New studies show that even whole wheat may contribute to some health problems.
Here are 6 potential problems with whole wheat.
Gluten is the main protein found in wheat and a few other grains like rye, spelt and barley.
Its name is derived from its glue-like (glu-ten) properties.
This protein gives dough its elastic properties and makes it pliable. If you've ever handled wet dough in your life, then you will know what I'm talking about.
The problem with modern wheat is that many people are unable to properly digest the gluten in it.
The immune system "sees" the gluten proteins in the digestive tract, thinks they're foreign invaders and mounts an attack... not just against the gluten, but also the digestive wall itself. This is the hallmark of celiac disease, a serious disease which may affect up to 1% of the population (1, 2).
However, there is evidence that a much larger percentage of people may be "sensitive" to gluten. They don't have full-blown celiac disease, but they do have symptoms when they ingest gluten (3, 4, 5).
There are studies in people who don't have celiac disease showing that gluten can damage the intestinal lining and cause symptoms like pain, anemia, bloating, stool inconsistency, tiredness, among others (6, 7, 8, 9).
There is also evidence that gluten can make the lining of the intestine more permeable, potentially allowing partially digested substances to "leak" from the digestive tract into the bloodstream (10).
Of course, it's important to point out that not all people are sensitive to wheat. Some people appear to tolerate it just fine.
Bottom Line: There is mounting evidence that a significant percentage of the population may be "sensitive" to gluten. Gluten sensitivity can cause various adverse effects.
Refined grain products like white bread get digested quickly, which leads to large spikes in blood sugar.
The large spikes are followed by rapid drops which tend to stimulate hunger and call for another high-carb meal.
This phenomenon is commonly known as the "blood sugar roller coaster." However, products made from whole grains that contain more fiber are supposed to lead to slower rises in blood sugar.
The problem is that whole grains aren't always what they're supposed to be. Often, they have been pulverized into very fine flour, which also gets digested quickly, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar.
Elevated blood sugars also cause complications when the glucose reacts with proteins in the body. This is called glycation and is one of the components of aging (15).
Bottom Line: Most whole grain products have actually been pulverized into very fine flour, which tends to raise blood sugars rapidly and can cause all sorts of problems down the line.
Calorie for calorie, wheat isn't very nutritious compared to other real foods like animals and vegetables.
It also happens to contain substances that "steal" nutrients from other foods.
- A substance in wheat called phytic acid can bind minerals like calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium and prevent them from being absorbed. Whole wheat contains even more phytic acid than refined wheat (16, 17, 18).
- Wheat doesn't contain all the essential amino acids in the right ratios and is therefore not a very good source of protein for humans (19).
- In gluten sensitive individuals, the digestive lining can become damaged, reducing the absorption of all nutrients (20).
- One study shows that wheat fiber can make people burn through their Vitamin D stores 30% faster, increasing the risk of deficiency (21).
Bottom Line: Wheat contains a substance called phytic acid, which can reduce absorption of important minerals. It may also cause people to burn through their Vitamin D stores faster, contributing to deficiency.
Studies show that wheat consumption is associated with serious disorders of the brain.
Gluten And Cerebellar AtaxiaCerebellar ataxia is a motor disturbance caused by lesions in the cerebellum, a part of the brain that controls motor functions.
One form of this disease may be caused or exacerbated by gluten consumption. It is called gluten ataxia and involves an autoimmune attack on the cerebellum.
Multiple studies show an association between gluten, gluten sensitivity and cerebellar ataxia (22, 23, 24, 25). A controlled trial has also shown an improvement in ataxia patients who went on a gluten-free diet (26).
Gluten And Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder which afflicts about 0.3-0.7% of people at some point during their lifetime (27).
There are strong statistical associations between celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and schizophrenia. Many schizophrenic individuals have antibodies against gluten in their bloodstream (28, 29, 30, 31, 32).
Other Brain Disorders
These are just a handful of disorders that have been shown to travel with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.
Of course, I'm not suggesting that wheat or gluten causes these disorders, only that some evidence suggests that gluten may be a contributing factor in some patients.
This definitely needs to be studied more thoroughly, but given that there's no actual benefit to eating wheat, then I personally prefer to be on the safe side and avoid it.
Bottom Line: Being sensitive to gluten is associated with many disorders of the brain, such as schizophrenia, cerebellar ataxia, autism and epilepsy.
There are some who believe that wheat may be addictive.
It is definitely not proven yet, although there are a few interesting observations that allow for some speculation.
When gluten proteins are broken down in a test tube, the peptides they form are able to stimulate opioid receptors. These peptides are called gluten exorphins (41).
Opioid receptors are the receptors in the brain that are stimulated by drugs like heroin and morphine, as well as endorphines that are released naturally when we do something like running.
The theory goes like this... the gluten we eat gets broken down into these opioid peptides, which then travel into the blood and eventually into the brain, where they cause addiction to wheat.
At this point, this is only theoretical. No hard evidence proves wheat to be addictive.
Personally I find the idea to be plausible. Back in the day when I used to eat wheat I would often crave it. Almost every food that I would get powerful cravings for foods that included both sugar and wheat.
Bottom Line: The digestive products of gluten may be able to stimulate opioid receptors and contribute to addiction. However, this needs to be studied more before we can make any conclusions.
Elevated levels of LDL (the "bad") cholesterol are associated with a greater risk of heart disease.
However, studies show that there isn't just one type of LDL. The size of the LDL molecules appears to be important.
People who have mostly small, dense LDL particles (also called Pattern B) are at a greater risk of heart disease.
One randomized controlled trial split 36 overweight men into two groups.
One group was instructed to eat whole oats, the other whole wheat. The study went on for 12 weeks and they measured important risk factors for heart disease (49).
The oat group had reductions in total LDL, small, dense LDL and LDL particle number (LDL-p - another important risk factor).
However, the wheat group had increases in LDL by 8%, increase in LDL particle number by 14.2% and a 60.4% increase in small, dense LDL particles.
The wheat group also had increases in total cholesterol and triglycerides, but the difference was not statistically significant.