You feel like you eat a relatively healthy diet. You have some high-fiber cereal for breakfast, a sandwich made with whole wheat bread for lunch, and a homemade pasta dish or at least some more bread with supper. In fact, wheat has been such a staple of the American diet for so long that it would be difficult for most of us to even consider the possibility that it may not be so good for us, at least in the forms in which we consume it. Well, consider it.
What if bread and pasta and cereal were not so good for us? What if they were actually bad for us? What if these staples were a major factor in the promotion of degenerative diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, and obesity? More importantly, what proof would you need to believe this terrible allegation? And if it were proven, how would you respond? Would you choose a reduced risk of disease, weight management, and improved quality of life over the pleasure you get from eating bread and pasta? If not, then you might as well not even bother to read any further. Let’s begin the exploration of this controversial issue with a brief history of grains in our culture.
How It All Began
In the early nineteenth century, people began to migrate from farms to cities to work in the new factories made possible by the invention of the steam engine. As the urban areas became densely populated with ex-farmers who no longer lived off the food of the land, new methods of food preparation and preservation were necessary. Inventors and entrepreneurs responded to this desperate situation with steam powered grain mills. By refining whole perishable grains like wheat, barley, and oats into fine white flour, mass quantities of food could be produced at minimal cost with a longer shelf life. The Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the trend toward processed and manufactured foods had begun, but not without the cost of our health.
Prior to the 1900’s, the degenerative diseases mentioned previously were virtually non-existent. By the 1950’s, heart disease was the number one killer and cancer and obesity were becoming epidemic. The relatively sudden increase in our consumption of flour-based and other processed foods and the onset of these “industrial” diseases seemed more than coincidental. In fact, when we take a closer look at human physiology and the impact of the refinement process on the nutritional value of these types of foods, the connection becomes even more certain.
Refinement Creates Nutritional Deficiencies
In their natural state, whole grains are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and enzymes. Grains are especially high in vitamin E, the B vitamins, and many important minerals like magnesium and zinc. The refinement process strips grains of these essential nutrients. Food manufacturers attempt to replace these naturally occurring nutrients (of which there are typically eleven) with a handful (typically seven to eight) of synthetic ones, thereby rendering the food “fortified” or “enriched”, but these are of little value and may even be metabolically disruptive. Synthetic vitamins and minerals are not only more difficult for the body to assimilate (most are simply excreted through urine), they often promote imbalances in body’s processes involving nutrient receptors, especially in the disproportionate amounts used in the fortification and enrichment process. So eating grains in their refined state is essentially like eating empty calories. Furthermore, in an attempt to digest this pseudo-food, the body must call on its own reserves of vitamins, minerals and enzymes. For example, the B vitamins that were removed from the grains during the refinement process are necessary for the breakdown of carbohydrates.
Blood Sugar Imbalances
Another consequence of the refinement process is the negative influence on the body’s insulin and glucose levels. The maintenance of the proper level of glucose in the blood (“blood sugar”) is regulated by insulin secretions from the pancreas and other hormones from several glands, including the adrenal and thyroid glands. This delicate balance is so important for so many neurological and metabolic processes. When sugars and starches are eaten in their natural, unrefined form, as part of a balanced meal containing nourishing fats and proteins, they are digested slowly and enter the bloodstream at a moderate rate over a period of several hours. When properly working, the body’s blood sugar regulation process provides our cells with a steady, even supply of glucose and the body is kept on an even keel both physically and emotionally.
Conversely, when we consume refined sugars like flour-based foods, particularly without naturally occurring fats and proteins or in amounts disproportionate to the amounts of fats and proteins, they enter the bloodstream much more rapidly, causing a sudden increase in blood sugar. In an attempt to bring the blood sugar back down to normal levels (in order to prevent hyperglycemic reactions often experienced by diabetics), the pancreas releases large amounts of insulin, which essentially tells the body to use the available glucose for energy and store any excess away as glycogen or fat. Keep in mind that glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles, which have a limited capacity for such storage. Conversely, the capacity for excess fat storage within the body’s tissues (in the form of adipose tissue) is virtually unlimited. The elevated insulin levels that result from this response prevent your body from burning stored fat for energy.
To make matters worse, repeated episodes of this rapid sugar and insulin release eventually disrupts the body’s finely tuned glucose regulation process. The pancreas’ beta cell system essentially becomes burnt out resulting in chronic hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and eventually hyperglycemia (diabetes). Because this syndrome is characterized as an endocrine system imbalance, numerous other pathological and degenerative conditions can occur, including obesity, arthritis, heart disease, allergies, alcoholism, digestive disorders, depression, and learning and behavioral disorders.
Flour-based foods are also implicated in food sensitivities and/or allergies. Wheat and other widely used grains are some of the most common allergens, right up there with milk and soy. The substance in these grains that is usually the culprit is a protein known as gluten. Gluten is a mucous-forming substance commonly used as a thickener or binder in many processed foods (it is what gives paper mache its consistency when combined with water). A food sensitivity or allergy is typically the result of undigested or incompletely digested proteins. Since many people lack the enzymes necessary to properly break down gluten, undigested protein molecules can enter the bloodstream through the digestive tract and cause an allergic response. This may be manifested by sinus congestion, headaches, fatigue, irritability or other mood swings, or even itchy eyes and a runny nose.
