“Is Wheat Bad For You?” That’s the question I typed into Google this morning. The results were interesting.
Before I get to the results, let me back up a step. Since my family and I have gone primal, one of the chief differences in our lifestyle is the elimination of grains – particularly wheat. This wasn’t an easy step. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who loves wheat as much as I do. I mean, there have to be hot French Baguettes in heaven, next to a spread of triple-cream brie, dry Italian salami, prosciutto, and gallons of red wine, right?
We’ve discovered how much better we feel now that we’ve purged grains from our diet. I’ve lost 25 lbs. in two months (with relatively minimal physical activity – I work a sedentary job and don’t always find time to go walking) and Jamie has lost 20 lbs. This isn’t just weight loss, but actual fat loss. I’ve slimmed out far more with this drop in weight than I could have hoped. I was definitely rounder, for lack of a better word, the last time I was at this weight. I’ve lost at least 4 inches off my waist, and I can’t even wear my wedding ring anymore.
In addition, Jamie’s arthritis and chronic back pain have cleared up. My back pain is also gone (I have mild scoliosis and it causes serious issues in my neck and shoulders.) We both have fewer headaches in general, and Jamie never gets migraines anymore. We have greater mental clarity, strength, stamina, and energy. Mood levels have stabilized substantially. I’m prone to bouts of depression and anger, and those are just about nullified. The kids are more focused and less spastic. Not to be gross, but we hardly ever suffer from gas anymore. The chest pains I used to get on occasion (or sometimes frequently) are gone. I won’t know until I get to the doctor, but my guess is that both my blood pressure and cholesterol levels will be down. The list goes on.
Now, we haven’t just removed things from our diet, we’ve added things in. We’re eating more fat and cholesterol (the horror!) and in particular medium chain fatty acids like those found in nature’s wonder food, coconut oil. We’re also getting all of our carbs from vegetables and fruit now. We also eat a great deal less than we used to. This week, I’ve been skipping lunch altogether and eating a meal around 4PM, which holds me over (with the addition of a light snack) until bed time. I’m not hungry enough to eat three full meals a day anymore. And because of that, I’ve been dropping close to a pound a day this week. This is a good thing when you still have 40lbs. to go.
So let’s get back to the subject at hand. We believe a large part of the reason why we’re losing fat, feeling better, and generally feeling like we have a new lease on life is the elimination of grains, particularly wheat. That’s a hard sell to most people who’ve grown up on the USDA food pyramid. Americans are wheat eaters. We love our bread, cereal, cookies, cakes, etc. And you find wheat in a thousand other things you’d never expect, like pre-packaged meatballs and cans of tomato soup. It’s in everything. And considering it’s been one of the building blocks of civilization over the past 10,000 years, it’s got a bit of history to it. Not as much history as the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, but that lifestyle ended for a reason: it was freaking hard. And not conducive to building cities.
I’ve had discussions with people lately about how if we feel better because we got rid of wheat, it must be because we have a problem with wheat, not because wheat has a problem with humans. We must be celiac, or have gluten sensitivity, or be otherwise allergic. I will grant that any of these things could be possible, though I also find it strange that I lived my life gnawing on sandwiches and home made bread and having toast every morning for breakfast without having any major issues before I eliminated it from my diet and now suddenly I’m celiac. It could happen – people who are slowly poisoned by things don’t always get gravely sickened by them until they stop building up an immunity (think Iocaine powder) and it’s possible that eating wheat all the time kept me oblivious.
But I think there’s more to it. I’ve been reading things that lead me to believe that wheat might actually kill you dead over the long term. And that was worth finding out more about.
So back to my Google search. I’ve excerpted a few articles below and highlighted some of the salient bits. It’s a lot to read so I won’t blame you if you don’t.
Dr. William Davis has become one of the go to guys on this topic. He’s written books about it, and in this article on Wellness Mama, he makes the explicit claim that it’s not saturated fat and cholesterol that are causing heart disease, it’s wheat:
I learned just how bad wheat was when I asked patients in my cardiac practice to remove it from their diet. I did this because 80% of people I’d meet for the first time were diabetic or pre-diabetic, situations that double or triple heart disease risk. In an effort to minimize this situation, I applied a very simple fact: Two slices of whole wheat bread raise blood sugar higher than 6 teaspoons of sugar, higher than a Snickers bar. (Most people are unaware that the glycemic index of whole wheat bread is among the highest of all foods.)
