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Wheat’s Going On?

March 18th, 2010 13 Comments

–By Nutritionista

Wheat. It’s in almost everything we’re encouraged to eat from the time we’re just babies — Cheerios have practically become the mascot for toddler food! We get so much wheat in part because the FDA’s food pyramid has forever recommended that we do.

And if you’ve watched a movie like Food, Inc., or read a book like In Defense of Food, you know that some form of grain comprises around 90% of what you’ll find in an average supermarket. Have you ever really looked around the supermarket with that stat in mind? I did the other day, and it was quite frightening. When I really thought about it, it was so clear that everything was the same, just in different boxes. Very creepy.

So are humans really meant to digest wheat? There’s compelling evidence that we’re not. In fact, many anthropologists would probably agree that until the agrarian revolution 10,000 years ago, we were hunter-gatherers and ate whatever we could find! That likely included meat, veggies, some fruit, and some nuts. It probably didn’t include wheat. Have you ever tried to make bread from some stalks of wheat? Good luck.

In the course of human history, 10,000 years is nothing! If human history were condensed into a year, we’d only have been eating wheat for about a day. Without getting all science-y on you, could we have evolved to optimally digest wheat in that time? Probably not, though some of us are certainly able to tolerate it.

But here’s the sad part: Scientists argue that up to a third of us can’t really tolerate it very well. A third of us are at least slightly gluten intolerant/sensitive? Say what? Hey, don’t shoot the messenger! I ‘ll be the first to admit I think I’m in that third. When I eat wheat, I feel more bloated, sometimes get horrible stomachaches, and feel more sluggish.

“Okay, Nutritionsita,” you say, “But what about all the benefits of whole grains? The fiber, the vitamins? Don’t those count for anything?” Well, yes, but the fact is, you can get the same nutrients from other sources (like veggies or some meats). And you don’t have to fortify a veggie to get the nutrients, like you do with some grain products.

The bottom line for wheat/grains, and just about every other food, is this: If you like it and don’t have problems digesting it, go ahead and eat it. But at least try to eat it in the LEAST PROCESSED form you possibly can. For wheat/grains, that means WHOLE or SPROUTED.

This is what sprouted bread looks like!

For my part, I’ve cut wheat out of my diet almost completely within the last few months and I feel 100% better. Does that mean I’ll never have a good, crusty piece of bread or drink a cold brew? Of course not! But they’re just not regular staples anymore. And the funny thing is, even though I’m probably the biggest carb-lover I know, I don’t really miss ’em.

  • Adrienne

    I agree with this post 100%. I stopped eating wheat/gluten (I still eat oats and not always steel cut) about 2 months ago and it has been such a huge change. And I do still eat it from time to time and I know I won’t feel that great after. For me, the biggest change has been the disappearance of awful sinus pressure and headaches which I was having daily for about 6 months. I got sick of taking sudafed everyday and learned from a family member that cutting out wheat/gluten had helped her with a similar issue so I tried it. For me it isn’t about carb free or a diet, it is about making a lifestyle change that makes me feel a lot better.

  • Meg

    which anthropologists? the agricultural revolution happened, in part, because humans domesticated wheat–a process which happened gradually, organically, from the gathering and modification of wheat plants, and, as civilizations became sedentary and complex, the luxury and technology of storing those grains. please don’t knock the ag revolution…and please please please cite your claims!!!

  • I wasn’t knocking anything, just stating some pretty commonly accepted facts. The revolution did happen relatively quickly if you look at in the context of our whole existence, but by no means did it happen overnight! Still, the impact was what I implied: humans began consuming wheat at a level that we hadn’t necessarily had time to adapt to.

    For more info:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_Revolution

    http://library.thinkquest.org/C0116084/ARI1.htm:

    “The bringing about of the Agrarian Revolution changed the lives of man completely. One no longer had to go round looking for food but could stay at one place to produce food.”

    http://history-world.org/Agrarian%20Revolution.htm:

    “Most human societies in the Old Stone Age consisted of small groups that
    migrated regularly in pursuit of game animals and wild plants. But recent
    archeological research has shown that in a number of places natural conditions and human ingenuity permitted some groups to establish settlements where they lived for much of the year, and in some cases for generation after generation. These settled communities harvested wild grains that grew in abundance in many areas. After surviving for centuries in this way, some of these communities made the transition to true farming by domesticating plants and animals near their permanent village sites. Many Paleolithic peoples who established enduring settlements did not advance to domesticated agricultural production, and in fact often reverted to a migratory hunting-and-gathering existence.

    “The rejection of full-fledged agriculture and the reversion to migratory
    life-styles caution us against seeing farming as an inevitable stage in human
    development. There was no simple progression from hunting-and-gathering
    peoples to settled foraging societies and then to genuine farming communities. Rather, human groups experimented with different strategies for survival. Climatic changes, the availability of water for crop irrigation, dietary preferences, and patterns of procreation affected the strategy a particular group adopted. Only those groups involved in crop and animal domestication, however, have proved capable of producing civilizations.”

  • Emily S.

    Hey Nutritionista! I’ve been following you on twitter for a little bit (I believe we emailed about Korean food!)
    Thanks for mentioning both the book and the movie – I’ve been meaning to read/watch them and have now added them to my library/request list. I have to say that in regards to this post, I honestly think the last paragraph sums it all the best. Everything in safe moderation and listening to your body! Korean food is also free from most wheat (though there is obviously a serious use of grain with rice) and I can definitely say I recognized the differences there, too.

