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Saturday, 12 July 2014

Is wheat actually bad for us?

No. And yes.

Well, it depends.

Let me explain.

Currently there is a lot of talk that wheat is bad for us, and we should avoid wheat and its related products, or even grains completely. Apparently it leads to obesity, many people are intolerant, is toxic, is a source of food allergies, gives rise to bloating – and even is a component of various mental diseases. Here is a quick blog post to discuss.

I’ve been searching for the answers. Despite the scare mongering in books such as Grain Brain and Wheat Belly, it is actually hard to find solid research supporting the claims that they make. I scoured Pubmed and such resources, looking for various meta and systematic reviews first, then individual studies second. I kept coming up short – there is actually very little research out there that shows that wheat is bad for us. But, there is some.

Whether or not wheat is bad for us will be down to our genes, our environment, and how we move through that environment. 

Let’s start with obesity. A major component of obesity is the over-consumption of carbohydrates. Wheat is a carbohydrate. Wheat is a component of bread, pasta, and cakes. These offer little nutritional value beyond the energy that they contain – they are not nutritionally dense. Wheat does contain protein, around 14g for each 100g, however this can cause the problems as with coeliac disease. As a generalisation the only nutritional reason to eat these would be for energy. If you don’t need that energy, it has to go somewhere, and this energy can be stored as fat.

(Edit 14 July 2014: A nutrition professor friend of mine suggested that it might be nice to point out the distinction between milled products and whole grained ones. Whole grained products are more nutritionally dense than their milled alternatives. The also contain ferulic acid and secoiresorcinoids which might be good for heart health. So if you do eat wheat, whole grain products offer more for you nutritionally.)

If your genetics mean you don’t handle carbohydrates that well, such as those who may be termed ‘carbohydrate intolerant’, then you will most likely find that eating lots of wheat will fuel a rapidly expanding waist line.

So, in respect to obesity wheat isn’t actually bad within itself – it is the over-consumption of wheat and wheat related products that lead to obesity. Too much of anything can be bad for us.

Summary: Wheat itself doesn’t lead to obesity, but the over-consumption of it can.

Around 1 in 100 people are intolerant of wheat. Not actually wheat, but most likely intolerant to the gluten that it contains.

Gluten is a composite of two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. When it is hydrated it forms a network of fine and stretchy strands. It is gluten that gives dough elasticity enabling it to be turned into bread, cakes, and pasta, helping them to keep their shape. Gluten comes from the Latin word for 'glue', which gives an idea as to the benefits. Gluten is the major protein element of wheat.

Coeliac disease is caused by the immune system adversely responding to gluten and producing anti-bodies against it. These antibodies unfortunately attack the villi and micro-villi in the intestines,  the hair-like strands that extract the nourishment from our food. Gluten intolerance, or coeliac disease, can therefore lead to malnutrition. People with coeliac disease will obviously find wheat bad for them due to the gluten. Saying this though, many of those with coeliac disease only have mild symptoms and may even be unaware of their condition.

Some people appear to suffer from non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS. These unfortunates suffer from bloating, gut pain, headaches and lethargy in response to gluten – but with no adverse immune reaction. There are some small studies that support this.

Summary: Some people are intolerant to the gluten in wheat, which can lead to symptoms such as malnutrition, bloating, gut pain, headaches and lethargy.

Not all intolerances from wheat come from gluten - some may come from FODMAPs. FODMAPs are the fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. These are a set of sugars found in wheat. These are digested lower down the intestines in a process that can produce an abundance of gas, and attract water. This can lead to bloating, wind, and loose faeces. As always, the extent of this in a person depends on their individual genetics. Not everyone will be affected, only the very few.

Summary: Some intolerance may come from the FODMAPs found in wheat, leading to gas, bloating, and loose faeces.

A tiny minority of people can suffer from wheat allergy. There are a number of components of wheat that these people may allergically react to. These are allergic reactions to the various proteins that are found in wheat. People may also be allergic to the contact with wheat, or even its pollen.
Wheat allergies are different to intolerances and coeliac diseases as they involve different immune cells and antibody types.

Common symptoms of a wheat allergy can include exzema, urticarial, asthma, hay fever, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, and tissue swelling (inflammation) caused by fluid leakage from blood vessels. In extreme cases symptoms include mood disorders, headaches, anaphylactic shock, irritable bowel syndrome and psoriasis. 

Summary: Allergies to wheat can lead to a host symptoms ranging from the mild to very severe. Fortunately only a tiny minority of the population have these.  

So is wheat good or bad? It depends.

If your genetics and your behaviour give you a tendency to get fat from eating excessive carbohydrates, then wheat is most definitely bad. We don’t need it in our diets, and therefore it probably would be beneficial to cut it from the diet. Cutting wheat from the diet will mean cutting bread, cakes and pasta amongst more. None of which add much by way of nutrition above pure energy. If you are fat it might be worth cutting out wheat products and seeing the difference it makes.

If you are unfortunately intolerant to wheat, or allergic to it, then yes, wheat is bad. Again, this is just down to the individual and their genetics. If you suffer from some of the symptoms it may be worthwhile cutting wheat from the diet and seeing what happens. If you cut wheat out and feel better, even if it just down to the placebo effect rather than intolerance or allergy, this would still be a good thing.

Otherwise, pass the bread please, especially with that nice salted butter…

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