Wheat free seems to be the new fad diet these days, with whole sections in supermarkets devoted to gluten free versions of popular processed foods. Gluten is a protein found in wheat that may trigger health problems for people if it is not digested well. The list of chronic health problems that benefit from a gluten free diet is probably as long as this blog post. What is wrong with gluten and specifically wheat? Why is our staple food causing problems for so many people? Will a gluten free diet help you?
I first became aware of gluten as a potential allergen when I worked for a natural food co-op thirteen years ago. Many people were just starting to become aware of Celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities. They would come in to the co-op with food lists from their doctors. Some were seeking help for autism and even autoimmune diseases. That same year, while working for Great Harvest Bread Company, I learned about the difference between Spelt and Wheat. I learned that while both grains contained gluten, I could chew wheat berries like gum. The gluten would last a long time until I eventually spit it out just like gum. Spelt berries, on the other hand, would dissolve in my mouth. I learned that Spelt is an ancient form of wheat that has not been hybridized to the same extent as modern wheat.
Hybridization is the process that farmers and seed companies use to create new strains of our food crops that have various desirable traits. It is a speedy form of natural selection. For example, a farmer may notice that certain plants resist disease while others resist drought. The farmer might take pollen from the disease resistant plants to fertilize the drought resistant plants and hopefully create a plant that is resistant to both disease and drought. This is a simplification compared to the technology that is available to plant breeders in this day and age. In fact, plant breeding technology has allowed wheat to become very different than it was even just forty years ago. For wheat, the rate of change has been so fast that nature could never duplicate it. I’m not talking about genetic modification, which involves inserting new genetic material directly into cells. The new wheat plants are technically not GMO, but like GMO’s, the plants are human creations that wouldn’t have occurred in nature, especially not in the time span of forty years.
According to the popular book Wheat Belly, by Dr. William Davis, modern wheat is to blame for many of our current epidemics, including heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Genetically it is different from ancient wheat to the same extent that chimpanzees are different from human beings. Davis also shows by comparing stored human blood samples to modern samples that incidence of Celiac disease is indeed on the rise. It is not just a result of more and better testing. Davis goes into the details of wheat’s history, explaining why modern wheat plants are shorter in stature, allowing for increased yields and less vulnerability to weather while containing increased gluten to make our beloved white bread bake up light and fluffy. Unfortunately, with these great gains in ease of farming and baking, we have created a wheat that is biologically very different from its ancestors and behaves differently in our digestive systems and even in our brains.
Wheat Belly, however, is first and foremost a diet book. The author uses vanity to reach the largest possible amount of people. He knows that it is our “muffin tops” and “bagel butts” that will really motivate us to change. While wheat has a very unique glycemic effect on people, Davis very smartly warns consumers against replacing the wheat in our diets with various gluten free copycat foods made from high glycemic white starches. I call these starchy replacement foods transitional foods or special occasion treats. I tell people that they are useful for those stubborn cravings but not everyday fare.
How to Know if Wheat is a Problem
There are a few things you can do to determine if wheat is a problem for you. Not all sensitivities to wheat are caused by Celiac disease, in which even small amounts of gluten cause the immune system to attack the intestinal wall. If you suspect Celiac disease, see your doctor. Most reactions to wheat are less extreme, but nevertheless cumulative and detrimental to health. First, keep a food journal. Keep track of what you eat and how you feel. If you notice that there are certain foods that you crave or that make up a large portion of your diet, pay attention. Food sensitivity and food addiction are very closely related. You may crave the very foods that your body has trouble digesting. With a food journal, however, it may be difficult to pinpoint specific triggers, especially if you have a chronic condition or alternating constipation and diarrhea. The best way to tell if you are reacting to a food is to give it up. For wheat, this may be a big deal to you at first. Wheat has become ubiquitous in the American diet. It is in everything from breakfast cereals to soups. Your best bet is to base your diet on natural, whole foods from the perimeter of the grocery store, such as fresh produce, meat, beans and eggs. Be wary of food in bulk bins that may be cross contaminated with flour. When you do choose processed foods, be sure to read labels carefully. Eliminate wheat from your diet for at least three weeks. Keep track of your symptoms during this time.
