Grains, such as wheat, spelt, kamut, corn, rye, millet and barley have been consumed for millennia, keeping civilizations alive long enough to multiply exponentially. Wheat is especially pervasive, making up a substantial portion of the human diet worldwide.
But this versatile and bountiful crop comes at a cost: it can lead to systemic inflammation, deplete the body of nutrients, increase appetite and spike blood sugar levels. You don’t have to have celiac disease or digestive symptoms to be cautious of wheat; it can damage healthy people as well.
What makes matters worse is that the nutritional profile of the grain that was consumed hundreds and thousands of years ago is vastly different from the grain that is bred today. Our bodies did not evolve to handle this new food era. These are good reasons to avoid wheat flours, breads, pitas, pastas, cookies, crackers and other products made with wheat.
In this post, I discuss the unhealthy effects of wheat and present healthy solutions to help you select and prepare the right grains and carbohydrate alternatives for your body. While the problems with wheat and other grains are manifold, I boil many of the health concerns down to the three key reasons to avoid wheat and find health alternatives:
- Wheat can be addictive and obesogenic
- Wheat can deplete the body of key nutrients
- Wheat contains toxins that can damage the gut and lead to systemic inflammation and related disorders.
After outlining the problems, I offer a handful of quick and easy solutions that can help you select safer carbohydrates to include in your nutritious and tasty diet!
1. Wheat can be addictive and obesogenic
In the same way that a drug can induce addiction, wheat, too, can spur a cycle of overeating. This is why so many people who try to omit bread, for example, have a very difficult time in the beginning. Wheat-opioids make wheat products highly addictive. In his book, Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis explains that “the ‘high’ of wheat is not like the high of heroine, morphine, or Oxycontin. This opiate, while it binds to the opiate receptors of the brain, doesn’t make us high. It makes us hungry.” Since wheat is addictive, many people find themselves overeating even if they are full. This grain-eating cycle can soon become a weight-gain cycle, which can lead to obesity.
Wheat is made of starches, sugars and carbohydrates that get rapidly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. When blood sugars are elevated, the body produces insulin to deliver nutrients to the cells. Insulin prevents fat stores from being used as fuel. Frequent, long lasting and high insulin spikes can exacerbate unhealthy weight gain over time. Believing them to be a healthier alternative, many people opt for whole grains; but whole wheat can be even more problematic with respect to spiking insulin. While a tablespoon of white sugar has a glycemic index (GI) of 68, whole wheat has a GI score of 71.
2. Nutrient depletion and oral health
Wheat has the insidious ability to attack the human body in various ways, including interrupting the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, such as vitamin D, contributing to worldwide deficiencies. In the book, Perfect Health Diet, Paul Jaminet and Shou-Ching observe that “[t]he ability of grains to sabotage digestion is well illustrated by this fact: for every gram of wheat bran eaten, fecal weight increases by 5.7 grams. Eating wheat causes large amounts of food to be excreted instead of digested!” (p. 197). Over time, frequent consumption of wheat can lead to chronic vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Wheat also contains anti-nutrients, including lectins and phytic acid. These protein and acid compounds can upset the stomach and irritate the gastrointestinal tract and impair the absorption of key minerals and vitamins, such as calcium, magnesium zinc and iron which can lead to mineral deficiencies over time. The bran of the wheat kernel along with other plant toxins can also cause tooth decay and other oral issues. Parents have been able to reverse their children’s cavities and decay by eliminating wheat and other grains. As explained by Author Ramiel Nagel in his book, Cure Tooth Decay: Heal and Prevent Cavities with Nutrition, lectins can “interfere with hormone and growth factor signaling which may explain why they promote severe cavities or other growth problems.” (p.68)
3. Wheat contains toxins that can damage the gut and lead to other disorders
Wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) is a protein in wheat linked to infectious diseases. This protein can damage the intestines, making people more vulnerable to viruses, infections and fungi. Over time, WGA can lead to “leaky-gut syndrome,” which impairs the integrity of the gut lining, making it permeable so that particles, including undigested food and bacterial waste, enter the body.
In an attempt to control the damage, the body creates systemic inflammation to fight the foreign particles. In this high-alert state, the immune system also can damage healthy cells in the process. This prompts the body into a state of chronic inflammation and can lead to autoimmune and other disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, lupus, psoriasis, Crohn’s and asthma.
As sinister as wheat may sound, proper preparation can deactivate some of its harmful components, making it easier on the gut and body. Traditional cultures have found ways to sieve, sift, ferment, soak and sprout various grains to make them easier to digest. Examples include traditional sourdough bread and beer. The process of proper preparation such as fermentation can deactivate some of the antinutrients in grains. (More on why I drink beer but don’t eat bread in a later post.)
Grains that are naturally gluten free and easier to digest include amaranth, buckwheat, white rice, quinoa, sorghum and steel cut oats. While many people can tolerate these grains, those with serious gut sensitivities, such as celiac disease, may find them problematic due to other intolerance issues and potential cross contamination. Always read labels carefully to ensure a product only contains ingredients you can tolerate.
White rice, which is milled and has had its husk, bran, and germ removed is one of my favourite starches. Since the husk and germ of brown rice contain phytic acid, which is hard on the digestive system and can lead to mineral deficiencies, I opt for white rice. With minimal toxins after cooking, this easy, tasty and versatile product is made up of glucose, which is important for providing the body with energy and fighting infections.
You can also satisfy your carb cravings with healthful alternatives that fall outside the category of grains, such as white potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, plantains, butternut and spaghetti squash, taro and yucca. These starches are all naturally gluten, wheat and grain free, contain minimal toxins after cooking, provide essential glucose, vitamins and minerals for energy and are delicious.
To make your starches more nutrient dense and to bring their glycemic index down, you can combine them with a protein (such as fish), fat (such as extra virgin olive oil or butter), fiber (such as raw, cooked and pickled vegetables) and an acid (such as lemon or vinegar).
Certified Renaissance Exercise Instructor and Consultant
With more than 10 years of experience as an exercise instructor and consultant, I am continuously searching for ways to optimize health and fitness.
My quest for perfect health and natural beauty has led me to some of the best workout routines, nutritional guidance and lifestyle habits that have given me fantastic results.