You know that whole wheat toast you’ve been slathering your avocado-and-olive oil drizzle on? Well, it’s likely fueling pathogenic bacteria that live in your gut.
It’s not lost on those in the wellness community that the human gut microbiome plays a central role in both health and disease. The health of our microbiota is directly correlated with metabolism, inflammation, mood, leaky gut, and more. If the microbiome is compromised, the immune system’s ability to function is weakened. If our microbiome is not functioning properly, we are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases like diabetes, MS, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, and more. But with the introduction of this new study published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology, it’s more apparent than ever: wheat is undeniably toxic.
And despite common belief, whole wheat isn’t necessarily the lesser of two evils when it comes to comparing it against white flour. Both are dangerous options. In fact, whole grains contain a wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), which is also referred to as a lectin. WGA is found in bran, the hard outer layer of the intact grain in whole grain foods. In foods like white bread, white rice, and traditional pasta, the layer of bran is stripped, therefore subtracting the WGA contents. But this bran-stripping process does not occur in whole grains; therefore, whole grains possess two villains — gluten and WGA.
“There are many different kinds of bacteria in our guts and it’s difficult to generalize because everyone is so unique,” says Amanda Malachesky, Functional Nutrition Practitioner at Confluence Nutrition. “Some common ‘normal’ bacteria are non-pathogenic: E. coli, Bacteroides fragilis, Bifidobacterium spp., Lactobacillus spp., and Enterococcus spp. These beneficial strains of bacteria help maintain normal gut barrier function and work to control populations of non-beneficial organisms.”
White flour may have less lectins because it’s made from the endosperm of the wheat — that’s the carby part. But that means it also gets rid of many of the wheat’s natural nutrients. But that’s not the only problem. White bread is also often bleached with a chemical whitening agent. Why? To make it look cleaner and purer.
Here’s the issue with bleaching flour: the bleaching process creates a byproduct called alloxan, which is a known component in the diagnosis of diabetes. In fact, alloxan is used in lab mice to give them diabetes so that scientists can study treatments.
Then there’s the issue of lectins. They are known as “anti-nutrients” because of their ability to bind to sugar and reduce the body’s ability to absorb and process nutrients. Wheat isn’t the only aggressor of lectins; foods such as soybeans, red kidney beans, peanuts, potatoes, cashews, and tomatoes also possess high levels of lectins.
And then there’s one more factor in the mix: Roundup. That’s the herbicide that contains glyphosate as an active ingredient. Some studies have linked glyphosate to cancer in humans, suggesting it has carcinogenic potential. It is also associated, in high doses, to developmental and reproductive side-effects and is known to cause skeletal defects in the fetuses of rats who were injected with glyphosate while pregnant.
Farmers use Roundup as a drying agent about a week before wheat is harvested, which means our bread is literally marinating in poison — poison that has carcinogenic potential and which is known to cause reproductive defects.
The bacteria living in the human gut is known as the microbiome. The microbiome is extremely fickle, misunderstood, and even more so, crucial to one’s overall health. But in recent years, scientists, researchers, and companies like Viome have been dedicating more money and efforts than ever to researching and understanding the activity in the role of the microbiome. Beneficial strains of bacteria can be found in probiotic foods and supplements — and there has been a growing awareness of the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics. However, the populace has much to learn as to how to avoid negative bacteria strains.
“We are always encountering various kinds of bacteria when we eat any type of food,” says Malachesky. “And, kind of like how we rely on police to maintain order in society, we depend on our resident [good] gut bacteria to keep the balance.”
Wheat Wreaks Havoc On The Gut Microbiome
If you have celiac’s disease, of course, then you already know that wheat wreaks havoc on the human gut. However, this message transcends beyond those with celiac. Wheat is not only toxic to those struggling with gluten intolerances; wheat is toxic to most of us with a microbiome. (Of course, there is a select population of those of us who seem to eat wheat and be fine). But for the majority of wheat-eaters, it poses an issue and here’s why:
Wheat is virtually new to the human microbiome. Eating grains is a fairly innovative dietary practice that has only been integrated into our diets in the last 10,000 years. That may seem like a generally long time. But in comparison to how long the human microbiome has been around, it’s nothing. So what does that mean? It means that our bodies still, to this day, do not fully understand how to break down wheat. Why? Because we weren’t built to. Humans have been around for much longer than 10,000 years, and just because wheat has been around that long doesn’t necessarily mean that our bodies have 10 percent evolved to be able to digest wheat properly.
