Food fads haven’t served America well.
Not one of them has restored us to health, and that’s because each one is underpinned by profit motives, rather than scientific evidence that manipulating macronutrients, or eating specifically for your blood type, or putting your body into some kind of unnatural state, is a positive or sustainable way to live.
Each new diet, or miracle food, or weight-loss pill is potentially a billion-dollar business. And as each one dies a natural death, usually when science catches up, and proves it to be bogus, the diet and food industries need to present the next flashy, new fad.
A more recent “food fad,” as I’m sure you’ve seen on the shelves of grocery stores everywhere, is the gluten-free diet. Americans are now spending $16 billion annually on mostly processed “gluten free” products.
In recent years, many authors and practitioners have reinforced that all grains, inherently, are dangerous. My Facebook Live video on gluten shows the books on my shelves supporting the idea that gluten is making you sick, and the books that dispute that.
One thing is clear: tens of millions of people in Southeast Asia, Africa, India, South America, and China are virtually disease-free, unlike Americans, despite eating a lot of grain. (Or partly because of it?).
Many functional-medicine doctors (from many disciplines, those who look for root causes and treat the whole body holistically) have even jumped on the anti-grain bandwagon.
It’s becoming popular to tell people not only to stop eating white flour, but also to stop eating all wheat–and while we’re at it, the entire broad category of grains.
And some diets, like the Paleo diet, and the Auto-Immune Protocol (AIP) even advocate for throwing out legumes, as well.
Humans have been eating grains and legumes for millions of years, so the idea that these food groups are inherently bad is counterintuitive.
Sub-saharan Africans, millions of them, survive mainly on cereal grains and root vegetables. 3.4 million years ago, according to a study out of the University of Utah, hominids grew grains like wheat and barley, and even used mortar and pestle to crush and cook them.
Paleolithic humans ate whole, non-hybridized, in-season grains. There’s evidence of ancient Egyptians making breads with raw grains and yeast.
Grains and legumes have been foundational for cultures worldwide, since the dawn of time. The Bible calls it the “staff of life.” King Tut’s tomb was full of wheat for the afterlife.
So why, suddenly, are many “holistic” or “functional” doctors telling us to completely eliminate these food groups from our diets?
The anti-wheat movement is based on carefully-curated data that doesn’t necessarily explain the whole picture, or why wheat is bad. And the truth is, some people are having reactions to wheat. But the reason why might not be what the diet industry wants us to think.
Instead of reacting to the wheat itself, it’s much more likely that people are reacting to the hybridization of the wheat, the chemicals and glyphosate (Roundup) sprayed on it, or something else entirely, like a compromised gut reacting to harder-to-digest proteins that actually have many nutritionally positive properties.
Or some combination of those factors unrelated to gluten.
These factors, rather than the “staff of life” being faulty to begin with, may be part of our health problem in the past 100 years of processed food.
Before we “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and demonize grains, let’s look at why eating grains (the kind with gluten, and without) might be some of our most inexpensive, accessible, highly nutritious foods, and an important part of a disease-preventative, plant-based diet.
And let’s look at where we’ve gone wrong in the way we eat grains.
What’s the Problem with the Wheat We’re Eating?
1. Chemicals like glyphosate (Roundup)
Ancient man ate a lot of grain. In fact, archaeological scientist Christina Warinner, who studies the teeth and plaque of paleolithic peoples, found countless traces of grains and legumes in the remains of teeth of Paleolithic humans.
We know mankind has been eating these food groups for thousands of years. (In fact, says Dr. John Douillard, author of Eat Wheat, University of Utah research shows that mankind has been eating grain for 3.4M years, and has been eating meat for only 500,000 years.)
But the amount of chemicals added to our modern-day crops is a major difference between the grains ancient man was eating and the grains we eat today.
Glyphosate, the active and highly toxic ingredient in the popular weed-killer called Roundup, is one of the most widely-used agricultural chemicals to date.
And the glyphosate is not just contained to the crops and the farms. Because we’re ingesting these sprayed foods, glyphosate is showing up everywhere in the United States: in the water, in the air, in our blood, vaccines, wine, and even in breast milk.
Some experts even link the modern-day use of Roundup on crops to the rise of celiac disease.
And because ancient man ate these foods throughout our entire human history, seemingly without issue, something else has to be causing our modern reactivity to gluten and grains.
Glyphosate is a strong contender for that title.
Growers are now spraying wheat and other crops not only during the growing season, but also after harvest, to keep pests out!
