I have always had a love-affair with flour products, the doughier the better. Especially bread, the staff of life, right? Feed me anything made from wheat, like pasta, tortillas, scones, pretzels, crackers, cookies, croutons, and even licorice, and I’m in heaven. I feel immediate bliss. Well, at least my brain does. My body, on the other hand, well, that’s a different story. My nose gets stuffy, my head starts to get foggy within twenty-four hours, I wake up with bags under my eyes and my digestion feels off. So much for bliss!
I learned that I was gluten-sensitive over twenty-five years ago. After having multiple tests done by a gastroenterologist for a constant burning in my intestines, the gastro doctor found nothing and suggested I take pills to reduce stomach acid. It wasn’t until I saw an internist/allergist that I learned about the true source of my chronic discomfort.
The allergy doc suggested I remove all wheat products from my diet. Easier said than done for a flour-addict. I’m sure many of you can relate. Back then, I ate wheat, in many different forms, at every meal. And I snacked on wheat products. I lamented that there would be nothing left to eat. He assured me that there were many other foods, like brown rice and potatoes. Whoopee! Brown rice and potatoes, I thought. There was nothing left that I wanted to eat.
I did, however, follow his guidelines, and diligently removed all wheat products from my eating plan. After about a week of withdrawal symptoms (cranky, depressed and craving wheat), I made some interesting observations. First off, the burning in my intestines disappeared. Second, I had a lot more energy, my mood was better and I was sleeping more soundly. Third, my chronic stuffed sinuses cleared up. And, finally, I dropped weight without even trying. I knew he was on to something. I felt like a million bucks.
But because I was an emotional eater, I wasn’t always able to stay off of flour products. So I experimented and found that I could have them in extremely limited quantities without much body and brain flare-up. I kept them out of my diet, for the most part, because once I started eating them, the cravings monkey would climb on my back urging me to get more. I prefer to live monkey-free.
In the past few years, researchers have identified three major reasons why wheat products make us fat, sick and tired.Today’s wheat is not the wheat our great-grandparents used to bake bread. It’s a scientifically engineered food developed in the last 50 years and it’s different in three important ways.
1. It contains a type of gluten that is super inflammatory.
2. It contains a starch that is fattening, called amylopectin A.
3. It contains a drug that is addictive and leads to cravings.
The first major difference is that modern, engineered wheat has a much higher gluten content than the wheat of yesteryear and it contains many more of the gluten proteins that cause celiac disease and autoimmune antibodies. Gluten is the sticky protein in wheat that holds bread together and makes it rise. You can be gluten-sensitive without having celiac disease or have gluten antibodies and still have inflammation and many other symptoms.
Combine this with the damage our digestive tracts have suffered from our diet (high-sugar, low-fiber), environment, lifestyle and medication use, and you have the perfect storm for gluten intolerance. Once this super gluten crosses our leaky guts, it gets exposed to our immune system. Our immune system reacts as if gluten was something foreign, and sets off inflammation (i.e. stuffy nose, foggy head) in an attempt to eliminate it.
Modern engineered wheat also contains very high levels of a starch called amylopectin A. Both white and whole grain bread raises blood sugar levels. Two slices of today’s whole wheat bread raises your blood sugar more than two tablespoons of table sugar, encourages the storage of abdominal fat, triggers inflammation in the body, gives you a fatty liver and leads to obesity, pre-diabetes and diabetes.
Not only does modern wheat contain this high level of gluten and starch–it also contains a drug that can trigger food-addiction.
In your digestive tract, the proteins in wheat are converted into shorter proteins called “gluteomorphins,” after “gluten” and “morphine.” They are similar to the endorphins you get from runner’s high or sexual orgasm and they bind to the opioid receptors in the brain, making you high (this is the bliss I was talking about earlier) and addicted. And some of us are more sensitive than others to the release of these chemicals. But what’s not so blissful is the resultant cravings and bingeing.
The bottom line: Wheat products can make us fat, sick and tired and they are major contributors to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, depression and many other modern-day ills. Americans consume about 55 pounds of wheat flour every year.
Even if you’re not gluten sensitive, the starch (amylopectin A) and drug (gluteomorphins) contained in wheat products may still be affecting you. If you think that wheat products may be making you fat, sick and tired, try an elimination diet, giving wheat products the boot for four to six weeks. While you may feel worse the first week, take note of things like your energy level, mood, digestion and sleep. After the elimination period, take a day and eat a generous portion of wheat products many times throughout the day.If previous symptoms surface, this is a good indication that you are sensitive to something in the wheat products and it will be best to stay wheat-free.
If you feel way too addicted and emotionally attached to your wheat “fix”, you can try a rotation diet, where you eat wheat products only every fourth day (for example, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday etc.) This at least gives your immune system a rest from the offending foods. Once you get used to wheat-free days and find substitutions you like, like brown rice and yams, it will be easier to slowly remove wheat from your diet completely.
The problems with wheat are real with hard science backing them. In addition to losing weight and feeling better, reducing or eliminating your intake of wheat could save your life.
Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, MFT is a psychotherapist and life coach, and the author The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual—A Practical Mind/Body/Spirit Guide for Putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. For the past 25+ years, she has been helping overeaters and imbalanced eaters heal their relationships with themselves, their bodies and food, stop dieting, lose excess weight and keep it off. She is also a certified personal trainer with twenty-five years of experience designing personalized exercise and nutrition programs for various populations. Julie is the founder and director of The Twelve-Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program, an alternative to dieting that addresses the mind, body and spirit imbalances that underlie overeating. Julie offers individual, couple, family and group psychotherapy as well as classes and seminars. In addition to overeating, Julie offers psychotherapy and coaching for the following issues: relationship challenges, career development and transitions, work related stress, self-esteem, childhood dysfunction and trauma, addiction, grief and loss, co-dependency, self-care skills, and assertiveness training. Visit her website at www.overeatingrecovery.com.