Wheat has the image of being nutritious and wholesome a traditional food. We think of our grandmothers kneading dough and baking bread or reflect on the phrase ‘the staff of life’.
Although wheat has been part of the diet of Europeans and North Americans for several hundreds of years, it is only since the arrival of mass food production and supermarkets some 50 years ago that the amount of wheat in an average diet has increased considerably.
However, the wheat we eat today bears little resemblance to the grain our grandmothers used. The amount of chemicals used by farmers has increased tremendously over the past 75 years. So, even before wheat is taken from the fields, it has been exposed to high levels of insecticides, fungicides and similar chemicals.
Modern wheat undergoes a bewildering array of processes before being used in the products we purchase. The germ the part of the wheat grain that is high in vitamin E and many of the B vitamins is removed because it turns rancid very quickly and would therefore spoil the flour. Bran, the fibre part of the grain, is also removed during most milling processes, as the majority of the wheat products we consume are made with white flour.
Until about 50 years ago, wheat flour, like wine, was stored for months and allowed to age to improve the flavour. Nowadays, to save storage costs and time, manufacturers use chemical oxidising agents such as potassium bromate to age the wheat within 48 hours. Then, the natural yellow colour of flour is bleached away with chemicals such as benzoyl peroxide to turn it white, as this is considered more visually appealing. As the bleaching agent needs to be neutralised, yet another chemical (such as calcium carbonate, or chalk) is added. It is also common practice to irradiate wheat to avoid insect contamination. Finally, preservatives and conditioners are added to help improve the texture.
By the time a wheat containing product reaches the supermarket shelves, the grain has been completely transformed. Most of the vitamins and minerals that were originally present have been lost during the milling and production process. To compensate for this, manufacturers add vitamins and minerals made from artificial ingredients which the body has difficulty assimilating. Thus, the amount of nutrition we get from many wheat based foods, including cereals and pasta, is often poor.
If we are keen to support our overall health and well being, a diet containing high levels of wheat based products is not the answer. Eating this same grain at every meal, as many people do, can be a factor in developing an intolerance to wheat.
There are no conclusive scientific explanations as to the causes of food intolerance because the biochemical mechanisms involved are not totally understood. However, two combined factors seem to be strongly implicated. The first suggests that simply eating a food too often can be the trigger. Most of the medical specialists who work in this field agree that eating the same food over and over again is a major contributor to the development of intolerance.
As wheat is such a regular part of the typical diet, it is not surprising that this food is often a culprit. It is not clear why frequently eating the same food can provoke intolerance, but a currently widely held theory is that such over consumption causes the body’s digestive enzymes to malfunction. The food is not digested properly and this provokes health problems.
The structure of the food concerned is therefore important. Foods which are digested easily (such as fruit) can be eaten frequently without disturbance to digestive enzymes. Foods which are more difficult to digest, including wheat, are likely to cause an intolerance if eaten too often. As the wheat grain eaten nowadays is so different from the grain eaten by our ancestors, it may also be that the specific structure of the current grain is difficult for the body’s enzymes to process effectively.
Before I trained as a nutritionist, I spent three weeks in China. During that time, I lost 4 kg (7 lb) naturally, the bloated stomach I often experienced totally disappeared, and I felt absolutely fantastic and had loads of energy. As this was an organised tour, there was no shortage of food we had three large meals a day, plus snacks and fruit that we bought ourselves. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, so I ate generous portions at every meal.
I had a similar experience a year later, when my partner and I made a visit to Thailand.
It was only later during my training that I made the connection between what I’d been eating on these trips and the change in my well being. I had been following a wheat free diet because that is the norm for people in those regions.
Five weeks is generally long enough to assess the difference a totally wheat free diet can make to your weight and overall well being. Some people notice an improvement within a very short period within three to four days. For others, it can be weeks before changes are evident. Digestive problems and bloating tend to be the first symptoms to improve.
The speed at which weight loss occurs depends on the person. One male stockbroker lost 4.5 kg (10 lb) the first week, and went on to lose another 3.6 kg (8 lb) over the next four weeks which bought him to his ideal weight.
A female sales executive lost a steady 900 g (2 lb) a week over a few months. The majority of the early weight lost is often excess fluid, and not everyone will lose excess fluid so rapidly; for some people the process may take a bit longer.
!ADawn Hamilton, PhD
Adapted from Lose Wheat Lose Weight (Thorsons, 2001; £7.99) by Antoinette Savill and Dawn Hamilton, PhD.