What Does Wheat Do to Us?

Wheat is mainly carbohydrates (90% of which is starch) and some protein. The outer layer or bran is mostly three kinds of fiber, and they wind up included in whole wheat flour. Being insoluble, this fiber passes through the digestive system, nourishing friendly gut bacteria, and adding desirable bulk to the stool. Wheat also contains small amounts of fat, sugar, and trace minerals, and a bit of soluble fibers or fructans, which are said to irritate the intestine and contribute to Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

On the other hand, some research suggests that the consumption of whole grain cereals reduces colon cancer risk. It is easy to see why the general public becomes confused.

On the third hand, there is virtually universal agreement about refined wheat flour, aka white flour. It contains practically no fiber, and has minimal nutritional or antioxidant value. In many countries, it is required to be reinforced with added vitamins and minerals.

Atli Arnarson, Ph.D., goes so far as to say, “Refined white wheat does not have any beneficial health properties.” What about all that starch? He says,

The health effects of starch mainly depend on its digestibility, which determines its effect on blood sugar levels. High digestibility may cause an unhealthy spike in blood sugar after a meal and have harmful effects on health, especially in people with diabetes.

And then, there is gluten, which makes up about 80% of wheat’s total protein content. Gluten is actually a family of proteins, of which gliadin is the main culprit in celiac disease. Also there are glutenins. Gluten appears not only in wheat, but in rye and barley, and is gratuitously thrown into processed foods.

Dr. Arnarson seems to be in the middle of the road on the wheat question, saying both that whole-grain wheat can be great for people who tolerate it, and that the gluten-intolerant need to leave wheat behind.

Two different journeys

Most writers on the topic of gluten intolerance make it clear that two different things are going on. Celiac disease is an immune reaction, still relatively rare, affecting between one-half to one percent of the population. The reaction can be extreme, like getting sick from a few particles of flour floating in the air.

There is non-celiac gluten intolerance, which is said to have an unknown cause. (Some would say it is caused by gluten.) We are also told that gluten is a common allergen that affects maybe 1% of children. Outside those acknowledged categories, everybody else is supposedly okay with gluten.

So, what does wheat do to us?

It makes us sick. Or more accurately, it makes some of us sick in ways that are immediately and urgently apparent, and makes the rest of us gradually but inexorably sick. How so? According to this school of thought, and contrary to what Dr. Arnarson says, in actual fact nobody can tolerate wheat/gluten. It’s just that in most cases, the effect of the intolerance takes a while to show up.

Many experts say wheat is harmful to the digestive system, even if people don’t have celiac disease or outright intolerance or allergy. Patients and doctors alike tend to concentrate on problems that are immediately life-threatening. But corrosive damage can occur over time and below the threshold of awareness. Some believe that we are so accustomed to the debilitating side effects of wheat, we just take them for granted as part of the human condition, and never even suspect that a lot annoying physical problems could be eliminated.

We won’t go into it here, but a thorough explanation of why ostensibly healthy people should nevertheless quit even the supposedly healthful whole wheat, can be found in a piece subtitled “Why it is so addictive, and how shunning it will make you skinny.”

Adding to the confusion, here is another Dr. Arnarson quotation:

Wheat or gluten may cause actual symptoms, similar to those of celiac disease. Frequent symptoms of gluten sensitivity include abdominal pain, headache, fatigue, diarrhea, joint pain, bloating and eczema. This condition has been called gluten sensitivity, or non-celiac wheat sensitivity, and is defined as an adverse reaction to wheat without any autoimmune or allergic reactions.

This seems to imply that if they result from mere gluten sensitivity, then abdominal pain, headache, fatigue, diarrhea, joint pain, bloating and eczema don’t count. But what are those, if not autoimmune/allergic reactions? How is a symptom different from an “adverse reaction”? These are some of the many questions surrounding wheat.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Wheat 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Effects,” Healthline.com, 02/25/15
Source: “On the evils of wheat,” Macleans.ca, 09/20/11
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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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