Should I eat Wheat?

Another post about Wheat Ann? Seriously?

Well, yes but then I’ll stop. Okay?

I get a lot of questions about it AND people pick on wheat.

I’ve always loved an underdog.

Before gluten and Celiac were household words, and before the bountiful Internet, one of my dearest friends was experiencing a myriad of symptoms that seemed random and unrelated. There was muscle cramping and bone pain, menstruation abnormalities, tingling and pain in her arms and legs and abdominal bloating, so much bloating. After years of fearful suffering, afraid to face a possible MS diagnosis, she finally screwed up enough courage to see her physician.


The verdict: Celiac Sprue disease. Celiac’s disease is an autoimmune disorder where you cannot fully digest the protein gluten and is nothing to scoff at. If diagnosed with it, a wheat free diet is a must. The good news is that gluten intolerance in the general population is low. According to the Center for Disease Control about 1 in every 141 people have it, considering one in two or three people have some form of heart disease gluten is less prevalent.


With all the media attention about the perils of eating wheat we wonder, should we all give up wheat? Would we weigh less, have less belly fat and have more energy? The short answer is, eating wheat in moderation is part of a healthy diet. If you aren’t allergic, please do eat wheat. If it makes you sick, please get tested.


The problem is that getting tested for gluten intolerance is kind of a big deal, and requires invasive and expensive lab tests. Faced with this time and expense people are avoiding wheat products just to be safe. Better safe than sorry, we think. But that thinking brings many challenges and few results.


Avoiding gluten in our food supply is a nightmare. Gluten free diets are socially inconvenient, extremely expensive and large moneymakers for gluten free product manufacturers.  The market research company Packaged Facts report last fall the gluten-free market in the United States was $4.2 billion last year. That’s big business and expensive for us little people.


Additionally, eating wheat free requires a kind of micromanaging of our diets that makes eating so much less enjoyable. Try feeding a gluten free diet to your kids and pretty soon, your life is overwhelmed by the time it takes to ferret out gluten in all of its forms.


I’ve talked to people who say that giving up wheat has made them feel better and there are probably good reasons that have little to do with gluten sensitivity or allergy. Annie Wetter Professor of Nutrition at University of Wisconsin Steven’s Point says, “Maybe people feel better because they were eating too much of one thing. A giant bagel from Panera is a lot of food for one meal, if you feel bloated after, well, that would be normal.” It’s also possible that when giving up wheat you are feeling better because of the sugar, preservatives, salt, calories or other possible allergens, you are giving up by proxy. Anytime you reduce these items, you are bound to feel better.


While there is nothing actually unhealthy about a gluten free diet, whenever we restrict a food based on principle or fad or potential for future safety we make eating that much more difficult. There are a lot of things in our food supply that definitely should be avoided; saturated fats, too much added sugars, hydrogenated oils. Adding gluten to that list, when you don’t medically need to, puts an unnecessary thing on your to-do list


Here’s what Marion Nestle, the first lady of nutrition says we know about wheat, the starch in it is not different or metabolized inefficiently, it does not cause obesity if eaten in moderation, it does not have a higher glycemic index than sugar and it is not addictive. Wheat should definitely be part of a healthy diet.


To eat in a sustainable, enjoyable way our focus should be less about micromanaging our diets by examining individual nutrients and more about looking at the big picture. Single nutrient focus is always socially difficult, not defensive scientifically any more, and not the way the body works or the way we eat. We eat food in groups and mixtures over several days. To eat wheat we mix it with yeast, sugar, and oil, when we give up wheat products we are not just giving up wheat. We are giving up all kids of things and that isn’t scientific or enlightening.


The real problem is that giving up wheat distracts us from what we should really be watching and that is sugar and unhealthy fats. If one in two people are dying of heart disease than giving up wheat isn’t solving that problem, in some ways it’s compounding it by limiting our variety, nutrients and choices.


I love to eat. I don’t want to make it harder, it’s hard enough already. I don’t want to give up foods I don’t have to give up, unless there is a really, really good, medical reason to do so. Give wheat up if you have celiac disease, if not, cheers, have a piece of toast.

This in part was published first in BRAVA magazine.