The problem with wheat
With the alarming rise in obesity and chronic illnesses, nutrition experts have been forced to delve into the deep-seated lifestyle choices we make on a daily basis, which endanger our overall well-being. For decades, whole grains have been popularized in the media as the holy grail of good health. However, recent research has brought to light the fact that modern crops, in particular, wheat harvests are the root of most weight-related diseases and are far from the super food they’ve been proclaimed to be.
Don’t pass the bread, please
Although gluten-free products have been growing in popularity over the past few years, most people find it genuinely impossible to avoid foods like bread, pasta, pastries and baked goods, especially if they have a busy schedule and often have to eat on the go. Gluten sensitivity is not as hazardous and conspicuous as having full-blown Celiac disease. However, the body’s inability to process grains is behind a host of nasty conditions – from fatigue and mood swings to skin irritations and joint problems. Moreover, daily consumption of this food group has been linked to hormonal imbalance, chronic inflammation, and serious health issues in the long run. But what is it that causes all these symptoms and why hasn’t the mainstream media picked up on these effects yet? Slowly but surely, new information about the implications of our diet is made available to the public. This issue is covered in the recent feature-length documentary What’s with wheat, from Australian nutritionist Cyndi O’Meara @cyndiomeara, which reveals the distressing ramifications of living in a silent global epidemic of gluten intolerance.
How gluten causes inflammation in the gut
Even though most of the calories in wheat come from carbohydrates, this type of grain also has a few proteins, the most widely-known of which is gluten. A small percentage of the population suffers from Celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction which can be canceled out by adopting a gluten-free diet. However, even if you haven’t been diagnosed with this condition, it’s very probable that you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Furthermore, you can also develop an intolerance to the other proteins found in grains, namely wheat germ agglutinin and amylase trypsin inhibitors, which can provoke inflammatory immune responses in the GI tract. In the same way that your immune system reacts when you get a splinter or an injury, the body generates an inflammatory response when the proteins in wheat irritate the lining of your gut. When you consume bread, pastries and other products packed full with wheat, the gluten proteins reach the digestive tract and are perceived by the immune system as foreign invaders. In response, your body attacks them and at the same time damages the intestinal wall itself.
Inflammation and leaky gut syndrome
Long-term exposure to inflammation in the gut eventually leads to a digestive issue known as intestinal permeability, also referred to as the leaky gut syndrome. In a nutshell, this disorder means that your intestinal wall becomes inflamed and eventually ruptures in certain areas. These tiny cracks then allow undigested food particles and toxic substances to pass through and reach the bloodstream, causing a series of harmful side effects and illnesses. Recent studies conducted in people who don’t have Celiac disease have shown that gluten can cause unwanted symptoms such as bloating, anemia, stomach pain or discomfort, fatigue and stool inconsistency. In order to prevent this, you should make sure your diet is clear of any processed, pre-packaged foods, filled with preservatives and artificial sweeteners. In addition, you should eat a nutrient-rich diet, predominant in organic, whole fruits and vegetables that can aid in healing your intestinal walls and restoring good bacteria in the gut.
Wheat limits nutrient intake and spikes blood sugar
Compared to other food groups, grains are calorie-dense, but not particularly nutritious. Wheat contains a substance called phytic acid, which has been shown to bind certain minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc. This prevents them from being properly absorbed by the body, increasing the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies. If you’re thinking that you can just buy non-processed produce and avoid the issue – think again! Whole wheat actually contains a larger quantity of phytic acid than refined wheat. In addition, processed grains found in bread and most baked goods and pastries get digested quickly, leading to spikes in blood sugar levels. The rapid drop which follows further stimulates your appetite and makes you prone to consuming foods that have a high glycemic index, which have been associated with an increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. When it comes to whole grains, the problem is still not unavoidable – because despite claiming to be “unprocessed”, most products have been pulverized in fine flour, which is easily absorbed in the body and leads to the same blood sugar spikes.