So I asked everyone to remove wheat to observe the blood sugar effects. People would come back after a 3-6 months and, indeed, their blood sugars and HbA1c (a measure of prior 60 days blood sugar) would be much lower, even to the point at which some diabetics were no longer diabetic. But people told me plenty more: They lost 30 pounds, lost 4 inches from their waist, felt better than they had in 20 years with more energy, less moodiness and deeper sleep. They told me how they experienced complete relief from acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches, hand and finger arthritis and joint pain, sinus congestion and chronic sinus infections. They told me about how their asthma improved so much that they threw away three inhalers, their rheumatoid arthritis was so much better they were in the process of reducing medication, their ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s had improved so much that no medication was required any longer, their leg edema had disappeared and rashes were gone.
At first, I dismissed it as pure coincidence. But the effects became so frequent and consistent that the conclusion became unavoidable: Wheat was the underlying cause for an incredible array of health problems and weight gain, and that eliminating was key to astounding health.
And note that this was not gluten avoidance for the gluten-sensitive; this was wheat avoidance for everybody, as it was a rare person who didn’t experience at least some measurable improvement in health, if not outright transformation. I now recommend complete wheat avoidance for all my patients, as well as anyone else interested in regaining control over health and weight.[snip]
Wheat consumption causes heart disease. It’s not cholesterol, it’s not saturated fat that’s behind the number one killer of Americans; it’s wheat.
The nutrition community has been guilty of following a flawed sequence of logic: If something bad for you (white processed flour) is replaced by something less bad (whole grains) and there is an apparent health benefit, then a whole bunch of the less bad thing is good for you. Let’s apply that to another situation: If something bad for you—unfiltered Camel cigarettes—are replaced by something less bad—filtered Salem Cigarettes—then the conclusion would be to smoke a lot of Salems. The next logical question should have been: What is the health consequence of complete removal? Only then can you observe the effect of whole grains vs. no grains . . . and, from what I witness every day, you see complete transformations in health.Consumption of wheat, due to its unique carbohydrate, amylopectin A, triggers formation of small, dense LDL particles more than any other common food. Small, dense LDL particles are the number one cause for heart disease in the U.S. The majority of adults now have an abundance of small LDL particles because they’ve been told to cut their fat and “eat plenty of healthy whole grains.”
This one from the Huffington Post tackles some of the same topics. It’s by a different doctor, but makes the same assertion:
A recent large study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with diagnosed, undiagnosed, and “latent” celiac disease or gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death, mostly from heart disease and cancer. (i)
This study looked at almost 30,00 patients from 1969 to 2008 and examined deaths in three groups: Those with full-blown celiac disease, those with inflammation of their intestine but not full-blown celiac disease, and those with latent celiac disease or gluten sensitivity (elevated gluten antibodies but negative intestinal biopsy).
The findings were dramatic. There was a 39 percent increased risk of death in those with celiac disease, 72 percent increased risk in those with gut inflammation related to gluten, and 35 percent increased risk in those with gluten sensitivity but no celiac disease.
This is ground-breaking research that proves you don’t have to have full-blown celiac disease with a positive intestinal biopsy (which is what conventional thinking tells us) to have serious health problems and complications–even death–from eating gluten.
Yet an estimated 99 percent of people who have a problem with eating gluten don’t even know it. They ascribe their ill health or symptoms to something else–not gluten sensitivity, which is 100 percent curable
And here’s some more shocking news …
Another study comparing the blood of 10,000 people from 50 years ago to 10,000 people today found that the incidences of full-blown celiac disease increased by 400 percent (elevated TTG antibodies) during that time period. (ii) If we saw a 400 percent increase in heart disease or cancer, this would be headline news. But we hear almost nothing about this.[snip]
The question that remains is: Why are we so sensitive to this “staff of life,” the staple of our diet?
There are many reasons …
They include our lack of genetic adaptation to grasses, and particularly gluten, in our diet. Wheat was introduced into Europe during the Middle Ages, and 30 percent of people of European descent carry the gene for celiac disease (HLA DQ2 or HLA DQ8), (xii) which increases susceptibility to health problems from eating gluten.
American strains of wheat have a much higher gluten content (which is needed to make light, fluffy Wonder Bread and giant bagels) than those traditionally found in Europe. This super-gluten was recently introduced into our agricultural food supply and now has “infected” nearly all wheat strains in America.
This one comes in the form of a top ten list. Ten reasons to give up grains. You should read the whole list, but a couple of highlights:
3. You’re probably gluten-intolerant.
If you’re white, there’s a good chance that you’re gluten-intolerant to some degree. Current research estimates that about 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease, an auto-immune condition related to the ingestion of gluten-containing grains like wheat and barley; however, some researchers on celiac disease and gluten intolerance estimate that 30% to 40% of people of European descent are gluten-intolerant to some degree. That’s a lot of people who are regularly consuming a food that makes them sick. (And, yes, I’m one of them.)