It may take three whole weeks for your body to clear the old wheat from your system. If you cheat or even accidentally eat wheat in a restaurant, you will have to start over. Once you are sure that you have been wheat free for three weeks, it is time to do an experiment. There are many ways to initiate a wheat challenge. You will want to choose a food that is pure wheat, such as cream of wheat cereal. Choose a day when you do not have to do anything important, just in case you have a strong reaction. (For my own body, I usually have joint pain and digestive issues which keep me close to a bathroom the day after wheat consumption.) Some people suggest taking your pulse before and after you consume the food. This will tell you if you have an immediate reaction. Eat several bites of the food and pay attention to your symptoms for the next three days. Watch for rashes, breathing difficulties, brain fog, stomach upset, bloating, emotional instability, joint pain, sleep problems, anxiety, diarrhea or constipation. You are looking for a food sensitivity, which is different than a true allergy. A true allergy will cause swelling, hives and difficulty breathing. Seek medical attention if you experience these or other life threatening symptoms.
What do you do if you discover that you react to wheat? There is certainly the option of staying wheat free for life. You also have the option of eating the food occasionally and putting up with the symptoms. For chronic conditions that involve compromised digestion, such as autoimmune disease and autism, you may want to work at healing your gut. Ultimately, the human body should be able to break down our food into components that the body can use. If components of wheat or gluten are getting into your bloodstream and triggering an immune response, the problem is not necessarily the food but rather the abilities of your intestines. Gluten from grains and casein from dairy are two of a number of proteins that have the potential of “leaking” through an unhealthy intestinal wall and causing a reaction. Indeed, if you find that giving up wheat helps a little but doesn’t magically solve your health problems, you may want to try a more extensive elimination diet to find your own personal trigger foods.
Once you have pinpointed your trigger foods, however, you don’t have to just resign yourself to a life without those foods. There is the option of going to the root of the problem to heal your digestive system. There are many healing diets available. Two of my favorites are the Body Ecology Diet and the GAPS Diet. Both of these diets focus on healing the lining of the intestines and restoring beneficial flora while starving out the bad bacteria and yeasts in the gut. The diets are strict but often temporary. For example, the GAPS Diet eliminates hard-to-digest starches for two years. It is completely grain free and limits beans and dairy products to those that are low in long chain sugars and starches. Without these complex sugars and starches, the digestive system can heal itself and establish healthy colonies of beneficial bacteria. Will these diets help you? Because every person is different, the only way to find out for sure is to experiment. If you do try a healing diet, start with an open mind and give it at least a month to start seeing results. Find a health coach, support group or naturopathic doctor to help you navigate the dietary changes.
What if Your Reactions were Mild?
Maybe you reintroduced wheat and did not have a strong reaction. You are one of the lucky ones. There are still things you may want to do in order to keep your digestive system working well for you. People who promote the Paleo diet will tell you that grains are relatively new to the human diet. If the information in Wheat Belly is correct, modern wheat is especially new to us. Traditional cultures often had grains as dietary staples. A close look, however, will reveal that these grains were prepared with great care in ways that improved digestibility. European sourdough breads, for example, underwent long fermentation times, often 24 hours or more. Today we can look scientifically at these fermented products and see that the fermentation actually changes the gluten in the wheat. It also activates enzymes that break down other components of the grain that humans have trouble digesting, such as phytic acid, which binds with minerals in the intestines to prevent absorption. Unfortunately, with the development of baking yeast, true sourdough breads can be hard to find. Many bakeries cut corners on the fermentation and instead use vinegar to add a sour flavor to their bread.
Another popular option is sprouted grain bread. Sprouting also activates the enzymes and makes the grain more digestible. Most importantly, eat a variety of foods. If you don’t want to give up your daily bread, try changing the type of wheat. Try spelt, which is similar to wheat but easier to digest for many people. Try Einkorn, which is modern wheat’s ancient relative. You can find it whole or made into yummy pasta. Now, if you are stuck in a white bread, low taste pattern, you should know that these ancient grains have some flavor. Some people describe the taste character as “earthy” or “nutty.” (I’m a little earthy and nutty myself, so I consider those terms to be complements.) The thing is, there are so many great choices available to us. Each different whole grain has its own flavor and nutrient profile. A more varied diet will give you better nutrition and keep your meals interesting.
What if you did react to wheat but don’t want to do a strict healing diet at this time? Many grains and grain-like seeds outshine wheat in nutritional value. Consider amaranth, quinoa, millet, teff and buckwheat. These are all free of gluten and loaded with nutrients. In other words, let your awareness of food sensitivities free you up to try new foods and think outside the bread box. Base your meals around fresh produce, wild-caught fish, pasture raised meats and non-starchy legumes. Shop at your local farmers’ market or co-op. Pick up a Paleo cookbook or find a new recipe online to try this week. Giving up wheat is not the end of the world. In fact, for many people who see their health improve, it is the beginning of a new, more enjoyable world. Happy eating!