A couple of months ago, I learned that I am gluten intolerant — which meant that I had to eliminate wheat from my diet entirely, pretty much overnight. This change has had some positive effects — I’m no longer bloated and in pain all the time, and I’ve lost weight. However, I would be lying if I said that I don’t miss having naan with my Indian takeout, and there are days when all I want is a proper slice of bread.
I know that wheat is bad for me, which is why I avoid it, but Dr. William Davis argues in his new book Wheat Belly that it’s bad for everyone. The cardiologist says that wheat can raise our levels of dangerous blood cholesterol, mess with our blood sugar, and make us obese — his book says that wheat is the largest single contributor to North America’s obesity epidemic, and removing it from our diets could lead to huge health gains.
Maclean’s recently interviewed Dr. Davis — here are the five most interesting points he made about wheat and what it could mean for our health:
1. The wheat we eat today isn’t the same as what our grandparents ate: “If you held up a conventional wheat plant from 50 years ago against a modern, high-yield dwarf wheat plant, you would see that today’s plant is about 2½ feet shorter,” Dr. Davis said to Maclean’s. This isn’t due to genetic modification of the wheat plant, he said; rather it comes from crossbreeding and hybridization that made wheat more drought resistant and increased yields and changed the structure of the wheat proteins along the way.
2. Eating whole-wheat products won’t fix the problem: Whole-wheat products are better for you than refined-wheat products, Davis said — but filtered cigarettes are also better for you than unfiltered. The point is that our increased consumption of wheat and grains is a problem, he said, regardless of the type of grain or how it’s been processed.
3. Wheat can wreak havok on your appetite: Wheat is more effectively converted to blood sugar than nearly any other carbohydrate, Davis said, and that includes table sugar. This contributes to a cycle of blood-sugar spikes and crashes that can leave you feeling constantly hungry and put you out of touch with your normal hunger cues.
4. Wheat can affect your cholesterol levels: There are two types of cholesterol — LDL (or “lethal”) cholesterol and HDL (or “healthy”) cholesterol. Our cholesterol levels, when tested by a doctor, are a balance of these two numbers — you want a healthy LDL:HDL ratio, not just less cholesterol in total. Eating carbohydrates increases blood sugar and leads to glycation, which is the glucose modification of proteins — and that can be bad news for your LDL levels. “If I glycate the proteins in my eyes, I get cataracts. If I glycate the cartilage of my knees and hips, I get arthritis. If I glycate small LDL, I’m more prone to atherosclerosis,” Davis explained.
5. You actually can be a carb addict: Polypeptides from gluten, a protein found in wheat, can bind opiate receptors in the brain, which can result in a mild sensation of euphoria after we eat wheat. A recent study found that opiate blockers, which are given to heroin addicts to eliminate the pleasurable effects of the drug, cut wheat consumption and lead to weight loss. Simply eating less wheat would have a similar effect, Davis said, but many people find that difficult to do.
Do you think that wheat is a dangerous food? Comment below.