 percent whole grains.
Is there such a thing as healthy wheat?
If you can get your hands on whole grain or some of the older varieties of wheat, then perhaps it can be a part of a healthy diet.
Another way is to make it yourself. You can dig around in markets and find someone who sells whole wheat grains of the old breed. Then, you can grind and ferment the wheat and bake your own healthy bread or you could choose to altogether. You can always get its nutrients in greater amounts from other foods.
Bottom line: Unless you have celiac disease or another type of gluten intolerance or sensitivity, there’s no reason to avoid wheat. No doubt many countries eat too much refined wheat, usually in the form of cakes, cookies, pizza and other foods loaded with added sugar and/or fat (which can double or triple the calorie count), as well as lots of sodium.
Cutting down on such refined wheat products can help people lose weight and improve their overall diet, provided they substitute lower-calorie foods. But 100 percent whole wheat and other whole grain products can fit well into a healthy diet, as can many refined-wheat dishes that include nutritious ingredients, such as pasta with vegetables. As with so many dietary matters, moderation is the key.