4. Grains cause inflammation.
Due to a high starch content, grains are inflammatory foods. The more refined the grain, the more inflammatory it is. For example, unbleached white flour is more inflammatory than whole grain flour; however, whole grains are still moderately inflammatory foods and certainly more inflammatory than other foods like fresh vegetables and wholesome fats. Chronic inflammation is linked to a myriad of degenerative, modern diseases including arthritis, allergies, asthma, cardiovascular disease, bone loss, emotional imbalance and even cancer. Unbleached white flour earns an inflammation factor of -421 or strongly inflammatory on NutritionData.com while whole wheat flour earns an inflammation factor of -247 or moderately inflammatory. Similarly, whole cooked millet earns an inflammation factor of -150 and cooked brown rice earns an inflammation factor of -143 – also moderately inflammatory.
This article takes a look at what wheat is and how it got there. It goes into the history of the modern wheat variety and how it’s been laboratory-altered and cross bred into something far more dangerous than it probably was in its earlier agricultural history:
Clearfield Wheat, grown on nearly 1 million acres in the Pacific Northwest and sold by BASF Corporation–the world’s largest chemical manufacturer–was created in a geneticist’s lab by exposing wheat seeds and embryos to the mutation-inducing industrial toxin sodium azide, a substance poisonous to humans and known for exploding when mishandled, says Dr. Davis. This hybridized wheat doesn’t survive in the wild, and most farmers rely on toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep the crops alive.
So what does all of this plant science have to do with what’s ailing us? Intense crossbreeding created significant changes in the amino acids in wheat’s glutenproteins, a potential cause for the 400 percent increase in celiac disease over the past 40 years. Wheat’s gliadin protein has also undergone changes, with what appears to be a dire consequence. “Compared to its pre-1960s predecessor, modern gliadin is a potent appetite stimulant,” explains Dr. Davis. “The new gliadin proteins may also account for the explosion in inflammatory diseases we’re seeing.”
An intolerance to gluten can cause a wide array of symptoms, some debilitating. Moreover, delays in diagnosis or common misdiagnoses can be devastating to long-term health. Gerta Farber elaborates on her research and personal experience with Celiac disease.
A powerful little chemical in wheat known as ‘wheat germ agglutinin’ (WGA) which is largely responsible for many of wheat’s pervasive, and difficult to diagnose, ill effects. Researchers are now discovering that WGA in modern wheat is very different from ancient strains. Not only does WGA throw a monkey wrench into our assumptions about the primary causes of wheat intolerance, but due to the fact that WGA is found in highest concentrations in “whole wheat,” including its supposedly superior sprouted form, it also pulls the rug out from under one of the health food industry’s favorite poster children.
Below the radar of conventional serological testing for antibodies against the various gluten proteins and genetic testing for disease susceptibility, the WGA “lectin problem” remains almost entirely obscured. Lectins, though found in all grains, seeds, legumes, dairy and our beloved nightshades: the tomato and potato, are rarely discussed in connection with health or illness, even when their presence in our diet may greatly reduce both the quality and length of our lives.
The appetite-stimulating properties of modern wheat most likely occurred as an accidental by-product of largely unregulated plant breeding methods, Dr. Davis explains. But he charges that it’s impact on inflammatory diseases may have something to do with the fact that, in the past 15 years, it’s been showing up in more and more processed foods. Wheat ingredients are now found in candy, Bloody Mary mixes, lunch meats, soy sauce, and even wine coolers.As if making you hungrier wasn’t enough, early evidence suggests that modern wheat’s new biochemical code causes hormone disruption that is linked to diabetes and obesity. “It is not my contention that it is in everyone’s best interest to cut back on wheat; it is my belief that complete elimination is in everyone’s best health interests,” says Dr. Davis, “In my view, that’s how bad this thing called ‘wheat’ has become.”
Dr. Dwight Ludell, M.D., recently wrote this retraction for telling his patients that it was cholesterol and saturated fat that causes heart disease:
We physicians with all our training, knowledge and authority often acquire a rather large ego that tends to make it difficult to admit we are wrong. So, here it is. I freely admit to being wrong. As a heart surgeon with 25 years experience, having performed over 5,000 open-heart surgeries,today is my day to right the wrong with medical and scientific fact.
I trained for many years with other prominent physicians labelled “opinion makers.” Bombarded with scientific literature, continually attending education seminars, we opinion makers insisted heart disease resulted from the simple fact of elevated blood cholesterol.
The only accepted therapy was prescribing medications to lower cholesterol and a diet that severely restricted fat intake. The latter of course we insisted would lower cholesterol and heart disease. Deviations from these recommendations were considered heresy and could quite possibly result in malpractice.
