Gluten-free eating has been on the rise for nearly a decade, with holistic and functional medical practitioners advising against eating gluten in general. Wheat, in particular, is quite high in gluten, so a gluten-free diet is a wheat-free one. But what about all the benefits we're supposed to derive from whole grains? Is wheat good or bad for you?
The NHS Eatwell Guide suggests that over one-third of your diet should come from grains and starches like pasta, bread, cereal and potatoes. That's because these are high-fibre foods that allegedly help promote healthy digestion and provide a dense source of energy (calories). But are grains and processed carbs the best way to achieve an optimal health promoting diet?
With a rise in obesity, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease in the Western world, it's worth considering whether or not grains (especially modern wheat) and wheat-based processed foods are at least partially to blame. We'll go over the history of grains in the human diet, modern wheat and gluten and what holistic experts suggest as alternatives to wheat and other grains.
Grains are a staple carbohydrate of modern society. Wheat, in particular, is the most widely grown grain on all of planet Earth due to its ability to grow across a variety of climates, from Scandinavia to the tropics .
Grains are also inexpensive to grow — with farming practises often being subsidised by governments that make them even less expensive — so they're very cheap to buy, especially in their simplest forms, like plain white rice, oats, white flour and wheat flour.
Processed grains — again, especially wheat — have become the most common way for Westerners to consume them, including bread, pasta, breakfast cereal and snack foods like crackers, crisps, biscuits, junk food and even some less obvious sources. It goes without saying that junk food isn't the best idea if you're practising a healthy lifestyle, but how have so many people survived on grains if they're so bad for us?
Our agrarian ancestors began farming wheat and other grains as a cheap and calorie-dense way to support a stationary society (rather than the hunters and gatherers before them). Grains provided a way to make it through the winter since they're quite shelf-stable and can be stocked and stored.
Though recent archeological research in Africa suggests that grain-based snacks were present in ancient diets (possibly up to 150,000 years ago!), they weren't a major staple in the human diet until about 11,000 years ago when humans began settling into small communities and growing and storing foods long-term .
Creative home cooks in the households of commoners in both Asia and Europe mixed flour and water to make breads, noodles and cereals to fill their families' bellies. Though noodles were invented in Asia, they made their way to Europe around the 13th century . Italian commoners used durum wheat (and later semolina, a more processed form of durum) to create pasta in all of its various forms that we know today.
Pasta was seen as a healthy part of the peasant Mediterranean diet, as it became a vehicle for all of the wonderful herbs and vegetables that grow in the region. But the wheat of today isn't the wheat of our agrarian past — or even our semi-recent past.
Selecting the most successful crops is a normal farming practice. If you have two seeds and one yields more crop than the other, you'll propagate from the more successful plant in order to try to increase your yield year over year. You might even tinker with two successful seeds and try to hybridise them to make even stronger crops. Perhaps one seed is high-yield but the pests like it, and another has a little bit more natural resistance to pests. Maybe you cross-breed and get an amazing outcome. This is how farmers in the old world became successful.
The problem lies in the excessive tinkering at the hands of modern humans. Tinkering — like hybridisation and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — can have unforeseen effects on the end product.
Too much of a dependence on a single strain or type of crop can add a second problem. The dependence on a single crop in the fields year over year both depletes the soil and leaves the crop at risk of being wiped out by a single pest or blight.
We know about the potato famine in Ireland and the banana blight in Panama. In both cases, a single type of crop was planted on a huge scale and a pest of some sort came in and wiped out the crop. In the case of the banana, we almost lost that particular type altogether !
Modern Wheat Farming
The farming of modern wheat has become problematic for some of the above reasons. While modern wheat isn't genetically modified, it's been so aggressively hybridised and fertilised to increase yield that it's created other challenges for the crop.
The current iteration of wheat crop is a short, stalky plant that requires fertilisers and herbicides to grow. The chemicals required for modern wheat to be successful may be impacting our health and are definitely impacting planet Earth .
