The War Against Wheat- Will Our Health Win?

The War Against Wheat

 

What’s at the base of your food pyramid? Is it whole grains? Have you ever stopped to ask why?

 

As we know, whole grains are the base of just about every “healthy” food pyramid. The American Heart Association recommends at least 3-5 servings of whole grains per day for optimal healthy nutrition. It’s simply accepted that whole grains are good for us.

 

So why are so many waging a war against whole grains?

 

Just look at the bestsellers on Amazon and you will find Wheat Belly, by Dr. William Davis, Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter, plus a slew of books promoting low carb nutrition. Do they know something the AHA doesn’t?

 

It turns out, they just might.

 

It is time to start asking the questions, how do we know whole grains are healthy? What’s the evidence?

 

First, people living in Blue Zone communities (those where people routinely live the longest) eat vegetables fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. Since they routinely have better health than most other populations, that must mean whole grains are healthy, right?

 

Not so fast. People living in the Blue Zones also sleep 8 hours per night, they get regular physical activity, they have close social connections, they enjoy life and have a purpose for waking up every day, and they do not eat many sugars or processed junk food.  Plus, they eat vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes.

 

How could we possibly say the whole grains themselves are what keeps them healthy? Are they healthy because of the whole grains? Or does the rest of their healthy activities outweigh the unhealthy effects of the whole grains?

 

Luckily, we have studies that tried to answer that question.

 

Studies looking at replacing white flour with whole grains consistently showed health improvements in those easting whole grains. Easy answer. Whole grains must be healthy.

 

Again, not so fast. That only tells us that whole grains are healthier than processed white flour. That should not be a surprise. Said another way, they are less bad than white flour.

 

But are they healthy? Or are they necessary?

 

It turns out, grains are not necessary at all for health or for survival. You heard that right. Fats and proteins are considered essential nutrients. Our bodies cannot make all the fats and proteins we need, so we must eat them. That Is not the case for grains and carbs. Our bodies get all the fuel they need from converting fats and proteins to glucose or other fuel sources such as ketones.

 

OK. We have established that grains are not necessary. But do they add anything to a diet consisting only of fats and proteins?

 

Fiber. The whole grains that show the greatest health benefits, compared to white flour, are those with the highest fiber-to-carbohydrate ratio. That makes sense. Fiber is a key component to healthy eating, and whole grains can be a good source of fiber.

 

Lucky for us, we have a bounty of choices from where we can get our fiber. Vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and legumes are fantastic sources of fiber. If fiber is our goal, we once again see that grains are not necessary.

 

But are they harmful? Listening to William Davis, and reading his book Wheat Belly, will certainly convince you that they are.

 

For some, the answer is clear. If someone has celiac disease, or gluten sensitive enteropathy, the proteins in wheat cause an autoimmune reaction that attacks their intestinal lining. There is no question that they need to avoid wheat and grains.  

 

What if someone does not have celiac disease? Some are still sensitive to gluten or other elements of grains (some studies show it may be other components of grains called the FODMAPs instead of the gluten). Although there is no clear diagnostic test for this, we can subjectively test it very simply. Go for 30 days without wheat and grains and see if you feel better. Do you have more energy? Do you feel less bloated? Less achy? Do you sleep better? Do you think more clearly? If the answer is yes, then you too should avoid wheat and grains.

 

So far, this should be pretty intuitive.

 

But what if you do not feel any better off grains? Is there still a reason to avoid them?

 

At this point we need to better define our enemy. Is gluten inherently evil for everyone?

 

No.

 

Well then, are FODMAPS inherently evil for all?

 

No.

 

Is there something that is evil for all?

 

Maybe.

 

It’s true that we do not all need to avoid gluten. In fact, gluten-free foods may be far worse for our health than gluten containing whole grains. A recent study suggested that low fiber, gluten free foods increased heart disease risk compared to higher fiber whole grains. Again, this proves whole grains are less bad than something really bad. That makes sense.

 

But wheat, grains and flour are not comprised of only gluten. They are a mix of carbohydrates and other grain proteins.  And what do those carbohydrates do? Raise your blood glucose and insulin levels. “Healthy” whole grains have a glycemic index on par with a snickers bar!

