Wheat – staff of life or pain in the gut?
If you are a typical shopper, your weekly supermarket trolley is likely to be packed with foods made from wheat such as pizza, pasta, bread, breakfast cereals, cakes and biscuits. Today, wheat based foods make up a large percentage of our average daily fare.
We started eating wheat around 10,000 yrs ago when the agricultural revolution signalled the beginning of grain cultivation and the end of a nomadic hunter gatherer way of life. Because wheat has been such a staple part of the diet throughout the ages, in some circles, going wheat free is viewed with suspicion and mistakenly branded as a “fad” diet. However, in evolutionary terms, our wheat eating history actually isn’t that long, particularly if you consider that grains hadn’t been eaten in the previous 250,000 years.
Also, one could argue that the average junk food laden, refined carbohydrate rich diet, better deserves the description of “fad” diet! Here are some powerful reminders as to why removing wheat from the diet is a good thing.
3 reasons why avoiding wheat is better for your health
- Wheat contains a protein, gluten, which is what gives bread its elastic texture. The more springy the bread, the more gluten it contains and many bread manufacturers add additional gluten on top of what is already present in the flour. Unfortunately, for many people, gluten is particularly difficult to digest, resulting in a host of health issues. Not only are there digestive and intestinal problems, but mood, concentration, hormones, energy, bone health and iron absorption can all be affected.
- The problem with modern wheat is that it is very different from the wheat of pre-1950. In his excellent book “Wheat Belly”, cardiologist Dr William Davis calls this new wheat “Frankenwheat”. He explains how since the second world war, wheat has undergone genetic manipulation to make it disease and draught resistant and massively increase its yield. The modern wheat plant is half the height and produces a much higher yield than wheat of old. It contains more gluten and the gluten has a changed biochemical structure. Left to nature, the wheat plant would have changed and adapted but much more slowly. There is emerging research that the genetic meddling with wheat may be responsible for its effect on inflammation, the immune system, imbalanced hormones and weight gain.
- Coeliac disease involves a severe wheat allergy associated with an auto immune condition. Gluten triggers the immune system to attack the intestinal walls which are covered in villi, tiny, finger-like projections which increase the surface area of the intestines and ensure efficient absorption of nutrients. Coeliac disease, although it is on the increase, still only affects a small percentage of the population. It is only diagnosed if there is what is called total villous atrophy i.e. destruction of the villi. This is an end stage condition. What is much more common is a milder form of gluten sensitivity rather than allergy.
This is associated with an ongoing process of inflammation but the person will be sent away from the GP and told that they don’t have a gluten problem. At the moment GPs don’t have a means of diagnosing gluten sensitivity.
Other benefits of a wheat free diet
Eating less wheat inevitably means eating less cakes, biscuits, bread and pasta and this is good for insulin balance. All carbohydrates are converted to sugar in the body, some types of carbohydrate being converted to sugar more quickly than others, (generally the refined, “white” carbohydrates). Insulin is the hormone produced in the pancreas in response to eating carbs and its function is to lower blood sugar. Any carbohydrates which are excess to requirements will be converted to fat by insulin and laid down in the body cells, particularly around the abdomen, leading to the classic apple shape with fat concentrated around the middle.
It is possible (and quite common) to have imbalanced insulin without being diabetic. The result is fluctuating blood sugar levels and the associated symptoms of food cravings, irritability and weight gain. Bingeing on carbohydrates leads to further insulin surges and weight gain.
So, reducing carbohydrates from wheat reduces production of the hormone insulin. This is good because the more insulin, the more fat is stored. This turns on its head the traditional low fat, high carbohydrate recommendations. It is actually carbohydrates that are linked with high blood sugar and high insulin levels and consequently increased fat storage.
What are the alternatives to wheat?
Going wheat free is much easier than it was 10 years ago as there is greater choice of tasty wheat free foods. If you are going to cut out wheat it’s important to replace it with healthy alternatives and ensure your diet is varied and balanced. Booking an appointment with a nutritional therapist can be really helpful in this respect.
Please note the information in this article is not a substitute for medical advice. If you have a medical condition and/or are taking medication, check with a qualified health professional before changing your diet/taking supplements.