Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Killer bagels: the pros and cons of eating wheat

Wheat products make up a huge portion of the food we Americans eat every day. We all know sugar is bad for us, but few really think about wheat. I’m focusing on wheat today, but a lot of this applies to all grains that contain gluten.

When I talk about eating wheat I’m talking about eating:
1.    Bread (all types), crackers, pasta, tortillas, pita bread, bagels, etc.
2.    All baked goods made with wheat flour, including whole wheat flour
3.    Fried foods that are breaded with wheat flour
4.    All processed foods that contain wheat flour, wheat gluten, wheat bran, wheat protein, etc.
                                              i. such as:
a.    soups
b.    cereals
c.    frozen entrees
d.    chips
e.    seasonings
f.     foods in a can, box or package

Wheat problems don’t always start from birth. I started noticing pain after meals when I was 41. It got so bad that I was eventually battling stomach pain every night, struggling to get enough sleep. After consulting with a couple of doctors, I went on a healing diet that cut out all dairy, sugar and grains except for rice. It took only a couple of weeks for me to notice how much better I felt. The stomach aches were gone! When I experimented with bringing dairy, sugar and grains back into my diet, I figured out that wheat was the main problem. The worst stomach aches happened after eating a sandwich or a piece of cake or a bowl of pasta. Cutting wheat from my daily diet was hard, but completely worth it. Wheat products are no longer on my grocery list, although I still have them occasionally.

I started researching just what it is about wheat that causes so many problems. What I found is that wheat has been greatly hybridized. Staring in the 1940s with the noble goal of ending world hunger, we began experimenting with wheat plants to get them to yield bigger crops and withstand greater physical hardships like drought. We succeeded. Today our wheat is very different from the wheat of our grandmothers. Our wheat can tolerate being doused with a variety of pesticides, yet easily produces the spongy soft dough we turn into pizza crusts and cinnamon rolls. The quality, type and content of gluten proteins in our wheat have changed hugely, all without ever being tested for safety of consumption. This is why whole wheat bread is to white refined bread as low tar cigarettes are to regular cigarettes: one might be less harmful than the other, but neither is good for us.

Pros of Eating Wheat
Nutrients eg. iron, B vitamins (often added back in after all nutrients have been stripped from the flour)
You can get it anywhere

Cons of Eating Wheat
Blood glucose spikes
Two slices of whole wheat bread cause a more dramatic blood sugar spike than two tablespoons of table sugar. This is because as wheat has been bred for certain characteristics, its gluten content has changed so that now the process of digestion turns its protein into sugar extremely quickly. This causes greater blood sugar spikes than most other foods, including potatoes, fresh fruit and honey. The consequent increase of insulin in the bloodstream, to counteract the flood of sugar, causes an energy dip. Over years, raising and lowering blood sugar abruptly like this can cause blood glucose regulation problems. Blood glucose regulation problems can lead to diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Increased hunger
Because the abrupt blood sugar rise and drop leaves your body needing another boost of energy, hunger drives you to eat again. Wheat increases hunger. This pattern often leads to eating more often and in increasing quantities, kind of like an addiction.

Proteins in today’s wheat turn into exorphins in the body, which bind to opioid receptors in the brain. Yes, that means it affects our mood similarly to opioid drugs. “Comfort foods” like macaroni and cheese, fresh bread and chocolate chip cookies actually alter our mood temporarily. When we come back down off the high, we want more, often in increasing frequency and quantities.

Celiac disease
This is a condition triggered by gluten. It damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents the absorption of nutrients. It’s painful and eventually leaves you malnourished. If you have it, you can’t eat wheat at ALL without problems and anyone can develop it at any time in their life.

Gluten intolerance
99% of people who have problems with gluten or wheat are not currently diagnosed. I used to think my wheat problems were actually lactose intolerance and never understood why lactose digestive aids sometimes didn’t help. Gluten triggers inflammation which causes a wide variety of symptoms.

Do you have any ongoing problems such as rashes, anemia, mood swings, gout, arthritis, chronic fatigue, migraines or other symptoms that you just haven’t been able to treat? Chronic inflammation aggravated by frequent consumption of wheat could be part of the problem. You might have gluten intolerance and it would be a good idea to find out.

Experiment. Cut out gluten for a week or so. Do you notice that your hunger decreases? Do you have fewer aches? I hear you thinking, “But what am I supposed to eat?” Here are some ideas:

What you might eat for breakfast, instead of wheat
Brown rice

What you might eat for lunch/dinner, instead of wheat
Meat (preferably on the bone)
Beans/hummus/healthy spreads
Brown rice

Snack foods, instead of wheat
Trail mix
Beef jerky

And for your sweet tooth
Yogurt or ice cream (check labels for wheat ingredients)
Sweetened tea
Dessert wine
Be creative! This is by no means a comprehensive list.

It’s downright un-American to even suggest that wheat might not be good for us. Wheat is part of the core of our diet and economy. What would happen if we just stopped buying it? It’s inconceivable, which is probably why our government’s health advice has always emphasized eating “healthy grains.” The old food pyramid even suggested six to ten servings of bread or pasta a day. No wonder our problems with diabetes have correlated with the period of time during which the U.S. government has been guiding our diet.

Wheat has been a huge problem for me and the little research I’ve done has turned up a lot of information about its questionable nutritional value. Sure it has fiber and a few vitamins, but is it worth the cost to your health? For me the answer is no.

Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, Gary Taubes 2007
Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, Catherine Shanahan 2008
Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, William Davis 2011
“The Gluten-Thyroid Connection,” Chris Kresser,
“Three Hidden Ways Wheat Makes You Fat,” Mark Hyman,
“The Dark Side of Wheat: New Perspectives on Celiac Disease & Wheat Intolerance,” Sayer Ji,
Website: (search “gluten”)
Podcasts: by Zoe Harcombe (also available for free on iTunes)


Mick said...

Here what you are saying but from my own experience people with gout two of the worst triggers are Bacon and Fish because they are high in purines.
In fact bacon also as a secondary problem, high sodium content goes towards dehydration another trigger.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Mick, gout sounds like it's very difficult to live with. Maybe it should just be vegetables for you, eh? What are good foods for gout?

Mick said...

Foods good for gout, you are not far away with vegetables but actually fruit and vegetables but not all.
Best seem to be berries (blueberry, starwberry, blackberry, etc), Cherrys are excellent at lowering uric acid levers and also have anti-inflammetery properties but got to be careful too many to often give my stomach ache. Bananas and citrus fruits are good to include (vitamin c helps).
Most veg is good but some are actually high in purines but need avoiding during an attack, the bad ones are peas, beans and caulifower.
Fish can be very bad especially shellfish or oily fish such as Sardines, mackerel, herring, etc. These need avoiding all the time.
Other fish i do eat occasionally are salmon & haddock but not during an attack.
As for meat the likes of chicken, ham, beef are ok in moderation but to be avoided at all cost are organ meats such as liver and kidneys, they def start an attack.
Not that i eat any but game birds such as pheasant and geese are supposed to be bad.
I have learned this week that dairy produce can be good but its advisable to go for the low fat versions. This is new to me, been avoiding during a attack in the past.

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