Wheat is the third most used crop in the world after rice and corn. Historically wheat is different to what is most commonly used today. Ancient forms of wheat are still around and have been making a bit of a comeback as they tend to be better tolerated by those intolerant to modern wheat products. Some of these forms are Spelt, Kamut and Farro. These ancient grains are harder to grow and harvest, as yields are smaller and the husks are an effort to remove. Modern forms have been bred to combat these issues.
Unfortunately the newer forms of wheat are less nutritious and have less flavour. This is because their root systems are shorter, they grow quicker, and their soil is generally poorer quality due to chemicals added and lack of crop rotation. Newer forms also have higher gliadin content. Gliadins are known for their role, along with glutenin, in the formation of gluten, found in wheat and other gluten containing grains. These proteins help wheat products especially breads to rise, hold shape, to have elasticity and lightness. The older wheat varieties and other gluten grains have lower gliadin and this is thought to be the protein that is the main problem with gluten intolerance.
Wheat intolerance involves difficulty digesting gluten, the wheat protein and/or other elements of wheat itself. At the lesser end, wheat intolerance will mean someone needs to limit their wheat consumption or they may tolerate only the ancient forms of wheat and other gluten grains like barley and rye. It is suggested that 70% of those that are mildly wheat or gluten intolerant will tolerate these alternative grains. The other 30% will need to avoid all gluten such as myself, and though I am not a celiac, someone with celiac disease has severe gluten intolerance. Celiac disease is an auto-immune condition where the reaction to the partially digested gliadin (gluten protein) causes inflammation in the small intestine.
Intolerance symptoms are varied and usually have a delayed onset, from within an hour or up to 2 or 3 days later. This is why they are traditionally difficult to diagnose.
· Gastrointestinal: (stomach bloating and cramping, diarrhea, flatulence,
· Neurological: headache, memory loss, behavioural difficulties, depression
· Immune: poor resistance to infection, mouth ulcers, arthritis
· Skin: rashes, eczema, psoriasis, itching flaky skin
· General: food cravings, tiredness, chronic fatigue, unwell feeling
· Respiratory: excess mucous production, sinus congestion
As well as these symptoms, people with celiac disease with delayed diagnosis, frequently become malnourished with chronic fatigue, diarrhea, weight loss and even depression, because the walls of their small intestine become so damaged, they struggle to absorb nutrients from food eaten. Once gluten is removed from the diet the change is usually very remarkable. I know when I first removed wheat properly, I easily lost about 6kg in 2-3 weeks, my energy increased and people kept commenting how well I looked and how much clearer my eyes were, as they had been very dark underneath for so long.
With milder gluten intolerance people often find it hard to keep their weight down like I did, whereas with celiac disease they are so lacking in nutrition that they will tend to struggle with keeping weight on.
Wheat allergy is different however, and symptoms will have a rapid onset and usually more disabling and can include hives, tissue swelling, asthma, nausea and vomiting as well as symptoms similar to intolerance. An allergy is an immune system disorder an immediate IgE mediated response. IgE or Immunoglobulin E is an antibody. It is characterised by the activation of white blood cells like mast cells and basophils, resulting in an inflammatory response from mild hayfever or rash like symptoms through to severe but rare, anaphylactic shock which is a medical emergency. Wheat allergy will also involve components of wheat other than gluten.
When consuming wheat all the time, symptoms of intolerance may not be obvious because the body is in a chronic state of adaptation. You may be feeling generally not quite right and may not know why. It’s not till you remove it from your diet that you realise how different you feel. Once you eliminate it and re-introduce it again you will be surer of how it suits your body or not. It is suggested that at least 15% of the population and up to 50%, is intolerant to gluten in some form and 0.5 to1% may be have celiac disease.
Even if you are not intolerant, trying to reduce wheat and varying grain foods is a good idea. Today’s wheat is nutrient poor and our bodies need variety to ensure we get a broad spectrum of nutrients and to ensure ongoing healthy digestion with a variety of foods. Too much of the same thing can lead to an intolerance and may be part of the reason wheat intolerance is so common. Many people eat processed wheat products 5-6 times a day. For example: toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, pasta for dinner and snacks like biscuits, crackers and muffins in between.
I recommend eating grain based snacks only occasionally and not daily, they also frequently contain a lot of fat or sugar or both which makes them high in calories. Also, try and vary your grains so that you only eat wheat once every 1-2 days or even less. There are so many gluten and wheat free option available to create amazing diversity. You will feel better for it and your nutrition will increase from eating grains with higher protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and less gluten to clog your guts up. Remember, gluten makes bread sticky, so it’s likely doing the same thing inside us.
To emphasise the variety available, consider the following wheat and gluten free substitutes available. Please remember that wheat free grains still contain gluten.