You’ve likely heard the head-scratcher that “gluten sensitive” people from the U.S. are often astonished when they go to Europe and find that they can eat a croissant and suffer no symptoms, like the bloating or indigestion they experience at home.
(Even processed, white-flour breads, “gluten-sensitive” Americans can eat.)
One theory is that in France, they do not spray their grains, usually, like Americans have done for many years. Another theory is that French bakers bake every day, whereas most American grain products are made weeks in advance, and preserved with chemicals.
Hybridizing simply means breeding two species of plants to create a new, more desirable plant, one that is both pest-resistant and produces a higher yield. But the more hybridized the plant, the further away it is from its pure, natural form–the form your ancestors ate.
Hybridization has already occurred in many of our modern fruits and vegetables. The banana is one example. The “original” banana had little edible fruit and many seeds, so we’ve been able to cross-breed it with other wild plant species to create the yellow banana we enjoy today.
The problem with hybridization of wheat is that the end-product bears such little resemblance to the wheat ancient man was eating that some experts are calling the modern-day crop “FrankenWheat.”
We’ve increased the number of chromosomes and altered the makeup of the wheat, so our bodies have a more difficult time even recognizing it.
Kamut, or Khorasan wheat, provides more support of the theory that the wheat’s gluten itself might not be the problem. Kamut is an ancient wheat variety that has not been hybridized. It’s a trending product in health food stores today, purchased by people who likely are aware of the controversies linked to hybridized durum and semolina wheats.
Durum wheat, which is found in the majority of wheat products internationally, has been the target of many hybridization experiments in recent generations.
Some researchers and experts would have you believe that Kamut would cause the greater gluten reactivity, because it has twice the amount of the “problem” gluten protein (alpha gliadin) as compared to other kinds of wheat, like durum.
But actually, most people who describe symptoms related to wheat/gluten have less reactivity, or none, to Kamut.
Kamut not causing inflammation calls into the question the theory that alpha gliadin is the cause of gluten sensitivity, and forces us to reconsider if hybridization is the issue.
And it turns out, despite hundreds of hybridizations of durum wheat in the past century, its gluten content is still approximately the same as it was, at the turn of the century.
And while how much of it might not be the only consideration–the strange, changed cellular structure may cause the body to react–it appears that even hybridization may not explain the entire problem with wheat products the way Americans are eating them.
3. Already poor gut health
Another factor in reactivity to wheat could be the compromised gut flora of people all over the world, especially the Western world.
This is often due to antibiotic use, as well as the Standard American Diet full of chemicals and little nutrition or fiber.
It could be that someone with an imbalanced gut flora, or someone with “leaky gut,” or tears in the one-cell-thick lining of the gut, would have trouble digesting hybridized, sprayed, and nearly unrecognizable modern-day wheat.
But that’s not the fault of the grain itself. Which, in its organic, non-hybridized form might be entirely nutritious.
And because of all the gut issues people are experiencing, “food sensitivity” testing is all the rage with functional practitioners. If you see a natural-health-leaning doctor and have any gut issues or allergies, she’s probably recommended this testing to you.
These tests are a big reason people choose to eliminate all grains, gluten, or legumes from their diets.
However, I’ve taken about five of these tests, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Every single time I take one, my “food sensitivities” (none of which are severe, likely because of my clean diet the past 20+ years) are completely different.
And sometimes, I question their validity altogether. In fact, my friend, Dr. Alan Christianson, told me that he’s sent bloodwork from the same patient to two different labs and gotten totally different results 80% of the time! He got the same kind of totally dissimilar results sending the same person’s blood, marked as two different people, to the same lab.
That is, he told me, in 21 different tests, the dissimilarity of the lab results, whether to the same lab or two different labs, was equivalent to what you’d find in random chance.
This makes me wonder if these lab results are just functional medicine’s latest favorite biomarker. After all, we Americans love our biomarkers: blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure, for instance.
We worry about and fuss over them, measuring them constantly, as if they will tell us the true state of our health. When really, all of them are just symptoms of a deeper issue.
So, while these expensive tests may give clues about temporary states of reaction to even good foods, they aren’t the holy grail.
And if you’re going to throw away grains (and legumes, another class of foods that trendy diets are maligning based on dubious claims that lectins, phytates, or other “anti-nutrients” are problematic), you’re almost of necessity going to be eating a lot of meat.
That’s just almost a “given” in an anti-grain diet, because you have to get enough calories and protein. (As nutritious and fiber-rich as greens, vegetables, and fruits are, we need more calories than they provide.)
And meat, eggs, and dairy products, especially in modern America, are problematic on so many levels. Meat, for example, is tainted with preservatives and curative carcinogens like nitrates and nitrites.
