There are few things people want to hear less than a recommendation to avoid wheat. The grain is present in such a wide variety of foods that pointing out potential problems often results in strong emotional responses: What am I meant to eat instead? Isn’t wholemeal OK? Surely a few slices of toast each day can’t do any harm?
Try telling that to a client of mine who dropped 4kg the week after eliminating all bread from her diet. Or to another man I train, whose rashes disappeared after two decades of lotions, potions and creams. A good friend of mine, one of London’s best personal trainers himself, notices that that his dyslexia actually disappears provided he avoids the grain. Of course, these are individuals with sensitivity to wheat; not everyone gets this, but the fact remains that wheat stands out as one of the most common problems in the Western diet.
So what makes wheat so bad? Surely this wholesome staple, used for thousands of years and even by leading players in the Bible, cannot simply turn on us? Well the reality is that is cannot and would not; the reality is that modern science has changed the wheat grain dramatically in the last three decades. From the 1960s onwards, scientist set set about a cross-breeding program with the aim of creating a superstrain of wheat that would increase crops yields and solve hunger problems in developing countries. Huge breakthoughs were achieved, especially as a result of the CIMMYT program that took place in Mexico in the late 1970s. The cross-breeding techniques perfected here resulted in the emergence of a superstrain of wheat that would grow quicker and yield more germ per plant. The scientists declared the project an unequivocal success.
No-one imagined that this ‘new’ wheat might bring with it further problems. However, the genes involved in the new variety were significantly different to that of the original plant, triticum aestivum. This is a problem because more than 99 percent of the wheat products available use this modern variety. The gluten content, the factor that gives bread its unique ‘doughy’ properties, has increased from around 4 percent to 14 percent over the last century. This is a problem because humans have never possessed adequate enzymes to fully digest gluten. As a result, we can only expect incidences of gluten sensitivity to rise in line with the gluten content of our diet. One study demonstrates through blood tests for antibodies that sensitivity has risen by four times since the 1950s.
Sensitivity to gluten does not mean coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition which can trigger widespread attacks of the immune system on its own tissue whenever small traces of gluten are consumed. This severe condition, which often results in digestive discomfort and malnutrition, affects only 1 to 2 percent of the population, whereas research suggests that gluten sensitivity occurs in up to 35 percent of individuals. However, problems caused by gluten sensitivity typically involve inflammatory reactions from the immune system, but can manifest as bloating, sluggishness, brain fog, cravings, constipation, aching joints, anaemia, eczema and a number of other issues.
Modern wheat also contains higher levels of phytic acid, a compound that can cause mineral binding. This means that minerals like magnesium, zinc become bound and then removed from the body via the stools. This can severely hamper mineral status and affect every system in the body.
I estimate that around 1 in 6 clients I see are gluten sensitive – this is not on the basis of immunological tests, but on whether improvements occur as a result of removing wheat. To trial gluten-free diet, spend at least 7 days avoiding all forms of gluten, which includes bread, pasta, cookies, and many cereals.
This does cut down your options, but still leaves you with rice, potatoes, buckwheat, quinoa, corn, chick peas, yam to name a few. Interestingly enough, while all individuals sensitive to gluten need to avoid wheat to control symptoms, most do just fine when eating moderate amounts of oat, rye and barley (the common gluten-containing grains). However, I would advise those trialling a gluten-free diet to start with the rice and potato option, meaning ordering foods at restaurants should remain extremely easy. Just remember that you cannot classify chips as a ‘healthy option’ just because they do not contain gluten! Upon the gradual re-introduction of foods, you can determine whether a) you are sensitive to gluten at all, or b) just sensitive to the gluten found in wheat (it is different to that found in oats, rye, barley, etc).
There is far more to it that avoiding gluten, but the dramatic results obtained by those with gluten sensitivities mean this is no passing fad. Removing gluten will not act as a magic bullet for creating hormonal balance where the was none before. Neither will it induce weight loss if the macronutrient balance is distorted. However, if you don’t feel quite right or suffer from any of the symptoms above, then a trial of a gluten-free diet may help. Even if this gives you just a one in six chance of noticing improvements, investing a week following a restricted regimen seems a small price to pay to see if you are that one.
O’Bryan, Tom. The Conundrum of Gluten Sensitivity: Why the Tests are Often Wrong. Journal of Gluten Sensitivity. Winter 2011. 10(1).
Catassi, C., Kryszak, D., et al. Natural History of Celiac Disease Autoimmunity in a USA Cohort Followed Since 1974. Annals of Medicine. 2010. 42(7), 50-38
Sapone, A., Bal,J., et al. Spectrum of Gluten-Related Disorders Consensus on Nomenclature and Classification. BC Medicine. 2012. 10(13).