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What’s with wheat?

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Wheat has been part of the human diet for an estimated 10,000 years. When our ancestors moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers, they recognised that they could grow grasses such as wheat and harvest their seeds for food. They ground the grains between stones to make a rough wholegrain flour and this was then made into various foods.

The Egyptians are credited with making the first loafs of bread some 5000 years ago and since that time almost every civilisation around the world has developed their own version of bread made from grass seeds (grains).

Today wheat is one of the World’s most important crops. Together with rice and maize, these three plant foods provide 60% of the World’s food energy intake! Yet few foods are today more controversial than wheat. The crop is being blamed for all manner of ills from obesity to auto-immune disorders to brain disorders.

These attacks on wheat have been brought back into public attention with a new film called “What’s with Wheat? hosted by Australian nutritionist Cyndi O’Meara. So is there cause to be concerned about wheat and should we all be cutting it out? Let’s explore the assertions made in the film.

Does wheat make us fat?

Australia like most of the World is getting fatter, but is wheat to blame? Not according to recent research. People who eat the most core grain foods, including breads and breakfast cereals (not cakes and biscuits!), compared to those who eat the least were found to have similar waist circumferences and BMIs (1). In fact, when looking at intake of breakfast cereals, the bulk of which are made from wheat, those who eat cereal for brekkie have slimmer waists than those who don’t (2).

On the other hand, junk foods – what dietitians call discretionary foods as they are not necessary in the diet – and alcohol make up more than a third of the average Australian’s diet. Many of these are indeed made from wheat as white flour is used to make biscuits, cakes, doughnuts, croissants, burger buns and so on. But is it wheat per se that is making us fat? Clearly that’s a little bit silly to suggest. We’ve been eating wheat for 10,000 years and we have gotten fat in the last 50. What we’re making with the flour is clearly a part of the story, not the crop itself.

Does modern wheat have much more gluten?

One of the assertions made is that modern, industrialised wheat is dramatically different to ancient wheat varieties and that it contains far more gluten.

Well it is certainly true that where once upon a time there were many different varieties of wheat, there are fewer varieties grown worldwide today. Wheat varieties have been cultivated that grow well, are easy to harvest, made good flour and so on. Just as with every farmed crop, agriculturists use breeding techniques to get the best possible outcome for the farm.

Ancient varieties of wheat include spelt, emmer (farro), einkorn and Khorasan (kamut). Anecdotally many people say they can tolerate these wheat varieties when regular wheat gives them problems. However, this is yet to be proven in double blind, properly conducted studies.

One of the claims is that modern wheat has far more gluten than ancient wheats. But this does not look to be true. A recent study examined the gluten content of wheats from the 20th and 21st centuries and found no difference (3).

The film also claims that modern wheat is ‘created by genetic research’ and that this has led to an unnatural protein called gliadin being present. This protein is then blamed for stimulating appetite and contributing to our becoming overweight. The truth is that gliadin is present in all wheat varieties, including wild wheat, and may even have been higher in ancient varieties (4).

The evidence is just not there to suggest that there is a nutritional problem with modern wheat. That said I’m all for diversity and it does seem a shame to lose all those wonderfully different wheat varieties of old. There may also be as yet unknown nutritional differences between crops and so it seems wise to diversify our intake. To that end I encourage you to trial breads and cereals made from ancient grains, or give my farro risotto a go for a nutty, low GI take on a classic dish. But these products do come with a price tag. In reality there is no need to worry about consuming regular wholegrain bread and breakfast cereals provided you do not have a gluten or wheat intolerance.

Does gluten cause ‘leaky gut syndrome’?

In people with coeliac disease gluten does indeed destroy the lining of the gut and in turn this causes not just pain, but serious health consequences as the gut can no longer function properly. For this reason, it is absolutely essential that those with diagnosed coeliac disease follow a strictly gluten free diet for life.

But what about the rest of us? The film suggests that gluten causes intestinal damage in all of us and the makers

Does wheat contain anti-nutrients?

Many plants contain particular compounds that bind to some nutrients preventing us from absorbing them. For example, oxalates in spinach bind iron and so although spinach looks on paper to be a good source of this mineral, we really don’t absorb very much of it. Does this make spinach a food to be avoided? Of course not. We simply eat other foods for iron and benefit from the numerous other nutrients and phytonutrients found in spinach.

The same is true for wheat and other wholegrains. Wholewheat contains phytates and these do indeed bind to minerals like iron, reducing our absorption of the mineral. However, humans have gotten savvy about this, probably without really knowing it. When grains are soaked, boiled, cooked or processed in other ways this reduces the levels of phytates.

The truth is that phytates may be a problem in communities where a cereal like wheat is THE major staple food and there is little diversity in the diet. In Australia where we eat a broad range of foods, the impact of phytates on mineral absorption are miniscule.  Furthermore, contrary to phytates being bad for us, there is in fact good evidence to suggest they may have beneficial effects (5-7).

Is wheat acidic?

You may have heard of the alkaline diet (you can read more of thoughts on this here) and certainly there is some preliminary research to suggest that there is a link between a diet with a high acid load and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. The acid load of a food can be measured (expressed as PRAL – potential renal acid load) and wheat-based foods do indeed impose an acid load. However, their acid potential is far less than that of most animal based foods such as meat, cheese and eggs (8).

When you look at diets as a whole, problems occur when you have a large intake of meat and animal foods without the balance of plentiful plants, especially veggies but also fruit, legumes and wholegrains (9). It’s no accident that this is what I encourage with the Dr Joanna Plate we use on Get Lean.

What does science show?

I reported recently on two large scale studies from the UK and the US that both showed impressive reductions in chronic disease risk in those that consume the most wholegrains, including wheat and wheat products. If wheat really was so bad for us we would not see these dramatic reductions in early death, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and many cancers. The story just doesn’t hold up in the face of the evidence.

There are certainly those who have a wheat intolerance – just as you can have an intolerance to many foods. But that doesn’t mean we need all avoid wheat. If you suspect that you have problems with wheat, it’s essential that you see a dietitian who specialises in food intolerances so that you can be correctly diagnosed. You need to know whether your problem is truly with wheat, with gluten, with some other food or not to do with food at all. Otherwise you risk imposing unnecessary restrictions on your diet and limiting your intake of beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals. Furthermore, if your problem is actually one of coeliac disease, you need an accurate diagnosis as a strict gluten free diet is then necessary for life.

The bottom line is that overwhelming evidence shows that wholegrains are health promoting and good for us. I encourage you to diversify the wholegrains in your diet to get as much variation as possible and put your focus on reducing or cutting out completely the refined grain products that can certainly be harmful if consumed too often. It all comes back to real food.

Dr Joanna McMillan

Joanna has a PhD in Nutritional Science, is one of Australia's best known health experts and founder of Get Lean. She is also the author of several books, has a weekly column in Sunday Life and writes for several magazines and online blogs. She is also a proud ambassador for Diabetes Australia, The Skin & Cancer Foundation, FoodBank NSW/ACT & Muscular Dystrophy.

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