Why 80% of the anti-wheat movement is dumb. (In response to “Why 80% of People Worldwide Will Soon Stop Eating Wheat.”)
This is a topic on which an increasingly long rant has been building in my head. It’s an excellent example of The Internet and the public “doin’ it wrong” when it comes to discussions of health because WHEAT, while no “superfood,” is not alone in its problems; yet, it is often singled out as a health nut’s worst nightmare.
Personally, I hate that my applesauce and cheese now inform me that they’re gluten free (duh!), while I have to scour the backs of labels to figure out whether the wheat product present in the things I expect to contain wheat is whole or not. I hate that every doctor, nutritionist, fitness guru, yogi, and even hypno-therapist (shout out to Wisdom Hypnosis) is being pressured to tell clients to give up wheat entirely, often with no discussion of what else could be wrong with the patient’s diet. I hate that, in spite of intestinal problems that I know weren’t due to my wheat consumption–which is lower than in times past during which I felt better–going to a doctor for advice about how to manage what is probably stress-induced IBS would have only elicited “Try cutting out wheat, dairy, and… all other food.” I only wish that last part were more of a joke. The other day, a friend of mine who already knew she had mild to moderate allergic reactions to wheat said she’s also been having digestive tract problems lately and she’s basically down to rice-based things and almond milk after her doctor suggestion an elimination diet. Because, ya know, no one could be allergic to nuts or have an adverse reaction to arsenic. Oh, and arsenic definitely isn’t an “obesogen.” (Hint: yes, it is.) Clearly those options are better than that horrible, evil wheat!
So here’s why I’m fed up with The Internet, and pretty much everyone else, on the topic:
Claim: “Two pieces of white bread [something something] Snickers bar!”
Yeah, and half a cup of sugar would [spike your blood sugar, be high in calories, make you gain weight, or whatever else the claim is] too. Let’s all just be grownups and leave whole grain wheat’s useless cousin out of discussions of wheat’s health benefits or perils. You wouldn’t rag on corn for being related to high fructose corn syrup or on brown rice for making the sweetener known as brown rice syrup, would you?
The fact that “new wheat” was bread to be higher in calories so as to save starving people the world over doesn’t mean that you can’t have any. It means you should eat it in moderation, like with most carbohydrate sources.
Claim: “Wheat has been genetically modified and it lost most of its nutritional value!”
Why the hell do you think all of the things you buy in the Produce section at your grocery store have uniform color and size? Whether it was done in a lab or through centuries of directed breeding, almost everything you buy in the grocery store has been “genetically modified.” Do I think that it would be better if we used more heirloom seeds and got back to strains that had more nutrients? Yes. Are those easy to mass produce for those of us who can’t or don’t want to be subsistence farmers? No. I don’t like it either, but I can’t/won’t grow enough food in the city and the amount of mercury in Lake Michigan would probably make it ruinous to try. (Don’t quote me on that, though, I’ve never tried gardening in a place with 23.1 ppt of mercury in the groundwater.)
Claim: “White bread is addictive, like crack!”
No, not in any literal sense, though it may cause blood sugar problems that could make it feel that way. But the exogenous opioid peptides (“exorphins”)! Yes, wheat contains gluten exorphins, and yes, those bind to the same receptors as opioid drugs. But, as paleo diet blog “Mark’s Daily Apple” points out in a delightfully well-reasoned article on wheat, so do cheese and colostrum.
Claim: “Wheat has toxic affects [due to wheat germ agglutinin (WGA)].”
Well, yes. WGA is a lectin. According to Wikipedia, lectins may be responsible for leptin resistance (insatiability), G.I. symptoms like those of IBS and Celiac, and even death, in the case of ricin. Lectins bind carbohydrates in a way that mimics insulin and can reverse the process by which epinephrine (adrenaline) induces fat to break down for energy. So yeah, from this lay-lady’s understanding, lectins could very feasibly contribute to diabetes and excess fat. But hold onto your britches, wheat haters, because lectins are not limited to wheat!
Foods with high concentrations of lectins, such as beans, cereal grains, seeds, nuts, and potatoes, may be harmful if consumed in excess in uncooked or improperly cooked form. Adverse effects may include nutritional deficiencies, and immune (allergic) reactions. Possibly, most effects of lectins are due to gastrointestinal distress through interaction of the lectins with the gut epithelial cells. A recent in vitro study has suggested that the mechanism of lectin damage may occur by interfering with the repair of already-damaged epithelial cells. —http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lectin
You’re probably already pretty justifiably paranoid about the studies suggesting that pesticides may be obesogens, so really, you ought to be yelling about how everyone should just eat meat and organic produce if you’re so worried about lectins. (Yeah, I see you Caveman Dude.)
Claim: “But the cavemen! Humans weren’t evolved to eat wheat!”
You’ve got me on that one, but humans are omnivores who eat lots of things today that haven’t been around long enough for evolution to care about our relationship to them. Those of us in first world countries who benefit from sanitation, plentiful resources (even if we’re bad at distributing them evenly), and medicine sufficient to sustain most people until after they’ve had a chance to reproduce will probably not be adding a whole lot of nuance to humans via natural selection. As such, you only get to use evolution as a justification for your war on wheat if you’re on the paleo diet and content to raise your kids on the paleo diet and insist that they raise their kids on the paleo diet and…
For those of you stuck in the early ’00s, a diet high in carbohydrates may not be necessary to, or categorically good for, humans, but turns out carbs aren’t evil either. Many “good carbohydrates” are actually a mix of carbs, protein, and fat, including whole wheat. Furthermore, carbs can be a great source of fiber, which can make you feel fuller, lower blood glucose, and otherwise be helpful if you’re looking to lose weight.
My conclusion is that the article that prompted this rant, like most discussions of wheat on the Internet, is severely oversimplified and under-sourced. If lectins are your concern, you don’t technically get to be a self-righteous Paleo dieter unless you also abstain from nuts and seeds, but at least you have more of a right than the rest of the world. If you’re seeing a doctor about your weight or G.I. problems, fixing those things will almost certainly be more complicated than just eliminating wheat, even if cutting it out or back has helped with your situation. Whole wheat alone will probably not kill you unless you have a legit allergy to it or a relationship with it that should make us excited for your debut on My Strange Addiction.
“Everything [that has any nutritional value to begin with] in moderation” still seems like the most prudent advice in the realm of diet and nutrition. Although, it’s a polluted, over-taxed planet we live on, so maybe the best advice is just, “Don’t eat food [unless you grew it organically and with heirloom seeds, preferably from Svalbard, on remediated land].”