Let’s don’t forget about the antibiotics, steroids, and hormones in poultry, beef, and pork. And the heavy metals and other pollutants in fish and seafood.
Unless you spend beyond the means of most of us, for wild-caught, organic, free-range, and grass-fed, you’re also eating disturbing quantities of harmful chemicals.
Each category of those chemicals found in the animal flesh and their milk and eggs have serious health consequences—and they’re harder for a compromised gut to break down.
Whole-food plants are more recognizable to your body and easier for your gut to digest than animal proteins. They’re also full of countless nutrients, like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, to help nourish your body and keep you healthy.
4. Wheat products are overly refined
Another issue with the wheat we’re eating today is that it’s highly refined. With white bread, we’re throwing away the germ, which contains the vitamins. We’re also throwing away the bran, which has the fiber.
And we’re refining and processing what’s left, which leaves us not much but the gluey, flour-like “endosperm.”
Our modern wheat is separated (so the endosperm remains and the germ and rich bran are discarded), milled, bleached, “enriched,” sifted, mixed, fermented, divided, molded, baked, sliced, preserved, and packaged.
By refining and processing the wheat to make foods like breads and crackers, food manufacturers are taking out all the nutrients early in the process, then adding some synthetic versions of nutrients back in that your body struggles to recognize, like metallic iron.
Your body digests white flour as sugar, and you crave more and more, keeping your blood sugar on a rollercoaster.
5. We’re eating too much wheat–and we’re eating it out-of-season
The way we eat wheat today is much different than the way man has eaten it historically. For one, we’re eating it all year, multiple times a day.
The average American is eating donuts, bagels, sandwiches, toast, croutons, cookies, and cake. Ancient man ate none of this.
After all, the low-fat craze of the 1980s and 1990s shifted Americans to a very carbohydrate-heavy diet, since refined carbs can be manufactured to be low in fat.
But ancient man mostly ate unprocessed wheat and grains when they were in-season, in the fall and winter. Their bodies naturally acclimated to these types of in-season foods and produced the digestive enzyme amylase to help them digest it easily. Or so goes the Ayurvedic theory.
They weren’t eating excessive amounts of it, all year, in highly altered forms, as followers of the Standard American Diet are doing.
6. We’re replacing wheat with gluten-free processed foods
While there are some issues with modern, hybridized, chemically-sprayed wheat, many think they are “eating healthy” by following a gluten-free diet.
One major problem with the gluten-free fad is that some people are simply replacing wheat products with gluten-free processed food and believing they are healthier.
The gluten-free industry is a $16 billion empire. Marketers of this growing fad industry are generally not keeping your best interests in mind, health-wise.
Most gluten-free products use ingredients like added sugar, corn syrup, canola oil, cornstarch, tapioca starch, and more, which are often just as nutritionally deficient as the refined-flour wheat products they’re replacing.
Powdered starches like rice starch (commonly found in gluten-free processed foods) actually spike blood sugar higher than whole wheat products do, which in turn can open the door for other health issues, like insulin resistance and weight gain.
Plus, Dr. John Douillard points to research that people who eat gluten-free products have 400 percent more mercury toxicity than wheat eaters, and are deficient in killer T cells.
A general rule is to avoid packaged, processed foods, no matter if they contain gluten or not, and eat a primarily whole-foods diet. Eat ancient varieties of whole wheat, such as Kamut or spelt or einkorn, or even other gluten-free grains rather than a processed rice flour bagel.
So yes, gluten-free products might be free of wheat and gluten, but now you’ve got other ingredients to worry about, like sugars, vegetable oils, heavy-metal contaminated rice, and processed, inflammatory starches.
Better Choices and Where to Buy Them
By now, you’re wondering what types of grains are better choices than the hybridized, sprayed, and processed options we normally see in stores. Here are some ideas:
Ezekiel Bread: Search the frozen food section of your local grocery store for Ezekiel bread, a brand of bread which is comprised of a combination of grains and legumes: wheat, barley, millet, lentils, soybeans, and spelt.
The grains are sprouted, and made without milled flour, so this bread also touts the benefits of increased digestibility, increased vitamins (like B and C), and easier absorption of minerals.
Sprouted Grains: The good news is that more and more people are noticing the benefits of sprouted grains, so you have better choices at the grocery store and sometimes at restaurants.
Make sure to buy only organic brown rice (in bread, and in general), as white rice is processed, and most of the world’s rice is grown in China, where, after the Fukushima radioactive disaster, heavy metal contamination in conventional rice is high, and common.