Health Impact of Modern Wheat
According to Dr. William Davis, author of ‘Wheat Belly’, the 'franken-crop' that's resulted from excessive human intervention causes all sorts of health issues. There are a number of potential reasons for this claim, including the above-mentioned chemicals required to grow modern wheat. Another potential explanation is the 25% higher gluten content of the crop. A third reason is Western preparation of grains in general. Since we've already explained the problems with farming practises, let's tackle the second two.
Gluten (and Gliadin)
Gluten (and its lesser-known sister, gliadin) is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, spelt and rye, has been the nutritional boogeyman for nearly a decade. Wellness bloggers and quasi-health gurus make all sorts of claims about how a gluten-free diet will solve all your problems. While the scientific community doesn't agree that gluten is unilaterally bad for human health, anecdotal evidence from over 2,000 of Dr. Davis' patients shows that going wheat-free can yield some remarkable outcomes.
Only 1% of the world's population suffers from full-blown coeliac disease (an autoimmune disease or disorder triggered by gluten), but gluten-sensitivity or intolerance isn't the same thing as an allergy . For those who are sensitive, eating wheat products can cause excessive bloating, weight gain, foggy-headedness and intestinal distress, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) .
Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a digestive problem, not a problem with the immune system, so it's not possible to test for it beyond experimentation with an elimination diet. That being said, experts estimate that anywhere between 1-13% of the world population could be experiencing NCGS . This group would certainly benefit from cutting glutinous grains out of their diet.
The modern preparation of grains could be another reason so many of us have trouble digesting them. Grains and legumes are plant seeds, and plants need to protect their seeds at all costs. Since plants can't pick up and run away from predators, they create chemical compounds called antinutrients to keep their future progeny safe.
These chemicals include things like lectins and phytic acid (phytates), which are inflammatory to your system and can even prevent the absorption of certain nutrients like magnesium. They can be broken down if the grains and legumes are prepared properly, like soaking grains for an extended period of time or allowing bread the time to slowly ferment .
Unfortunately, virtually nothing grain-based you'll buy at your local shop is prepared with the slow fermentation required to make grains safer to eat. Not even whole wheat bread. There are some sourdough breads that make the cut (for some), but chances are, you'd need to either make your own sourdough or do your own soaking and prep of grains and beans to make them a little easier on your digestive system. And proceed with caution if you do, in fact, have a wheat allergy.
If you're considering eliminating wheat and other grains from your diet, you might consider turning to the paleo diet. Paleo is a grain-free lifestyle that finds starch in easier-to-digest plants like winter squash, sweet potatoes and lesser-known root veggies like parsnips, celeriac, yucca, sunchokes, beets and rutabaga.
Many of these options have a lower glycemic index and more nutrients than your average potato and are great starchy options for those looking for a weight loss diet and to optimise their health in general.
So, Is Wheat Bad for You?
Now that you know the history of wheat farming and preparation and where modern wheat has gone wrong, it's up to you to decide whether or not wheat should be a part of your diet. If you find that you regularly feel bloated, have skin conditions such as eczema or acne, suffer from high blood sugar levels, foggy-headedness or other digestive distress, you might consider eliminating wheat and other grains from your diet to see if you feel better — it’s what Hunter & Gather co-founder Jeff did in 2012 and has never looked back!
While not all nutritional ‘experts’ agree on whether or not wheat causes health problems for the masses, it remains true that most processed junk food is made from cheap, nutrient-void wheat and other grains, and you'd benefit greatly from removing those from your daily diet.
All information provided on our website and within our articles is simply information, opinion, anecdotal thoughts and experiences to provide you with the tools to thrive.
It is not intended to treat or diagnose symptoms and is definitely not intended to be misconstrued for medical advice. We always advise you seek the advice of a trained professional when implementing any changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.
We do however recommend seeking the services of a trained professional who questions the conventional wisdom to enable you to become the best version of yourself.