These recommendations are no longer scientifically or morally defensible. The discovery a few years ago that inflammation in the artery wall is the real cause of heart disease is slowly leading to a paradigm shift in how heart disease and other chronic ailments will be treated.
The long-established dietary recommendations have created epidemics of obesity and diabetes, the consequences of which dwarf any historical plague in terms of mortality, human suffering and dire economic consequences.
Despite the fact that 25% of the population takes expensive statin medications and despite the fact we have reduced the fat content of our diets, more Americans will die this year of heart disease than ever before.
Statistics from the American Heart Association show that 75 million Americans currently suffer from heart disease, 20 million have diabetes and 57 million have pre-diabetes. These disorders are affecting younger and younger people in greater numbers every year.
Simply stated, without inflammation being present in the body, there is no way that cholesterol would accumulate in the wall of the blood vessel and cause heart disease and strokes. Without inflammation, cholesterol would move freely throughout the body as nature intended. It is inflammation that causes cholesterol to become trapped.[snip]
The rest of us have simply followed the recommended mainstream diet that is low in fat and high in polyunsaturated fats and carbohydrates, not knowing we were causing repeated injury to our blood vessels. Thisrepeated injury creates chronic inflammation leading to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity.
Let me repeat that: The injury and inflammation in our blood vessels is caused by the low fat diet recommended for years by mainstream medicine.
What are the biggest culprits of chronic inflammation? Quite simply, they are the overload of simple, highly processed carbohydrates (sugar, flour and all the products made from them) and the excess consumption of omega-6 vegetable oils like soybean, corn and sunflower that are found in many processed foods.[snip]
Foods loaded with sugars and simple carbohydrates, or processed withomega-6 oils for long shelf life have been the mainstay of the American diet for six decades. These foods have been slowly poisoning everyone.
And then there is the argument put forward by Mark Sisson:
Some animals are clearly adapted to grain consumption. Birds, rodents, and some insects can deal with the anti-nutrients. Humans, however, cannot. Perhaps if grains represented a significant portion of our ancestral dietary history, things might be a bit different. Some of us can digest dairy, and we’ve got the amylase enzyme present in our saliva to break down starches if need be, but we simply do not have the wiring necessary to mitigate the harmful effects of lectins, gluten, and phytate.
Lectins are bad. They bind to insulin receptors, attack the stomach lining of insects, bind to human intestinal lining, and they seemingly cause leptin resistance. And leptin resistance predicts a “worsening of the features of the metabolic syndrome independently of obesity”. Fun stuff, huh?
Gluten might be even worse. Gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley, is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. Around 1% of the population are celiacs, people who are completely and utterly intolerant of any gluten. In celiacs, any gluten in the diet can be disastrous. We’re talking compromised calcium and vitamin D3 levels, hyperparathyroidism, bone defects. Really terrible stuff. And it gets worse: just because you’re not celiac doesn’t mean you aren’t susceptible to the ravages of gluten. As Stephan highlights, one study showed that 29% of asymptomatic (read: not celiac) people nonetheless tested positive for anti-gliadin IgA in their stool. Anti-gliadin IgA is an antibody produced by the gut, and it remains there until it’s dispatched to ward off gliadin – a primary component of gluten. Basically, the only reason anti-gliadin IgA ends up in your stool is because your body sensed an impending threat – gluten. If gluten poses no threat, the anti-gliadin IgA stays in your gut. And to think, most Americans eat this stuff on a daily basis.
Phytates are a problem, too, because they make minerals bio-unavailable (so much for all those healthy vitamins and minerals we need from whole grains!), thus rendering null and void the last, remaining argument for cereal grain consumption.
What, then, is the point to all this grain madness? Is there a good reason for anyone (with access to meat, fruit, and vegetables, that is) to rely on cereal grains for a significant portion of their caloric intake?
The answer is unequivocally, undeniably no. We do not need grains to survive, let alone thrive. In fact, they are naturally selected to ward off pests, whether they be insects or hominids. I suggest we take the hint and stop eating them.
Am I 100% convinced that wheat, delicious wheat, is the devil? Not yet. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that it probably is. There’s still a big part of me (hold off on the fat jokes) that wants to go take my wife off to Paris and stuff my face with croissants. I want to bring home a baguette now and then and slather it with Brillat-Savarin. And maybe I will anyway, just like once in a great while I light up a Dunhill just for the nicotine-fueled joy of it. I don’t believe the end game of this life is, well, this life. We’d all do well to spend the better part of our time prepping for the after party.
But I can tell you that feeling as good as I’m starting to feel without these certain, decadent joys in my life is a fair replacement for the joys themselves. So if I indulge occasionally, it will be very occasionally, and I will do so knowing that for a simple and brief gustatory delight, I may spend quite a few hours feeling lousy, paying the price.