Sprouting essentially allows the grain to become “alive.” Soaking the grain neutralizes enzyme inhibitors and releases stored nutrients, therefore multiplying the protein, bioavailable minerals, enzymes, vitamins, and more.
All of these things make sprouted foods a superior choice to your regular white bread. Along with Food for Life, some popular brand names for sprouted grains are ShaSha Co. or Silver Hills for breads, TruRoots for whole grains like lentils or quinoa, and Go Raw or Kashi for sprouted bars and cereals.
Ancient Whole Grains or Seeds: Ancient grains or seeds like sorghum, teff, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, or chia are excellent items to add to your shopping list, and none of those “grains” even contain gluten. (In fact, they don’t even technically qualify as grains, though they are similar in the ways they are cooked.)
Non-hybridized grains are also called heritage grains, as they aren’t changed by selective breeding over the years.
Cook them and serve hot or cold in many ways: with a sauce, like you’d serve over pasta, or tossed with salads or any combination of steamed or raw veggies.
Popular brands of ancient grains include Ancient Harvest and Pure.
Manna or Yeast-Free Bread: Manna bread is a hearty, sprouted, naturally-leavened bread that doesn’t require yeast in the baking process.
Yeast is fed by sugar in the body, and can be problematic for people with compromised gut issues and candida overgrowth. Yeast-free bread can be harder to find than other options mentioned above, but check with your local health food store, as they are becoming more common as candida overgrowth or SIBO and other gut disorders become more widely diagnosed.
The most popular and widely available brand is Manna Organics.
Legumes: Though not a part of the grain category, legumes are worth a mention here. They’re an inexpensive way to get your fill of protein, fiber and micronutrients. They’re also extremely easy to find, and they don’t spoil quickly, so you can stock up your cupboard without worry of impending expiration dates.
Rinse and soak dried legumes overnight, then add 3 cups of water for every 1 cup of dried legume in your pot. (This is a rough estimate–read the package on your lentils, split peas, kidney beans or other lentils, as they do vary.)
Bring them to a boil, then simmer until tender (about 45 minutes for lentils or split peas, 2-3 hours for beans).
There are so many ways to eat legumes: sprouted on a salad, in a soup, in a stew, or seasoned as a side dish.
Some examples of legumes are lentils, chickpeas, split peas, and beans. You can find bags of dried legumes in the soup or bulk foods aisle of any grocery store.
The Bottom Line: Eat More Unprocessed, Whole Foods
There are tens of millions of people living on this planet (for example, in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, China, and India) who are almost entirely without the “American” diseases of cancer, heart disease, or autoimmune conditions.
These people primarily eat vegetables, greens, legumes, and grains, including wheat or other grains, as did our own ancestors in most cultures on most continents.
For example, the lowest Alzheimer’s rates occur in rural India, where people are eating mostly grains, plants, and beans and very infrequently, meat and dairy. And yet, when these people move to the U.S. and eat a Standard American Diet, their risk increases significantly.
And ancient man has been eating grains and legumes for centuries. Though the food industry now sells $16 billion annually to the unsuspecting public of “gluten free” junk food, researchers now aren’t sure the gluten itself is what’s causing health problems.
So maybe wheat itself isn’t the issue. Maybe it’s the way it has been hybridized, processed, or sprayed. And maybe we eat the processed versions far too often.
Bestselling author Dr. Michael Greger, MD. is one of my favorite experts in the field plant-based research. He chronicles how to use diet to fight common causes of death (like breast cancer, infections, and heart disease) in his 2016 book, How Not to Die. Greger documents thousands of published studies finding that a “whole-food, plant-based diet…has been repeatedly shown not just to help prevent the disease, but arrest and even reverse it.”
More than 10,000 published studies now show the virtues of eating more unprocessed foods and more plants.
Eating a whole food, plant-based diet fights disease. Eat plenty of fresh greens, vegetables and fruits, alongside whole grains and legumes, as well as nuts and seeds.
If you want to make wheat a part of your diet, the good news is there are better, less-processed options, and you will likely find that when you heal your gut, you can return to enjoying grains.
Watch my Rehab Your Gut with Food video, part of my free video masterclass, 12 Steps to Whole Foods, to cut through the fads and controversies and fast-track your understanding of how gut health is critical to overall health. And why the right whole FOODS–not fads–are the simplest answer to what the food-and-diet industry has made into an overly-complicated puzzle.
Instead of getting distracted by and following the fads, we can look to our ancestors and human history for one clear directive: that we should eat less processed food and more whole food.
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Greger, Michael M. D. How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease. New York: Flatiron, 2017. Print.
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