A food sensitivity is characterized by a “delayed” or “hidden” allergic response. This may be manifested by weight gain, constipation, arthritis or other inflammatory conditions, increased sensitivity to environmental pollutants such as pollen or pet dander, migraines, and insomnia. With the exception of millet, amaranth and rice, most grains contain gluten. An extreme form of this gluten intolerance is Celiac Disease or Celiac Sprue, in which the gluten destroys the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. Celiacs must avoid all forms of gluten.
Yet another condition promoted and exacerbated by consuming too many flour-based foods is candidiasis or yeast overgrowth. Candidiasis is the result of an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in the gut. The digestive tract requires a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria in order to function properly. Any disruption in this balance results in dysbiosis, which may be manifested by indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, gas and bloating, eczema (dry, flaky skin), and eventually more chronic and degenerative conditions. Candidiasis is a form of dysbiosis most commonly associated with eating too many yeast containing foods and/or too many refined carbohydrates and other sugars. Since flour-based foods are treated by the body as simple sugars (high glycemic food) and also typically contain yeast, they can promote and pr exacerbate candidiasis. Many health practitioners feel that prolonged candidiasis is a culprit in cancer.
Flour Contains Anti-Nutrients
Finally, these grains also contain a potent “anti-nutrient” called phytic acid. Phytic acid combines with iron, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc in the human intestinal tract, blocking the absorption of these vital nutrients. And unfortunately, the refinement process does not remove the phytic acid. Whole grains also contain enzyme inhibitors that can interfere with digestion. A way to neutralize phytates and other enzyme inhibitors is to do what traditional societies do and soak or ferment your grains before eating them. This fermenting process essentially predigests the grains so that all of their nutrients are available. In fact, many people who are allergic or sensitive to grains will tolerate them well when they are prepared in this way. This pre-soaking process is also useful for breaking down complex sugars in legumes which are otherwise difficult to digest.
Should You Cut Back or Avoid Altogether?
If the information presented here is not enough to convince you that flour-based foods may be a problem for you or that you should at least begin to reevaluate the role of grains in your diet, then conduct your own little diagnostic experiment. Eliminate all forms of flour from your diet --- pastas, breads, cereals, crackers, cookies, bagels, cous-cous, orzo, most baked goods, rue (found in most stews), and any other foods containing any kind of flour (read your food labels) --- for at least three weeks. Then reintroduce these foods back into your diet and see if you notice any difference in how you feel. Some symptoms to look out for are sinus congestion, headaches, fatigue, irritability or other mood swings, nasal drip or runny nose, watery eyes, constipation, diarrhea, pain or stiffness in joints and/or muscles, water retention, increased sensitivity to environmental pollutants such as pollen or pet dander, migraines, insomnia, and most commonly, weight gain.
If you do discover or suspect flour is a problem for you, then what? After all, if bread, pasta, or cereal are staples in your diet it will be difficult to give them up. Before committing to any lifestyle change of this scale, you must first reexamine your priorities. In this case, if you believe flour is detrimental to your health what, if anything, are you willing to sacrifice to remove it or dramatically decrease its role in your lifestyle? How healthy do you want to be? If you want to feel good all the time and be free from disease, you may have to consider eliminating flour-based foods altogether. If being optimally healthy is not a goal of yours and you don’t mind so much experiencing the occasional episode of indigestion, seasonal cold or flu, arthritis, etc., then perhaps moderation in the quantity and frequency of flour products is more in line with your priorities. Certainly, if you are trying to lose weight you should avoid flour products altogether. For a more comprehensive strategy for making such a lifestyle change, read my article The Six Most Important Steps To Making a Healthy Lifestyle Change, which may be found on our website at www.ingoodhealthinc.com .
If you are ready and willing to eliminate or limit flour products in your diet, try replacing them with properly prepared (pre-soaked) whole grains. Another option is to eat only sprouted grain breads. These are non-flour based breads that are made with whole grains that have been soaked or sprouted rather than ground or milled. There are even sprouted grain varieties of tortillas. Sprouted grain products can usually be found in the frozen food section of your supermarket or health food market. Since people who eat a fair amount of flour products typically consume less vegetables then they should, try working those back into your diet as well. The more fibrous or cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, and brussel sprouts tend to be satisfying replacements. Since flour products also tend to satisfy a proclivity for sweets, try limiting sweets to the occasional piece of fruit or desserts made from natural sweeteners.
When eating out, an effective strategy is to wave off the basket of bread before the meal. This may be a difficult habit to develop at first and you are likely to get a lot of strange looks from the wait staff and even neighboring diners, but if the bread ain’t there you can’t eat it. During one recent dining experience, three different members of the restaurant staff on three different occasions attempted to leave bread at our table before the meal, and on each occasion we said “no thank you”. It was a bit like trying to save a seat for someone in the movie theatre. People were very disappointed, but we held our resolve and felt better for it. If you decide that such a change in your eating habits makes sense, this transition may take time and you will almost certainly have setbacks (sugar or bread binges), but in the end your commitment and persistence will reward you with improved health, increased energy, and a renewed sense of well-being.