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Wheat - Staff of Life or Pain in the Gut?

by Penny Crowther(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 207 - June 2013

Wheat has been a staple part of the diet throughout the ages. We started eating wheat around 10,000 years ago when the agricultural revolution signalled the beginning of grain cultivation and the end of a nomadic hunter gatherer way of life.  However, in evolutionary terms this is actually not a very long time, particularly if you consider that grains hadn’t been eaten in the previous 250, 000 years.

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Today wheat based foods comprise a huge part of our average daily fare and in some circles, going wheat free is mistakenly branded as a ‘fad’ diet. Personally I think the average junk food laden, refined carbohydrate rich diet better deserves the description of ‘fad’ diet. Here are some powerful reminders as to why removing wheat from the diet is a good thing.

Three Reasons why Avoiding Wheat is Better for your Health

  1. Wheat contains a protein, gluten, which is what gives bread its elastic texture. The more springy the bread, the more gluten it contains and many bread manufacturers add additional gluten on top of what is already present in the flour.  Unfortunately gluten is particularly difficult for the human digestive system to break down, resulting in a host of health issues. Not only is the digestive system affected but osteoporosis, anaemia, brain fog, depression and fatigue are more likely.
  2. The problem with modern wheat is that it is very different from the wheat of pre-1950. In his excellent book Wheat Belly, cardiologist Dr William Davis calls this new wheat “Frankenwheat”. He explains how since the Second World War, wheat has undergone genetic manipulation to make it disease and draught resistant and massively increase its yield.  The modern wheat plant is half the height and produces a much higher yield than wheat of old. It contains more gluten and the gluten has a changed biochemical structure. Left to nature, the wheat plant would have changed and adapted but much more slowly. There is emerging research that the genetic meddling with wheat may be responsible for its effect on inflammation, the immune system, imbalanced hormones and weight gain.
  3. Coeliac disease involves a severe wheat allergy associated with an auto immune condition. Gluten triggers the immune system to attack the intestinal walls which are covered in villi, tiny, finger-like projections which increase the surface area of the intestines and ensure efficient absorption of nutrients.  Coeliac disease, although it is on the increase, still only affects a small percentage of the population. It is only diagnosed if there is what is called total villous atrophy i.e. destruction of the villi. This is an end stage condition. What is much more common is a milder form of gluten sensitivity rather than allergy.
    This is associated with an ongoing process of inflammation but the person will be sent away from the GP and told that they don’t have a gluten problem. At the moment GPs don’t have a means of diagnosing gluten sensitivity. There is a new test coming to the UK very soon available to private practitioners from Cyrex laboratories.

Other Benefits of a Wheat Free Diet

Eating less wheat inevitably means eating less cakes, biscuits, bread and pasta which is good for insulin balance. All carbohydrates are converted to sugar in the body, some types of carbohydrate being converted to sugar more quickly than others, (generally the refined, ‘white’ carbohydrates). Insulin is the hormone produced in the pancreas in response to eating carbs and its function is to lower blood sugar. Any carbohydrates which are excess to requirements will be converted to fat by insulin and laid down in the body cells, particularly around the abdomen, leading to the classic apple shape with fat concentrated around the middle.

It is possible (and quite common) to have imbalanced insulin without being diabetic. The result is fluctuating blood sugar levels and the associated symptoms of food cravings, irritability and weight gain. Bingeing on carbohydrates leads to further insulin surges and weight gain.

So, reducing carbohydrates from wheat reduces production of the hormone insulin.  This is good because the more insulin, the more fat is stored. This turns on its head the traditional low fat, high carbohydrate recommendations. It is actually carbohydrates that are linked with high blood sugar and high insulin levels and consequently increased fat storage.

What are the Alternatives to Wheat?

Going wheat free is much easier than it was 10 years ago as there is greater choice of tasty wheat free foods. Here are some suggestions for healthy wheat free carbohydrates:

Rye bread, oatcakes, rice, porridge, wheat free muesli, quinoa, Ryvita, buckwheat pasta, corn pasta, and brown rice noodles. Spelt is an ancient species of wheat which contains gluten that is more easily digested than modern wheat. Many people who don’t do well on regular wheat can eat spelt bread and spelt pasta.

Even though these wheat free grain foods provide healthy soluble fibre and are good for you, it is not necessary to eat them with each meal.  Try having one meal a day without them, for example a large mixed salad with an olive oil dressing and fish or chicken. 

If a food is labelled gluten free this means it is wheat free. A gluten free diet excludes all other forms of gluten in addition to wheat gluten, namely rye, barley and often oats.


  1. Jason Ensor said..

    Thankyou for this important information. It is like doctors are suddenly idiots. I yearn for a doctor just out of medical school.

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About Penny Crowther

Penny Crowther BANT CNHC qualified as a nutritional therapist in 1997 and has been in clinical practice ever since. She has seen several thousand clients over the years, at her practice in London and online. Penny now specializes in nutrition for women in their 40s and beyond, particularly around peri and post menopause. Mid Life for women can be a time when fluctuating hormones play havoc with your wellbeing. In the midst of all the publicity around HRT, it's easy to forget just how powerful diet and lifestyle changes can be when it comes to navigating the menopausal years.

Penny will guide and support you through specific changes to your diet, targeted to you specifically, in midlife. She provides practical, easy to follow menu plans with easy and delicious recipes. The food you eat affects every cell and system in your body. It optimizes how you look and feel, both mentally and physically.

To book an appointment view consultation options here >>

As well as being a regular columnist for Positive Health, Penny has written for Holland and Barrett, and contributed to articles for the Daily TelegraphThe Times Literary supplement, Pregnancy & Birth and Marie Claire. She has been featured in the Daily Express, Daily Mirror and on local radio.

Penny is a registered nutritional therapist with standards of training endorsed by BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy) and CNHC. This includes completing 30 hours of continuing professional development, annually.

Penny’s approach to health is holistic, and takes into account emotional, mental and environmental factors as well as nutrition. She has trained in coaching and studied many complementary therapies before qualifying as a nutritionist, which provides a broad foundation of knowledge in her nutrition practice. Penny may be contacted on Tel: 07761 768 754;

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