 

Admittedly, glycemic index is not a perfect measure, but it is an accurate assessment of how quickly and strongly a food induces a glucose (and subsequently, an insulin) spike in your blood. For reference, white bread has a GI of 73, 100% Whole Grain Bread 51, Coca Cola 63, Snicker’s 51, oatmeal 55, cashews 22, broccoli 10, and cauliflower 10. Also for reference, spinach, salmon, beef, chicken and eggs have a GI of zero.

 

Do you see a pattern? Food that comes from wheat and grains, no matter how “Whole,” significantly raise our blood sugar and insulin. Real food, vegetables, meats, etc. do not.

 

Our bodies were never meant to eat grains or wheat. The agricultural revolution and production of wheat and grains has only existed for less than 0.1% of our evolution.

 

Some would argue that is enough for us to avoid them.

 

That’s not supported by evidence. But it does make sense (remember, this is an article on health, not about the economics of agricultural wheat production, government subsidies, worldwide famine or other issues outside larger than I care to tackle).

 

Again, the question comes back to, why are we eating them? Not because of physiological need. Not for health (as long as we can get fiber elsewhere).

 

We eat grains and wheat for taste, for convenience (since our society has evolved into a grain-centric society), and possibly for addiction (or at least a stimulated craving).

 

Health does not factor into the “Why.” If we believe Hippocrates who said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” then our perspective of why we eat has to change. Everything we eat either helps our health, or hurts it. For that reason alone, I would argue that we should avoid wheat and most grains. I can’t defend it with solid research, but I can defend it with the often dangerous, “It makes sense.”

 

That’s enough for me. Is it for you?

Are Gluten-Free Diets Killing Us?

Gluten has come full circle in the eyes of popular media. It was initially portrayed as the cause of all our health concerns. Eliminating it was the quickest path to feeling better and living healthier. After all, how else can we explain Tom Brady’s Super Bowl prowess????

 

Now, however, avoiding gluten has been implicated in increasing our risk of heart disease and causing a harmful disruption of our gut microbiome (the bacteria in our digestive tracts and plays an integral role in our health).

 

So, which should we believe?

 

As with most health topics in popular media, the key is in the details. But first, a quick primer on gluten and gluten sensitivity.

 

Gluten 101

 

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and in foods made with those grains, like bread, cereal, cookies, crackers and pasta.

 

In people with the medical condition of celiac disease the body sees gluten as a foreign invader and is unable to properly absorb it. Gluten causes an autoimmune response against the lining of the intestines causing intestinal damage and decreased absorption of necessary nutrients.

 

Symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal pain, bloating, and rashes. It can also cause anemia, bone problems, and malnutrition. Your doctor can diagnose celiac disease with a blood test and a biopsy of your small intestine.

 

Without question, those with proven celiac disease must avoid gluten. Fortunately, it is a rare medical condition.

 

More commonly, people may be sensitive to gluten even though they don’t have celiac disease. They simply find that they feel much better when they avoid gluten-containing foods. They have more energy, less bloating, clearer skin, and have improved concentration and mental clarity.

 

This is not a medical diagnosis. There is no way to objectively prove if this is the case or not. This is a subjective feeling. Do you feel better while avoiding gluten or not? It’s that simple.

 

This is similar to numerous other food intolerances that abound. Some people feel better avoiding dairy. Some feel better avoiding meat. Some feel better avoiding legumes. Gluten is no different. It just gets more attention lately given its popularity among celebrities and weight loss pundits.

 

If you feel better avoiding gluten, then you should avoid it. After all, our bodies do not require gluten for good health.

 

Our bodies need proteins and fats, vitamins and minerals. There is no physiological need for gluten. If it makes you feel poorly, there is no need to eat it.

 

Gluten Coming Full Circle

 

Now, however, people are starting to question the safety of gluten-free diets based on recent research.

 

An article published in May in BMJ (British Medical Journal) suggested that avoiding gluten increased our risk of heart disease.  What followed was a social media and popular media storm of gluten-free backlash with the end result being confusion and frustration.

