Space & Innovation

Why You Should Probably Stop Eating Wheat

Today's hybridized wheat contains hard-to-digest proteins that aren't found in the parent plant.

Wheat and grain-based foods are all around us. We love our bagels, pasta, bread and breakfast cereals. For many, the thought of eliminating these staples from our diets seems wholly unreasonable, if not ludicrous. But a growing number of people are switching to wheat-free diets - and for very good reason. As science is increasingly showing, eating wheat increases the potential for a surprising number of health problems.

Here's why you should probably stop eating wheat.

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Without a doubt, wheat plays a major role in our diets. It supplies about 20 percent of the total food calories worldwide, and is a national staple in most countries.

But as is well known, some people, like those with celiac disease, need to stay away from it. The problem is that their small intestine is unable to properly digest gluten, a protein that's found in grains. But wheat is being increasingly blamed for the onset of other health conditions, like obesity, heart disease, and a host of digestive problems, including the dramatic rise in celiac-like disorders.

So what's going on? And why is everybody suddenly blaming wheat?

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The answer, it appears, has to do with a whole lot of nastiness that's present in grain-based foods. Wheat raises blood sugar levels, causes immunoreactive problems, inhibits the absorption of important minerals and aggravates our intestines.

And much of this may stem from the fact that wheat simply ain't what it used to be.

Hybridized Wheat Indeed, today's wheat is a far cry from what it was 50 years ago. Back in the 1950s, scientists began cross-breeding wheat to make it hardier, shorter, and better-growing. This work, which was the basis for the Green Revolution - and one that won U.S. plant scientist Norman Borlaug the Nobel Prize - introduced some compounds to wheat that aren't entirely human friendly.

As cardiologist Dr. William Davis noted in his book, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health, today's hybridized wheat contains sodium azide, a known toxin. It also goes through a gamma irradiation process during manufacturing.

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But as Davis also points out, today's hybridized wheat contains novel proteins that aren't typically found in either the parent or the plant, some of which are difficult for us to properly digest. Consequently, some scientists now suspect that the gluten and other compounds found in today's modern wheat is what's responsible for the rising prevalence of celiac disease, "gluten sensitivity," and other problems.

Gluten and Gliadin No doubt, gluten is a growing concern - and it's starting to have a serious impact on our health, and as a result, our dietary choices. Gluten is a protein composite of gliadin and glutenin that appears in wheat as well as other grains like rye, barley, and spelt. It's also what gives certain foods that wonderful, chewy texture. Gluten also helps dough to rise and keep its shape.

The problem, however, is in how it's metabolized. According to Alessio Fasano, the Medical Director for The University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research, no one can properly digest gluten.

"We do not have the enzymes to break it down," he said in a recent interview with TenderFoodie. "It all depends upon how well our intestinal walls close after we ingest it and how our immune system reacts to it." His concern is that the gluten protein, which is abundant in the endosperm of barley, rye, and wheat kernels, is setting off an aberrant immune response.

Specifically, the gliadin and glutenin are acting as immunogenic anti-nutrients. Unlike fruits, which are meant to be eaten, grains have a way of fighting back. They create an immunogenic response which increases intestinal permeability, thus triggering systemic inflammation by the immune system, what can lead to any number of autoimmune diseases, including celiac, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and so on. And this holds true for people who don't have celiac disease.

Davis also believes that gliadin degrades to a morphine-like compound after eating, what creates an appetite for more wheat; his claim, therefore, is that wheat actually has an addictive quality to it.

Gliadin, what scientists call the "toxic fraction of gluten," has also been implicated in gut permeability. When someone has an adverse reaction, it's because gliadin cross talks with our cells - what causes confusion and a leak in the small intestines. Fasano explains:

Gliadin is a strange protein that our enzymes can't break down from the amino acids (glutamine and proline) into elements small enough for us to digest. Our enzymes can only break down the gliadin into peptides. Peptides are too large to be absorbed properly through the small intestine. Our intestinal walls or gates, then, have to separate in order to let the larger peptide through. The immune system sees the peptide as an enemy and begins to attack.
The difference is that in a normal person, the intestinal walls close back up, the small intestine becomes normal again, and the peptides remain in the intestinal tract and are simply excreted before the immune system notices them. In a person who reacts to gluten, the walls stay open as long as you are consuming gluten. How your body reacts (with a gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy or Celiac Disease) depends upon how long the gates stay open, the number of "enemies" let through and the number of soldiers that our immune system sends to defend our bodies. For someone with Celiac Disease, the soldiers get confused and start shooting at the intestinal walls.

The effects of gluten and gliadin clearly vary from person to person. But as a recent study showed, nearly 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, and another 1.4 million are likely undiagnosed. And surprisingly, another 1.6 million have adopted a gluten-free diet despite having no diagnosis.

In addition, it's estimated that about 18 million Americans have "non-celiac gluten sensitivity," which results in cramps and diarrhea.

High Glycemic Index Wheat also raises blood sugar. As Davis notes, the glycemic index of wheat is very high (check out this chart from Harvard to see how various foods rank). It contains amylopectin A, which is more efficiently converted to blood sugar than just about any other carbohydrate, including table sugar.

Consequently, two slices of whole wheat bread increases blood sugar levels higher than a single candy bar. Overdoing the wheat, says Davis, can result in "deep visceral fat."

