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Dear Medical Detective,

I’ve been having terrible pains in my joints and in my abdomen, particularly after eating normal wholegrain wheat sandwiches. My doctor suspected that I was allergic to gluten or had Candida, so I had the appropriate tests, but they all came back negative. He is stumped-as am I. Do you have any idea what could be causing these symptoms?

-J.K., Manchester

The first thing to mention is that the wheat in your sandwich is a ‘novel food’, a relatively recent addition to the human diet, so it’s small wonder that you-and in fact the majority of people-have not yet properly adapted to it.

For 248,000 years (or about 8,300 generations) we humans lived on what can be described as the Paleolithic (Stone Age) diet of hunter-gatherers, which was grain-free. Then 12,000 years ago (only about 400 generations ago) we introduced wheat, rye, barley and other grains into our diet.

Adding grains produced a revolution in human society-from the need for weights and measures, and land ownership and legal arrangements, to food storage, pest control and the spread of urbanization and the need for barter. It’s not far-fetched to say that the agriculture of grains introduced every other aspect of what constitutes civilization today.

The only problem is that we were not then-and are still not now-actually equipped to digest grains properly: the animals that we copied, that we saw eating these grains, were ‘ruminants’-that is, ‘chewers’ with very special stomachs, which we don’t have-and they chew cud, which we don’t do. What’s more, over those 400 generations our constitutions have still not had sufficient time to adjust adequately to the grain nutrients that are so radically different in so many ways from what humans were used to eating.1

Here are seven reasons why you should avoid wheat and its fellow travellers (rye, oats and barley).

1 Wheat can be highly toxic Each grain of wheat contains about 1 mcg of something called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), which even in small quantities can have profoundly adverse effects. We know, for instance, that it’s toxic to the heart, brain and immune system and is highly inflammatory. In certain cases, WGA can even attach to the protective membranes (or myelin sheaths) of nerves. It also inhibits a nerve growth factor that is vital for the growth and survival of neurons, and binds to the neurotransmitter N-acetylglucosamine, which operates in pain pathways.2

What this boils down to, in plain English, is that wheat can make a condition like arthritis worse and contribute to other significant health problems. This is especially ironic considering that wheat is one of the few foods about which food producers in most countries are permitted to make health claims on labels. In fact, manufacturers are allowed to claim that whole grains and bran reduce both heart disease and certain cancers.

2 Wheat lowers your uptake of essential nutrients. Phytates (especially phytanic acid), which make up part of the fibre content of wheat, are known to inhibit calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium absorption because of the formation of insoluble phytate salts.

During bread-making, they’re broken down by the leavening process and so cannot affect our mineral metabolism. But when whole grains are added to ‘whole grain bread’ and so remain unaffected by the leavening process, these additional grains can contribute to bread’s ill effects. The phytates in wheat fibre reduce iron absorption in particular, and iron deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies seen in Europe.

If you or anyone else in your family is at risk of iron deficiency, you should never eat unleavened bread, whole grains, bran or bran-based foods. Groups at particular risk include children aged under two, menstruating women and those who don’t eat much meat, particularly if they also drink tea.3

3 Wheat makes you fat. There’s no doubt that wheat and sugar are the principal contributors to our current obesity epidemic.4

WGA disrupts endocrine function and contributes to weight gain and insulin resistance by blocking the leptin (a hormone involved in fat storage) receptors in the hypothalamus. It also interferes with the production of secretin from the pancreas, which leads to digestive problems and an unhealthy enlargement of the pancreas.5

4 Wheat (and rye, barley and soy) contain exceptionally high levels of glutamic and aspartic acids, which affect your brain’s nerves. These two ‘ ‘excitotoxins’ can cause overactivation of your nerve-cell receptors, possibly leading to nerve injury.6

5 Wheat can cause autoimmune diseases. Aside from all its other ill effects, WGA is also toxic to cells (in joints, for instance), either stopping the normal cell division and duplication cycle or triggering programmed cell death (apoptosis).7 WGA also stimulates the production of cytokines in gut and immune cells, which play a role in chronic inflammation of all sorts.8 In fact, scientists have discovered that WGA antibodies in the blood cross-react with other proteins, which suggests they may help to trigger autoimmune conditions like lupus and arthritis, where your body’s immune system begins to attack itself.9

6 Wheat can damage your brain in other ways. WGA can cross your blood-brain barrier, often pulling other substances with it, leading to neurotoxic effects in your brain.10 Serious neurological problems like ataxia (unsteady gait, clumsiness, slurred speech), peripheral neuropathy (numbness, muscle weakness, cramps and spasms in the arms and legs) and muscle deterioration are all linked to sensitivity caused by gliadin, another component of wheat, rye and barley.11

7 Wheat causes a ‘brewery’ in the gut. Wheat, rye and barley, among others, are fermentable by yeasts (Candida and Geotrichum species) and by unwanted bacteria, all of which can settle in the human gut.12

When you consider all this evidence stacked up against wheat, it’s clear that our near total reliance on wheat in our diet may be one of the main culprits for the poor health suffered by so many of us. It also explains why anthropologists can find archaeological traces of rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, tooth decay, increased infant deaths, diabetes, cancer and many other serious disorders only after the historical introduction of these grains into the human diet.13

All grains contain some amount of WGA, but none as much as wheat, rye, barley and (to a lesser extent) oats. As you can see, while food may be your medicine, it may just as easily be your poison.

Your severe joint pains and abdominal discomfort may simply be due to the fact that your constitution hasn’t adjusted to wheat and those other grains. Try cutting it out of your diet, substituting other alternatives (see box) and making use of rice-based pasta and other healthy substitutes.

What to eat instead of wheat

Here are some starchy alternatives from around the world:

-Root vegetables (tubers):Sweet potato, white potato, cassava, tapioca, yam, water chestnut, arrowroot, celeriac, swede (turnip), yellow and white beetroot, kohlrabi

-Grains:Sorghum, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sago, rice, maize (corn)

-Pulses and legumes:Lentils, sweet chestnut pur’ee, fava beans, gram flour, pea flour, chickpea flour


1. Br Naturopath J, 2011; 28: 8-10

2. Brain Res, 1986; 393: 169-75

3. Davies S, Stewart A. Nutritional Medicine: The Drug-Free Guide to Better Family Health. London: Pan Books, 1987: 131

4. Brostoff J, Gamlin L. The Complete Guide to Food Allergy and Intolerance. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1990: 17, 19-20, 90-1, 101, 103-4, 106, 136

5. J Pharmacol Exp Ther, 2003; 307: 544-9


7. Toxicol In Vitro, 2004; 18: 821-7


9. Fox WW, Freed DLJ. Understanding Arthritis: The Clinical Way Forward. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990

10. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol, 2011; 251: 79-84

11. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry, 2002; 72: 560-3

12. J Nutr Med, 1990; 1: 33-8

13. Bond G. Deadly Harvest: The Intimate Relationship between Our Health and Our Food. Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers, 2007: 53

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Article Topics: Bran, Cereal, Flour, whole grain
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