The trouble with wheat

Wheat is a big staple in our diets. Some 600 million tons of it are eaten every year, and it makes up about half the average person’s diet. So the idea that it isn’t good for you may be difficult to swallow. However, a look at our history tells a different story.

Species take time to adapt to any new food. Our branch of primates separated from other apes, and became upright, about 4 million years ago. So, we’ve got a genetic record stretching back 4 million years. Humans started eating gluten grains, at the earliest, 10,000 years ago. So if the history of mankind was condensed into 24 hours, we’ve been eating gluten grains for, at most, 6 minutes. Some cultures only started eating wheat in the last 100 years – the last 2 seconds. Thanks to advances in DNA research, we now know that humans shrank when they shifted to a grain-eating diet. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors, living on meat, fish and seafood, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, were 5 to 6 inches taller than those early farmers, and had brains 11 per cent bigger.

Recently, it has been discovered that people with gluten allergies have a genetic ‘tag’ called DQ2 and DQ8, which is common in societies that introduced grains late – notably the northwest of Europe, especially western Ireland, Iceland, Finland and Scandinavia, where grain growing isn’t easy. This research is revealing that as many as one in three people in Britain may be allergic to gluten.

Knowing all this, you might wonder why we are eating so much wheat. The answer is simply that bakers the world over love to work with cereals that have a high gluten content (Canadian hard wheat is an international favourite for this reason). The higher the gluten content, the more elastic, malleable, expandable and heat resistant the dough becomes. This results in lighter, softer, more visually attractive, delicious tasting and profitable breads, bagels, pastas, biscuits and pastries.

A worrying trend in the US, where ‘low-carb’ diets are a craze, is to remove the carbohydrates from wheat products so you’re just eating the protein. As this is principally gluten, it’s a recipe for disaster for anyone with a hidden gluten allergy. So popular have high-gluten products become in the modern diet that wheat products represent 3 of the top 6 foods, in terms of calories consumed, of both the British and Americans – the other 3 are dairy products. So, what’s the alternative?

While gluten is the key protein in wheat, it’s also found in rye, barley and oats. In fact, gluten is a name for a family of proteins found in grains. The principal type of gluten in wheat is called gliadin, followed by glutenin,(1) while the main type of gluten in rye is called hirudin, and in barley, secalin, although both also contain some gliadin. These are similar chemically, so a person who is sensitive to wheat is more likely to react to barley, then rye. The type of gluten found in oats, however, bears no resemblance to gliadin. Approximately 80 per cent of people diagnosed with coeliac disease don’t react to oats.(2),(3)

If you suspect you might be gluten-sensitive, you could start by avoiding all gluten grains (wheat, rye, barley and oats) for at least 10 days. Remember, too, that gluten is hidden in many processed foods. If this avoidance diet makes you feel noticeably better, you could then try reintroducing oats, since oats contain no gliadin, and see what happens.

About one in three people tested using an IgG food intolerance test will react to wheat. Of these, 90 per cent will react to gliadin, while 15 per cent will react to barley and 2 per cent to rye. Even fewer react to oats. We think it’s well worth getting yourself checked out. It saves a lot of guesswork.

Most people’s immune systems, and that may mean you, react to gliadin when it gets into the bloodstream. After all, as we saw above, it’s an alien protein that hasn’t been around for long in evolutionary terms. Research shows that at least 15 per cent of wheat eaters do have gliadin in their blood. Of course, if you have good genes, don’t eat wheat very often, have impeccable digestion and a superhealthy digestive tract, no gliadin is going to get into your bloodstream.

In the box below, you can see which grains contain gluten and which not. (Note that spelt, kamut and triticale are all forms or hybrids of wheat.)

Gluten Grains

Oats (no gliadin)

Non-gluten Grains

Buckwheat Corn

Common symptoms of gluten allergy

  • Upper respiratory tract problems like sinusitis and ‘glue ear’
  • Fatigue caused by malabsorption of nutrients
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Anaemia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Weight loss
  • Short stature in children
  • Iron-deficiency anaemia
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Diverticulitis
  • Depression
  • Attention and behavioural problems in children, including ADHD
  • Autism.

Going gluten-free?

If you have any of the symptoms above, and have proven IgG allergic to wheat gluten and gliadin, it’s well worth getting tested for coeliac disease.

If, after testing, you prove to be in the 10 per cent of people with gluten or gliadin allergy, or are one of the 1 in 111 apparently healthy adults who actually have coeliac disease, you’ll need to give up all the gluten in your diet. If that sounds easy, prepare for a shock.

You will discover that gluten is found in literally thousands of processed, packaged foods. Just go to your local supermarket and start reading labels – there’s wheat in soups, sauces, gravies, sausages and hundreds of other unsuspected foods. Soon you will realize just how much our modern food production system relies on gluten, and what a challenge it is to make your diet truly gluten-free.

You will have to begin by avoiding all bread and pasta products, doughnuts, pies and cakes. Biscuits, pancakes, waffles, pizza, bagels, muffins, rolls and baked goods of any kind will have to go, unless clearly and credibly labelled ‘gluten-free’. Eating in restaurants can also be very challenging. Your best bet is to eat simply – whole foods without sauces, coatings or gravies, such as steamed vegetables, fresh fruits, or simply prepared baked or grilled fish. Be sure to ask your waiter or the chef a lot of questions! It may sound tough, but it’s vital: it takes less than half a gram of gluten a day to cause toxic inflammation and cell death in your intestines.

If you’d like to know more about coeliac disease, read Dangerous Grains by Dr James Braly and Ron Hoggan and to find out more about food allergies read my book Hidden Food Allergies.


1. Sandiford, CP et al., Identification of the major water/salt insoluble wheat proteins involved in cereal hypersensitivity, Clin Exp Allergy, vol 27, pp 1120-1129 (1997)
2. Högberg, L et al., Oats to children with newly diagnosed coeliac disease: A randomised double blind study, Gut, vol 53, pp 649-654 (2004)
3. Størsrud, S et al., Adult coeliac patients do tolerate large amounts of oats, Eur J Clin Nutr, vol 57, pp 163-169 (2003)