Wheat consumption and brain disorders
Although the typical symptoms of gluten sensitivity are all gut-related, wheat consumption has been linked to brain issues like fatigue, brain fog and cerebellar ataxia (characterized by lesions to the part of the brain that controls motor function). A recent study has found new evidence indicating that the inflammatory immune response to gluten can also lead to micro biome disturbances in the body, which in turn increase susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Gluten has also been associated with serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia.
What about our ancestors?
Skeptics will claim that our ancestors have consumed grains for millennia, without any of the health complications we witness today ever arising. While it is true that our predecessors traditionally used grains as part of their diets, it’s undeniable that the conditions in which they manufactured that grain radically differed from the modern practice we know and entrain today. It’s also feasible that our ancestors’ gut floras were more tolerant of gluten because they weren’t damaged and unbalanced by the standard Western diet we eat today, chock-full of additives and refined foods.
The effects of industrial agriculture on wheat production
Although wheat is a cultural backbone in our civilization, our current agricultural system is more focused on the logistics of harvesting than on the quality of produce and, consequently, on the health of the consumers. Given the wide availability of chemical fertilizers and petroleum, as well as the constant depletion of the soil, there has been a dramatic reduction in nutrient content and mineral density. Moreover, high-yielding wheat varieties are bound to develop a greater quantity of protein epitopes which have been linked to Celiac disease and gluten intolerance.
What you can do to protect your health
Good nutrition is crucial in healing our bodies, but picking out the right foods to eat is only the first step in regaining and maintaining good health. If we’ve been eating processed, chemically enhanced foods for years, our liver and intestines are most likely overworked and our digestion is impaired as a result. This can deeply impact our health not only by making us prone to becoming malnourished or chronically ill but also by raising our risk of developing autoimmune diseases. However, making the switch from refined, pre-packaged foods to fresh, organic produce, as well as avoiding problem food groups is the cornerstone of leading a healthy lifestyle and can yield results in a matter of weeks.
Taking baby steps to a gluten-free diet
If you’ve noticed a certain sensibility to gluten or a series of unwanted symptoms which occur after wheat consumption, then maybe it’s time to give your body a break. You can try slowly eliminating this food group from your diet by replacing it with healthier, more nutrient-rich options. Or you can quit cold turkey for a few weeks and witness the effects firsthand. Either way, there is no shortcut to good health – if you want to recover your strength and heal your body, then it’s time you take responsibility for your nutrition and become more active in the production of your food. You can do this by making small changes at first – for instance, next time you need to go grocery shopping, go to a local farmer instead of the supermarket near your apartment. It will most certainly be worth the trip. Or you can learn to prepare your meals overnight so that you can pack a healthy dish for work instead of buying doughnuts and a pretzel for lunch. Over time, you’ll notice the benefits of a whole, organic diet and you will learn to make healthier choices even in busy situations or during a time crisis.
Breaking the vicious circle
It’s not so much wheat itself that is the issue, as the production practice involved in manufacturing it. That being said, our health problems don’t necessarily stem from the plant itself, but rather from its hybridization in modern times. The industrial refining methods, as well as the host of harmful chemicals , used to treat the products, are the real issue here. In addition, the high energy input and preservatives prevent the dough from fully maturing, which in turn causes digestive issues and poor nutrient absorption. Furthermore, it’s not enough to eliminate wheat from your diet, as nearly all livestock in the industry is fed large quantities of processed grains before slaughter. This is why it’s important to look for grass-fed, organic produce and purchase your food from GMO-free local farmers.
Finding what works best for you
You can experiment with a gluten-free diet for a few months or maybe decide to ditch grains altogether. Whatever nutrition plan you decide to follow, it’s important to adapt it to your daily needs and schedule, so that it won’t be another stressful situation you have to deal with. Taking charge of your health and making long-lasting, beneficial choices in your life shouldn’t be a hassle, but rather a loving commitment to yourself. Most of the chronic diseases which currently plague our society are preventable or even reversible, as long as you follow a few simple, down-to-earth guidelines which can help you make smarter choices when it comes to the food you put into your body.