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Wheat can also trigger effects that aren't immediately noticeable. Small low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particles form after eating lots of carbohydrates - which are responsible for atherosclerotic plaque, which in turn can trigger heart disease and stroke. And in fact, it has been shown that a wheat-free diet can improve glucose tolerance in individuals with ischaemic heart disease.

Lectins Lectins, which are a class of molecules, can be found in beans, cereal grains, nuts, and potatoes. And when consumed in excess, or when not cooked properly, they can be harmful. Now, most lectins are actually quite benign, and in some cases they can even be therapeutic - like fighting some forms of HIV. But the problem with some lectins, like the ones found in whole grains, is that they bind to our insulin receptors and intestinal lining. This increases inflammation and contributes to autoimmune disease and insulin resistance. It also facilitates the symptoms of metabolic syndrome outside of obesity.

Phytic Acid Phytates are also a problem, a compound that's found within the hulls of nuts, seeds, and grains. Phytic acid cannot be digested by humans. And worse, it binds to metal ions like calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron. In turn, these minerals cannot be properly absorbed after eating.

Consequently, any minerals that might be provided by consuming grain-based foods are not well metabolized. So phytates, combined with gluten, make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients - which can lead to anemia and osteoporosis.

The Fiber Myth Lastly, a common argument in favor of continuing to eat whole grains is that they provide necessary fiber. This is actually a bit of a myth. As nutrition expert Mark Sisson has noted, "Apart from maintaining social conventions in certain situations and obtaining cheap sugar calories, there is absolutely no reason to eat grains."

And indeed, we can get adequate amounts of insoluble fiber simply by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Sliced bread and raw wheat

Extreme weather events, financial collapse, political unrest: With today's overabundance of apocalyptic worry, now is a good time to start thinking about what you’ll do if and when the bottom falls out. In a survival situation, shelter, fire and clean drinking water should be your top priorities, said Tom Brown, founder of Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School. And, even though people can survive for up to three weeks without food, Brown said, extreme hunger can make you crazy. So it's worth stocking up on canned foods and other non-perishables. Read on to find out what else you can -- and really shouldn't -- eat when the cans run out.

DO: Pet food People end up eating pet food often enough -- and sales tend to go up during recessions -- that FDA standards require food made for animals to be suitable for humans to eat too, said Cody Lundin, founder and director of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Ariz. In an episode of the Discovery Channel show "Dual Survival", Lundin eats dog food cooked over a campfire -- and while he expresses hope that they'll catch raccoon for breakfast, he lived to tell the tale.

DO: Rodents It's easy to catch rats and other rodents, said Brown, author of "Tom Brown's Guide to City and Suburban Survival." Simply bury a five-gallon bucket in the ground up to its edges. Cover the mouth of the container with sticks and wood scraps, and wait for a startled mouse or chipmunk to scramble under the jumbled objects. The animal will fall right into your trap. Next, burn the hair off your prey, skin them, gut them and throw them into a stew pot with water and any grains, vegetables or flour you might have on hand. "Don't even bother filleting them or getting rid of the bones," Brown said. "Bone marrow is high in nutrition and protein."

DON'T: Leather During their infamous struggle against starvation, the Donner Party ate a wide variety of unappetizing objects, including leather, which is made from animal hides. Long ago, people used the tannins in oak tree bark to turn animal skins into leather, making it a safe food item. But modern leather products are tanned with chemicals that are surely poisonous, said Lundin, author of "When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes." Your belts may look as good as fruit roll-ups when you're really hungry. But it's best to leave them in the closet.

DO: Bugs Grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, tarantulas: Virtually all insects are edible. Just make sure to cook them well enough to kill the wide variety of diseases they can carry, Brown said. You can even eat bees and scorpions as long as you remove their stingers first. One easy way to catch insects is to fill a sink with a little water and some food crumbs. Hungry bugs will go for the bait and either drown or get stuck in the tub. Ounce for ounce, Brown added, insects have up to four times more usable protein than other animals. Instead of a pound of beef, a quarter-pound grasshopper burger will do the same job.

DO: Weeds "Food plants grow everywhere," said John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures, an educational company, and author of "Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate." "All you need to do is go out in your backyard." You also need to build up some detailed knowledge about botany before all hell breaks loose because eating the wrong plants or the wrong parts of plants can kill you. Common vitamin-rich weeds include wild spinach, cattails, field mustard, garlic mustard, nipplewort and dandelions. No matter how hungry you are, Kallas warned, only eat a little amount of any one kind of vegetation at a time. "Dandelions have some vital chemicals that are great for you in small amounts, but too much will give diarrhea," he said. "That's what you don't want in a survival situation."

DON'T: Cardboard and Paper Cardboard boxes may seem appealing because they contain cellulose from wood pulp, which is used as a thickener, stabilizer and source of fiber in a variety of food products. And along with paper, cardboard can counter hunger pains by taking up space. But people cannot adequately digest the cellulose in cardboard and paper, Brown said. Also, many of these products are treated with chemicals that can be toxic.

DO: Acorns Like any nut, acorns can be delicious and filling, but you can't just pop them in your mouth like cashews. To make acorns edible, Brown advised, first take them out of their husks. Next, drop them in a pot of just-boiled water and let them steep for a couple hours. Drain and repeat this process two to four times until all of the bitter tannic acid is gone. At last, you can eat the acorns plain. You can roast them. Or you can grind them into flour that will accentuate your rodent stew. Play the "Dual Survival" challenge, featuring survival experts Cody Lundin and Dave Canterbury.