  • A

    I’m neither disagreeing or agreeing with you on this, but if you’re going to cite something, don’t reference Wikipedia. Try academic articles and journals instead. Thanks!

    Lastly, remember the placebo effect – if you think something’s going to make you feel better, it usually will. The mind is a powerful thing.

  • A

    Also, I wish you had done this as a segment on different food intolerances (including fake sugar ones) instead of just wheat. About 60% of people are lactose intolerant, but you focused on a rarer intolerance instead.

    A less narrow view would have been more interesting to read.

  • Whin

    What would you consider are your carbohydrate staples these days? Do you still eat oats/oatmeal? What do you say on rice and spelt pasta?

  • A

    Actually, let me rephrase that last comment.

    I think it would have been better to start off the article by stating that if you’re experiencing stomachaches, bloating, and fatigue, you should (first and foremost!) see your doctor to rule out any underlying cause such as an iron deficiency, hypothyroidism, ulcers, etc. Then, if no underlying cause could be found, you could explain possible food intolerances that might be causing the symptoms and how to eliminate one intolerance at a time to figure out if one is the culprit.

    Instead, it comes across as a “wheat is bad” article. Especially since you only devoted a couple lines, in a hard-to-read font, about how it’s okay to eat it if you want.

  • lauracope

    ha, i knew some commenter would turn this into a contentious topic. i think the info here is good and not biased — i feel encouraged to take from it whatever i want.

    my feelings toward politics and diets are the same, though… i kinda take a little bit from all different viewpoints and figure that as long as i’m at my personal best, i’m cool. ;) it helps that i don’t have any allergies or weight problems.

    my man’s been trying to get rid of grains/sugar from his diet, though, and gluten-free stuff is all over the place. this blog explains the issue in a simple way. appreciated!

  • Nutritionista

    @Emily: I don’t use Twitter, so I wonder who you’ve been following! :) Have you made any good Korean food yet??

    @A: Some good points. I would never cite Wikipedia in an academic paper! But it’s a blog post, and Wikipedia is usually a good source for general accepted information, right? Nothing I said about the Agricultural Revolution or how humans used to eat before it is so controversial that I felt I needed to come up with a bunch of academic citations. I also cited a few other sources as well. When I say things like, “Eating lots of processed food and sugar isn’t so great for you,” I assume that’s generally accepted information and doesn’t need a bunch of citations.

    Your idea about a post detailing other food intolerance is a good one! I’ll think about that for future topics. But I do have somewhat of a length limit, so it’s often easier to focus on a more narrow topic. Also, I’ve written a lot about dairy and veganism in the past, so I wanted to write about something different.

    My own symptoms weren’t severe enough that I felt I needed to see a doctor, though I did mention it to her once or twice. All she wanted to do was take blood work, which is fine, but it wasn’t going to help my symptoms in the mean time.

    The bottom line, though, is that of course anything is “okay to eat” if you want to eat it! Hopefully, you don’t need my blog posts to tell you that! :) You can eat with my opinion in mind or not. I have no control over that. As I always say, take my info and commentary, add it to your mental arsenal of nutrition knowledge, do your own research, and see what you find. Or experiment with your diet a bit and see how you feel. Sometimes, I forget to begin and end all of my posts with “this is my experience and research, but you have to do what works for you.” I usually squeeze it in somewhere (the weird font didn’t show up in my preview version!), but I’ll make it even more clear in the future.

    Thanks so much for your constructive criticism. It’s really appreciated!

  • Nutritionista

    @Adrienne: That’s what it’s all about: trying something to see if it makes you feel better. If not, no harm done, but if so? Your quality of life just improved by leaps and bounds!

    I’m glad you were able to alleviate some of your symptoms by cutting out wheat. It definitely won’t work for everyone, but for anyone who’s questioning why they feel off, it doesn’t hurt to try. I’ve known people who cut out dairy for a few weeks, then wheat, then maybe other foods, just to try to figure out what’s going on.

    Sometimes, you have to do a little research with yourself as the subject because doctors don’t have the tests to give us all the answers quite yet. So kudos to you for doing that. And still, you’re not extreme or depriving yourself of foods you love.

  • @lauracope: “my feelings toward politics and diets are the same, though… i kinda take a little bit from all different viewpoints and figure that as long as i’m at my personal best, i’m cool.”

    I’m so glad you said that — that’s exactly how I hope people take my posts.

    For anyone who feels like they’re already at their personal best in terms of appearance, health, fitness, etc., you must be doing something right and probably don’t need my advice or knowledge anyway! I’d love to read THAT blog.

    Thanks so much for your comment. It’s really what I was trying to get at, but you articulated it really well.

  • @Whin: I do best when my carb intake comes from fruit, vegetables (especially root veggies like carrots, parsnips, potatoes/sweet potatoes, etc.), some nuts, and the occasional rice with my sushi. Oh, and of course, dark chocolate. I also drink good beer a few times a month.

    I’ve gotten over the idea that I “need” a grain with each meal. I don’t eat oats anymore, because when I had them for breakfast, I’d be hungry again in two hours. I do better when I stay away from gluten-free pasta, bread, etc. Those things are just not satisfying for me.

    But again, if you do well and, more importantly, FEEL well when you eat oats, rice, corn, etc., then that’s all that matters. I do what works for me and then get so excited that I want to tell everyone! But everybody (and every body) is different, so you might have to experiment a bit.