What’s with wheat: A food finger-pointing problem?
From pizza to pasta, dumplings to pies and toasties to pretty much every dessert, wheat is in all the best comfort foods.
Wheat used to be so good, so comforting, so pleasure-inducing. Until the finger-pointing started as we tried to understand the tsunami of chronic illness sweeping modern society.
So where did wheat go so wrong?
A new documentary, What’s With Wheat?, featuring Sunshine Coast-based nutritionist Cyndi O’Meara, has attempted to answer that question.
Five years ago, O’Meara realised wheat was causing her health problems.
“I eat as organically as I can, I make everything from scratch – bread, muffins… but I hit about 48 and started to get aches and pains,” says O’Meara, who is also the author of Changing Habits.
She was also feeling anxious, foggy and bloated.
“My husband started to say my belly was getting big and I’d slap him.”
She went on an elimination diet for three weeks before gradually reintroducing her normal foods.
When she ate wheat again, she instantly experienced problems. After trying the experiment again, with the same results she began doing research.
“I didn’t agree with Paleo – I did cultural anthropology… so I knew we’d been eating wheat for a long time, but I thought there’s got to be something in this,” O’Meara says.
She found that many people were experiencing similar problems.
“There’s been a five-fold increase in wheat allergies in the past 25 years. Gluten intolerance and wheat allergies are all rising.”
What’s with wheat?
Over the last 100 years we’ve refined grains, we eat a lot more of it, it’s in our cosmetics, it’s in our vitamin C, it’s fortified with synthetic vitamins and mined minerals, it’s been hybridised, leading some experts to dub it ‘Frankenwheat‘.
“Wheat is processed and prepared differently these days, which makes it less nutritious and more harmful than traditionally prepared wheat,” Authority Nutrition’s Kris Gunnar has said.
This change in processing includes monoculture farming which, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “relies heavily on chemical inputs such as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
“The fertilisers are needed because growing the same plant (and nothing else) in the same place year after year quickly depletes the nutrients that the plant relies on, and these nutrients have to be replenished somehow.”
It’s not just the pesticides (usage is increasing at a rate of about a 10 per cent per year, with the most popular being Glyphosate) that has people concerned. It’s the effect pesticides may have on our gut bacteria.
“From 1998 to now there’s been a rise in the chemicals and Glyphosate, not just on wheat but on all foods and on our gardens,” O’Meara says. “It destroys our ability to digest gluten. We have bugs [in our guts] that help us to digest the gluten.”
It is compelling food for thought particularly given we’re still advised to eat so many grains; four to six servings per day, which is the equivalent of up to six slices of bread or three cups of pasta.
Except, of course, there is always another side to the story.
“Plus Australian data was just released showing that those who eat core grains compared to those who don’t have no difference in BMI or waist, but have pretty much double the fibre intake,” adds dietitian, Dr Joanna McMillan.
“Gluten containing grains are our biggest sources of prebiotics that fuel good bacterial growth in our colons,” McMillan says, questioning claims that pesticides affect gut bacteria.
“Gluten is a protein and is digested in the small intestine where there are very few bacteria… they are only involved in digestion in the colon where they ferment undigested material that pass through.
“We certainly benefit from this. However this has very little to do with protein digestion… The microbiome (colony of gut bacteria) is affected enormously by our diet and in fact wheat bran is one of the most effective ways of improving faecal bulk so it reduces constipation and it is rich in prebiotics that boost good gut bacteria.”
O’Meara reiterates that she is not against grains, nor attempting to lump all health problems on gluten.
“We’re talking about wheat – not grains. Oats, millet, amaranth we’re still growing in a traditional way,” she says.
“It’s not a one-food wonder. If you continue to eat McDonalds and take away the bun, it’s not going to make you better.”
Time to bring back tradition?
The trouble with any sort of finger-pointing at a particular food group is that it doesn’t take into account the complete, accelerated picture of lifestyle change that has driven an undeniable health and obesity epidemic.
“The speed of environmental change has far surpassed our ability to adapt,” the founder of non-for-profit nutritional education organisation, Oldways Dun Gifford has said.
Consider that, until agriculture was developed 10,000-odd years ago, we got our food by running for long distances (humans evolved to outrun most creatures) to hunt, gather and fish.
Today we are mostly sedentary and only a few scattered tribes of hunter-gatherers remain (no, not the Paleos).
“There are many forces,” Willett said, “and all are pushing in the wrong direction simultaneously.”
“So why blame wheat,” McMillan asks. “We don’t look at peanuts or eggs or seafood. We look at what has changed in our gut environment, to our immune systems or to our environments where answers are starting to come forward.”
Many experts have argued that returning to a more traditional way of eating (slow fermented sourdoughs which may improve the way we digest gluten, ancient grains and fresh, process-free produce) and moving more, rather than necessarily removing sugar or wheat or any other food, is a step in the right direction.
“It’s about bringing traditional wheat back – emmer wheat and ironcorn,” O’Meara says. We want people to make beautiful breads and muffins… let’s eat these foods but let’s eat the best quality we can.”
With this, McMillan agrees.
“I do encourage people to broaden the range of wholegrains in their diet and certainly include more different varieties of wheat including those ancient strains like spelt, kammut and emmer (farro),” she says. “Focus instead on cutting out the highly processed grains that offer little nutritionally – what dietitians call discretionary foods – that’s cakes, biscuits, lollies and so on. These make up more than a third of the average Australian’s diet.”
Indeed, this is the point, say O’Meara, and other experts in the documentary.
“The story of wheat is the story of food,” O’Meara says, adding that many sugars and salts and oils have also been refined and adulterated. “We’re playing with the food we sustain ourselves on and now many people can’t eat it.
“I don’t have a problem with grains – I’m not a Paleo girl – I have a problem with what they’re doing with grains.”
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