By Dr. Amy Whittington, Trilogy’s Naturopathic Physician

Wheat is contained in many of the foods we eat, and lately, the message that wheat might not be good for us is prevalent. Just when we thought we had mastered the balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, what should we make of this additional dietary concern? Even if we keep our grains 100% and whole, could they still be detrimental? Is sensitivity to wheat a food intolerance that a few folks experience, or should avoiding wheat be a nutritional goal that we all pursue?

As much as I’d like to report that all the negative press about wheat is hype, I can’t. However, as with all foods, for most of us the key is probably moderation as opposed to complete avoidance. Allow me to explain further.  To understand the possible negative effects of consuming wheat, we must first understand different levels of intolerance to it. Most of us don’t have a wheat allergy or even an intolerance to it, but a limited set of people do experience a true allergic reaction to wheat, which leads to anaphylactic symptoms.  Others have an intolerance to wheat in the small intestines, which is called celiac disease. For those afflicted with celiac, the body reacts to gluten — a component of wheat and other grains — in a negative way. They can suffer from gastrointestinal disturbances, skin rashes, headaches, and/or general malaise associated with their intake of gluten. This is caused by an antigliadin antibody produced by their bodies.  Gliadin is a component of gluten (and hence a sub-component of wheat), which is aggressively attacked by the immune systems of those with celiac by the anti-gliadin antibody. Although celiac is much more common than we once thought it to be, most people don’t have this type of specific gluten/gliadin intolerance.

Here is where it becomes even more complicated.  Even without celiac disease or the anti-gliadin antibody, some people still have sensitivity to gliadin. Gliadin is a large particle and is difficult to digest, and its absorption into our bodies causes the walls of our digestive system to expand. The absorptive walls of the digestive tract should then retract so they don’t let other large particles through. If this process doesn’t work correctly, large particles of other foods can “leak” out, causing aberrant immune reactions and symptoms in a process often called leaky gut syndrome. This can lead to symptoms such as headaches, skin and gastrointestinal disturbances, malaise, and perhaps even long-term adverse effects such as obesity, inflammation, and blood sugar disturbances.  So why is digesting wheat and its component gliadin more troublesome than it has been in prior years? In other words, why now is wheat linked to so many chronic symptoms and illnesses?

There are several reasons why wheat intolerance might be more common than it was 40-50 years ago. One is that the wheat itself, and its constituent gliadin, has changed. In the 1950s, scientists began cross-breeding wheat to increase its yield, make it a hardier plant, and shorten its growing cycle. In the process, gliadin changed into a new protein, or food component, that is not recognized by the body. Gliadin is also now present in higher quantities in this altered wheat. This higher concentration is similar to the food manufacturing alteration of fructose (fruit sugar) into highly concentrated and disease-causing high fructose corn syrup. In effect, gliadin, which was already difficult to digest, became even harder for our bodies to recognize and digest properly.

Our bodies are being overexposed to gliadin not only because of its higher concentration in wheat, but also in the vast amounts that are present in many foods. If you think your exposure to wheat is limited to your morning slice of toast, think again. Wheat is contained in anything made with flour, of course, but can also be found in nearly all processed foods. It is common in pre-packaged sauces, soy sauce, and even some candies in the form of wheat germ, malt, maltodextrin, or other additives.

Beyond the digestive disturbance that high exposure to gliadin might cause, gliadin itself has been shown to cause a neurochemical response in the brain. Some even theorize that wheat is addictive, and that it stimulates appetite centers in our brains that may cause us to want to eat more carbohydrates and maybe even fatty foods.  Other wheat consumers might have mood or behavior disturbances, increased inflammation, or even headaches caused by this neurological response.

There is a growing movement to avoid wheat altogether, but this is quite the undertaking, and its necessity remains to be seen. It is likely that overexposure leads to disease, and for that reason, moderation is highly advisable. Breads that contain wheat should not be a mainstay of our diet, but instead should be occasionally consumed. To avoid other wheat additives, remember that the more whole foods in your diet the better. Stick with a diet high in organic veggies, fruits and meats, fish, nuts, legumes, and olive oils, and some dairy and eggs (if you are tolerant to them), and you will naturally avoid much of the excess wheat product that is so abundant in processed foods.

Unless you have celiac disease, don’t feel a need to invest in products labeled as “gluten-free,” as these tend to be somewhat processed, and can lead to blood sugar disturbance. Most of us will do better by moderating wheat (to a few times per week), and making sure that it is 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain when we do consume it. Some consumers, however, should be aware of gliadin’s neurochemical trigger for hunger, and its ability to cause inflammation or other troublesome symptoms. If a short wheat avoidance trial of at least 7-10 days seems to make you feel better and less hungry, you might be a candidate to avoid it completely.

The ever-changing world of nutrition is complicated and can be overwhelming. The story of wheat – its components of gluten and gliadin, and their effects on our health – is just starting to unravel. Wheat will likely be found to be a food that should be moderated for most of us, and avoided entirely only by some.  At the end of the day, however, as always, you don’t have to become an expert in label-reading to do the best by your body; you simply need to consume more foods without labels.

Take care & stay healthy,

Dr. Amy Whittington