April 2013 Issue

Wheat—Friend or Foe?

Some of today’s hottest diets advise you to say “no” to wheat. EN explores the science behind wheat and health.

A ccording to several popular diet books, such as “Wheat Belly” and “The Paleo Diet,” wheat is an unhealthful food, contributing to all manner of problems, including obesity, autoimmune disorders, and even autism. Such diets claim that if you eliminate wheat from your diet, you’ll lose weight and “cure” many conditions, such as diabetes and rashes. This wheat-free diet trend is in lockstep with the current gluten-free fad, which finds healthy people avoiding gluten because they believe it will bring them better health. (Gluten is a component of wheat and other related grains—such as spelt, kamut, rye, triticale and barley—and is harmful for people with celiac disease.) But is there any science to support that wheat is a “bad” food you should avoid?

Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D., Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emerita of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, believes that wheat has become today’s diet scapegoat. Jones, who is an expert in the field of grain science, says, “There is no evidence that wheat is bad for you, with the caveat that you eat the right amounts as recommended, and make half of your grain servings whole grain. There is a staple grain or starchy tuber in every culture—in our culture it’s wheat. We’ve been cultivating and eating wheat for centuries, and perhaps the only bad thing about it is that for the last 50 years of eating wheat, we’ve been sitting down too much and not cultivating it ourselves. So, we’re attacking the wrong demons.”

Growing wheat. One popular notion is that wheat has been genetically altered by humans to the degree that it is no longer good for us. However, Jones explains that the common plant foods you eat every day—lettuce, tomatoes, corn—have been modified countless times over the years through traditional cross-breeding methods, which farmers use in order to bring out the best attributes of crops. “Your grandmother and grandfather were seed savers—they saved the biggest, sweetest seeds and planted them the following year,” adds Jones. She dispels the myth that genetically modified wheat has given rise to “unique proteins” that are hazardous to health, and reports that there are no breeds of genetically modified wheat on the market, and no “unique proteins” found in wheat as a result of plant breeding. In fact, there is no scientific evidence to link today’s modern wheat varieties to health risk. 

Wheat and weight. Perhaps the most popular concern over wheat centers upon weight. Wheat-free proponents suggest that avoiding it can help you lose weight—if you eliminate wheat, you’re essentially on a low-carb diet.

According to Jones, “Studies show that low-carb diets can cause rapid weight loss in the first six months, but that people weigh more in two to three years, indicating that these diets are very hard to follow.” Any time you restrict your diet significantly by eliminating a major food group, such as wheat or dairy, calories typically drop and weight loss occurs. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that many wheat-free dieters report—anecdotally, without published scientific findings—that they have lost weight.

Yet, a number of studies have found that people who eat more whole grains, including whole wheat, maintain a healthier weight. In a Tufts University study of more than 400 adults, whole grain and cereal fiber intake was strongly linked to lower BMI (body mass index), lower total percent body fat and lower abdominal fat (Journal of Nutrition, 2009.) However, if you eat too many servings of wheat or too many high-calorie products that combine wheat with fat and sugar (think donuts and chocolate chip cookies), it’s entirely possible to put on pounds.

Wheat and disease. Wheat-free diets claim that before the cultivation of wheat humans were healthy, and that wheat is to blame for many health conditions, from diabetes to heart disease. But Jones reports, “Most chronic diseases didn’t occur in early times, because life span was only in the 30s. If anything, you could say that diets with grains have enabled a longer life. In the beginning of the 1900s, our lifespan was in the 50s and we were eating a lot of wheat. Our lifespan has continued to increase. This has to do with many factors, including diet.”

Furthermore, a body of science indicates consumption of whole grains is associated with many health benefits, including decreased mortality and lower risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and certain types of cancer. Since wheat comprises about 94 percent of our grain intake in the U.S., you can link these health attributes with whole wheat consumption, according to Jones.

Look no further than the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), a dietary pattern with years of documented, proven health benefits, including weight loss, elimination of hypertension, and reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, heart failure, and certain types of cancer. The DASH diet is a nutritionally balanced diet that includes six to eight servings of grains daily, mostly in their whole grain form. (See EN’s coverage of the DASH diet in the December 2012 issue.)

The bottom line. “Unless you have a food allergy, if any diet tells you to eliminate a whole food group or category of foods, or promises what seems too good to be true, stay clear of it,” advises Jones. “What you want is variety; eat all kinds of fruits and vegetables and all kinds of grains.” The secret to eating wheat healthfully is to focus on minimally processed foods, such as whole wheat pasta, whole grain bread and crackers, and cooked wheat, such as wheat berries, kamut and spelt. Limit grain treats, like cake, cookies and butter crackers, to “occasionally.” And remember to pay attention to portion sizes; today’s restaurants can dish up six to eight servings of pasta on your plate, and that’s just too much for everyone. 

—Sharon Palmer, R.D.