I was thinking this morning about the key changes I often find I ask clients to make to their diet. Ideally I try and focus on what to include, not a list of what to exclude, but given that I often see people with significant health problems, particularly gastrointestinal ones, the subject of wheat does come up a lot. But it's not a straightforward question of whether wheat is good for you or not.
To start with, here is a little background. Wheat is a cereal grain, originally from the Ethiopian Highlands, but now grown worldwide on a massive scale. It is the basis for many breads and traditional breakfast cereals, as well as pasta, cakes, biscuits and pastries. It is also found in some less obvious foods products, such as processed and packaged foods, soups and sweets, which can contain wheat flour as a filler. So, as you can tell from the list of foods, most people grow up on a diet high in wheat - toast with Marmite anyone?
Growing numbers of people are finding that they suffer discomfort after eating wheat. The most extreme example is seen in Celiac disease, which is a serious reaction to the gluten protein found in wheat. If you are interested in understanding more about gluten sensitivity, have a look at my previous blog. But beyond this there is a much larger group of people who have reactions to wheat, ranging from mild bloating to significant gastrointestinal symptoms. The increased incidence of this issue broadly coincides with the industrialisation of baking, leaving many to draw the conclusion that the problem is not necessarily in the wheat itself, but in how it is processed. And as I was just saying, the sheer volume of wheat-based products that most people consume on a daily basis may contribute.
Before modern yeasts were used in bread making, most bread was fermented with lactic acid bacteria and would have taken many hours to rise. Nowadays processed bread and wheat products rely on excessive use of baker’s yeast, reduced fermentation time and a significant dose of artificial additives and enzymes, all of which lead to suspect digestibility. The emphasis has been on the texture and quick production time, rather than the nutrient quality. Overall, you are left with a loaf containing different chemical substances to those produced by a more traditional methods.
Other concerns include the high glycaemic load of refined wheat. Wheat contains a starch, amylopectin A, which is quickly broken down and converted to sugars. This leads to high blood sugar levels and a release of insulin, which is particularly unhelpful for those at risk of diabetes. Wheat contains proteins other than gluten that are thought to cause gastrointestinal reactions in some people. There are even theories that wheat has addictive qualities. It contains gluten-derived substances that can cross into the brain and bind to opiate receptors, which is theorised can lead to mild euphoria and a feeling of “needing more” – something I’ve definitely experienced! Overall, wheat is not always well digested and can lead to low level inflammation in the gut, which is an underlying characteristic of many common conditions.
Due to a growing awareness of the problems some people find with wheat there does seem to be a trend for people to cut wheat from their diets and alternatives to wheat are now readily available in whole food shops and increasingly in the larger supermarkets. Anecdotally, there is evidence that removing wheat from the diet, even if only for a few months before reintroducing it in more measured quantities, can have beneficial effects on bloating and gastrointestinal discomfort, energy levels, mood and even mental function. I've noticed that myself and with clients, but on the other hand, for the average person who is just looking through the internet trying to find out what a healthy diet means, I wouldn't just say give up wheat. What I would suggest is that variety of grains in the diet is really important, as is the quality of wheat-based products. So below I've listed some alternatives for you to try. In the past, many of the alternatives products, such as bread or pasta made from other grains, were pretty dire. But they are now often just as, if not more delicious, than wheat-based products. So just give a few of them a try!
There are many alternative grains to wheat, including rice, rye, barley, buckwheat, millet, amaranth and quinoa. Spelt and kamut can also be used.
Alternative Bread and Flour
Rye - Rye bread is readily available in shops these days, and is a fantastic alternative to wheat. It has a rich flavour and good “bread like” consistency.
Spelt – Although an ancient form of wheat, it hasn’t been so tainted by intensive breeding and contains a high amount of natural yeasts and bacteria, so many who struggle with digesting modern wheat find spelt much easier. Along with rye, it is one of the most common alternatives you find to wheat bread, but you can also buy it as a wholegrain flour to use in your own cooking. It looks and performs much like ordinary wheat flour, although does tend to have a slightly denser flavour.
Kamut - Considered to be an ancient relative of durum wheat, and is actually the trade name for a cereal derived from 36 grains, mailed by an American airman in Egypt to his father in Montana in the 1950s. Its production is always organic and is controlled by the Quinn family. Like spelt, it can often be tolerated by people with sensitivities to modern wheat.
Other flours - Chickpea, millet, potato, tapioca, buckwheat, almond, cassava, quinoa and buckwheat.
Alternative Pastas and Noodles
Look in the gluten-free section of large supermarkets, or go to your local whole food shop, where you’ll find a number of wheat free pasta and noodle alternatives. Pasta alternatives use corn, brown rice, quinoa and spelt. Try rice or buckwheat noodles – and if you can find the King Soba range, they have some amazing alternatives, including sweet potato noodles. You may need to look in a whole food shop for these.
Alternative Breakfast Cereals
Supermarkets and whole food shops stock breakfast cereals which do not contain wheat. If something is listed as gluten-free, it will not contain any wheat. For more ideas on what goes into a healthy breakfast, and why it's important to get this right, have a look at my previous blog here.
Alternative Cakes and Biscuits
Gluten-free varieties will all be wheat-free, but many of these are crammed with sugar so keep them as treats only. Or try other snacks such as fruit and nuts or hummus and crudités. Bounce ball and Pulsin bars, found in some supermarkets and whole food shops, are a great wheat-free treat.
Although you won’t necessarily see foods advertised as wheat-free, you will plenty of gluten-free options, including gluten-free pizza and pasta in some well known chains such as Pizza Express.
I have to say, although I never had any major problems with gastrointestinal health, and therefore don't feel the need to cut wheat from my diet, I do enjoy eating it a lower levels than I used to. I find my energy levels improve, especially in the afternoon. I also find it easy to do as there are so many good alternatives these days - and because I don't stress when I do eat wheat. So why not try reducing your wheat intake and increasing your use of other grains for a few months and see how you find it.
Sources and Resources: www.shipton-mill.com/flour-direct-shop/wheat-free-flour, www.mayoclinic.com/health/gluten-free-diet