 

Who do we believe and what do we do now?

 

Take A Breath, Then Dive Deeper

 

First, take a breath. Remember that health claims, good or bad, are rarely as extreme as portrayed by the media.

 

Next, dive deeper. Understanding the implications of the study depends on understanding the details of the study. I know that not everyone has the time/desire/resources to dig deeper into the studies, so we did it for you.

 

This study was an observational study that followed healthcare workers without heart disease (at the time of enrollment) for 26 years. There was no specific intervention, the researchers simply collected data over time on who had heart attacks and who did not, and also collected data on what they ate. By going back and statistically crunching the data, they tried to find an association between the amount of gluten eaten and the risk of heart attacks.

 

Here is the main conclusion to the study. There was no significant difference in heart disease risk between those who ate the most gluten compared to those who ate the least. No significant difference.

 

Why all the news reports that it increased the risk of heart disease?

 

Statistical massaging of the data showed that those who ate the least amount of gluten and the least amount of whole grains did have a small increased risk of heart disease.

 

So, what was the problem? Was it the missing gluten? Or the missing whole grains? This study does not prove cause and effect. It does, however, suggest it was the lack of whole grains, not just the gluten, that was associated with a very small increased risk of heart disease.

 

How small?  There was a 15% relative risk increase. The absolute increase was not reported, but looking at the numbers it was around 0.1%. The difference was 1 person out of 1000. Hardly earth shattering.

 

Said another way, if the subjects avoided gluten containing cookies, crackers and processed bread and substituted gluten-free cookies, crackers and processed bread, they were not any healthier, and may have increased their heart disease risk by 0.1%.

 

Yawn. That type of analysis wouldn’t sell many papers or get many clicks. Thus, the media did not report it as such. Yet that is what the paper found.

 

Gut Bugs

 

What about gut microbiota? Can gluten-free diet hurt our gut bugs?

 

A 2010 study suggested eating a gluten-free diet harmed our gut microbiome. This one should be an easy one to explain.

 

What helps healthy gut microbes flourish? Fiber. Specifically, fermentable fiber.

 

The most common gluten substitute is rice flour. Rice flour has very little fiber, thus very little ability to feed the healthy gut bacteria.

 

The result? A relative overgrowth of the unhealthy gut bacteria. The bacteria that like high-sugar and low fiber foods flourish while the fiber-eating bacteria die off.

 

Wheat on the other hand, tends to have more fiber. Especially whole grain foods. So once again, it is likely that limiting whole grains in favor of low-fiber, processed foods is not helping our health, whether we are talking about our guts or our hearts (and by extension, likely our brains as well).

 

Gluten- Guilty or Not?

 

Is there anything inherently dangerous about eating gluten free?

 

No.

 

The key is what are you eating instead. If you are eating low fiber, processed gluten-free foods, then you are not doing yourself any favors.

 

But if you feel better avoiding gluten, and you are replacing it with real food, fresh veggies (both starchy and non-starchy), fruit, seeds and nuts, then chances are you will feel better and be healthier.

 

What if gluten doesn’t bother you? Then there is no real need to avoid it as long as you are eating whole grains, minimally processed versions of gluten, and avoiding the processed and refined junk.

 

It’s that simple Let’s not over complicate it.

 

Action Item: Take two weeks to see how you feel without eating gluten. Do you feel any better? More or less energy? Can you think or focus better? Do you have fewer aches and pains? Did your weight change? If not, then eat what you want (as long as you continue to follow a real food, vegetable first, low sugar and low processed food way of eating). If you do feel better without gluten, then stock up on the foods listed below. Avoid gluten, but also be careful not to add processed, low-fiber, gluten-free alternatives. Just because it is gluten free doesn’t mean it is good for you!

 

Whole grain gluten-free foods:

Amaranth, buckwheat, brown rice, millet, quinoa, oats. 

 

Other fiber containing foods:

Legumes such as beans, lentils and peas

Green leafy vegetables

Starchy vegetables such as yams, sweet potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables

Apples, pears and berries

Nuts and seeds

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com

 

858-799-0980Dr Bret Scher