Dave Shaw
Performance nutritionist, clinical dietitian and health expert, Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: Wheat is not the enemy

Wheat is the world's most widely cultivated cereal grain. The demand for consumption is growing as countries adopt Western eating patterns. So what's all the talk behind cutting it out of our diets? Dave Shaw considers the evidence behind some popular wheat beliefs.
A wheat free diet could be the healthiest way to eat. But for now, wheat is not our foe. 
Photo / Thinkstock
A wheat free diet could be the healthiest way to eat. But for now, wheat is not our foe. Photo / Thinkstock

Wheat makes us fat

If you eat to much of anything, you're going to gain weight. Even though the rise of the grain heavy "healthy food pyramid" back in the 70s has correlated with growing waistlines, this does not mean there is a direct link between wheat and fatness. Obesity is caused by many factors, so it's important to consider your overall diet and lifestyle.

Gluten is the devil

Gluten is the main protein found in wheat that gives baked products their elasticity. The problem is, 1 per cent of the population cannot properly digest gluten - this is a serious gut abnormality called Coeliac disease that results in a bunch of health issues. This small group require a diet completely free of gluten and wheat. For everyone else, most health professionals would say: if you don't have Coeliac disease, you don't need to remove or cut out gluten or wheat products. This is a common flaw in scientific thinking as evidence clearly shows people without Coeliac disease can have various levels of gluten "sensitivity" that can damage the intestinal lining and cause symptoms like pain, anaemia, bloating, stool inconsistency, tiredness, among others.

Wheat spikes blood sugar

Refined grain, like flour, causes our blood sugar to shoot up and then plummet. This can make you feel hungrier than before you ate and crave that second carbo filled snack. On the other hand, wholegrains don't have the same effect since they are harder to digest. It's a shame that refined flour and processed food flood our supermarket and kitchen shelves. Eating a diet that causes blood sugar levels to fluctuate like that will place you at a much larger risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Wheat is anti-nutritional

Calorie for calorie, wheat isn't very nutritious when you compare it to foods like meat and vegetables. So, diets excessively high in wheat-based foods (like bread and pasta) can actually displace some of the essential vitamins and minerals found in the diet - I like to call this being "overfed but undernourished". Wheat also contains substances that steal nutrients from other foods. An example of this is phytic acid, which hinders the absorption of iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc.

Wheat is bad for your heart

We all know elevated LDL (the bad cholesterol) is associated with a higher risk of heart disease. However, studies now show people who have higher amounts of smaller, denser LDL particles are at a much higher risk than those having lighter, fluffier LDL particles. With this in mind, one study compared two groups who ate a breakfast containing either whole oats or a wheat based cereal for 12 weeks. The oat group had reductions in total LDL and small, dense LDL. The wheat group had increases in LDL by 8 per cent and a massive 60 per cent rise in small, dense LDL - not so heart friendly after all.

What does it all mean?

The food pyramid suggests we should eat a whopping six to seven servings a day of bread and cereals - this is wrong. It's better to eat according to your body's needs, which can be far less than what's recommended. Eat mostly wholegrains as these are linked with decreased risks of obesity, diabetes, cancer and dementia. Avoid refined flour and highly processed foods, unless you need these to meet your energy requirements or as a source of nutrients - an example is iron from fortified breakfast cereals. For those with Coeliac disease, it's best to completely remove wheat from your diet. Or if you have a milder form of gluten intolerance, consider cutting down on how much wheat you eat.

With all the emerging evidence, a wheat-free diet could be the healthiest way to eat. But for now, wheat is not our foe.

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