The Wily Evolution Of Wheat
What’s more — wheat has changed and so the wheat humans used to eat “back in the day” is a far cry from the wheat that graces our plates today. Modern wheat is processed much differently, thanks to modern technological advances that now allow us to use grain processing techniques that separate the bran and the germ away from the endosperm — the part of the wheat where the highest concentration of carbs are. (Why do we process wheat this way? Because this way ensures more wheat for less. It all comes down to money.)
By separating the nutritious parts of the wheat from the starchy parts, wheat has, in turn, suffered a reduction of “nutrient density.” Modern-day wheat is refined and induces a spike in blood sugar very quickly.
That’s not all that’s different with modern wheat; it also contains more gluten than ever before. During the industrial era, we made several changes to the way wheat was cultivated. In addition to technological advances that stripped the wheat of their nutrients, we also invented ways to genetically modify foods (in order to make them resistant to things like bugs and drought), and increase the levels of gluten in order to make the food fluffier and easier to bake with. In the 1960s, the food industry also began hybridizing wheat in an effort to, again, make more for less and to increase disease resistance. The trend of hybridizing wheat hit an all-time high in the 90s, which may have led to the increased diagnoses of celiac disease in recent decades.
Studies have shown that when gluten-sensitive people ingest wheat in its purest form (neither hybridized or affected by GMO), einkorn, they’ve experienced “diminished or no reaction.”
According to one study published by the US National Library of Medicine, the gluten protein Glia-a9 is particularly problematic as it’s specifically found in large quantities in people with celiac disease. And what do you know? Modern-day wheat contains a higher concentration of Glia-a9.
Most people know to stay away from bread made from highly refined flour, but did you know that refined white flour can sneak into your “whole” wheat bread, too? According to Global News, if bread packaging doesn’t list a percentage such as “100 percent whole-grain” or “100 percent whole wheat,” that bread is likely mixed in with the refined stuff.
So even when we think we’re making a healthier choice, we may not be. And that can be terrifying.
“Most of the ways that we consume wheat in our modern diets is in its highly refined form: flour,” says Malachesky.
This highly processed wheat lacks the fiber that is present in its whole form and so it is easily consumable by bacteria in the digestive system. It is also often prepared in combination with sugar, for example in baked goods, boxed cereals, bread, and so on. The less desirable bacteria (and yeasts) thrive on simple, easy-to-digest carbohydrates, so eating a lot of wheat selects for these organisms.
What are those aforementioned less desirable bacteria? The bacteria species Eubacterium ventriosum and Anaerostipes have been found to exist most prominently in people who regularly consume refined bread.
Wasting Away Again In Glutenritaville
When we eat refined wheat (or wheat that masquerades as whole wheat but is actually made with mostly refined white flour — check your labels!), we are forcing indigestible bacterium on our digestive system. Don’t think for a second that this comes without negative consequences. You may not feel them but consider your years of wheat eating and the cumulative damage. As pathogenic gut bacteria builds up, it compromises our gut lining and causes inflammation, which leads to leaky gut. By forcing wheat upon our microbiomes, we are upping our chances of disease, infection, and other intestinal issues. Where we once thought that diseases were passed down solely through genetics, research now delineates more clearly: autoimmune diseases may also be passed through the inheriting of the family’s microbiome. It’s not just about DNA strands anymore; the microbiome also comes into play.
Autoimmune diseases can actually stem from pathogenic bacteria. But how? Bacteria from the gut (or small intestine) has been studied in laboratories and been found to have the ability to travel to other organs, therefore triggering an autoimmune response. The bacteria’s ability to travel to elsewhere in the body is called “translocating,” and means that it has the ability to trigger auto-antibodies and inflammation in other organs.
Wheat fuels pathogenic bacteria strains that live in the gut: Klebsiella, Staphylococcus, Clostridium, and more. What’s worse — genetically modified foods (known as GMOs) only exacerbate the overgrowth of these various bacteria. And in today’s day and age, nearly every food is genetically modified. Just look at the numbers: the Center for Food Safety reports that 92 percent of corn,94 percent of soybeans, and 94 percent of cotton are categorized as genetically modified. The Center for Food Safety also estimates that 75 percent of processed foods in grocery store shelves contain ingredients that are genetically altered.
What does this mean for our bodies? With such a terrifyingly high percentage of the food we eat categorized as genetically engineered, it indicates that it’s harder than ever for our bodies to digest food.
With both wheat and GMOs posing threats to the human microbiome, it appears that in order to be truly healthy, it would require removing both factors from one’s diet.
Choosing An Alternative To Wheat Villains
So what does this all mean? Sure, you get it. Wheat is toxic; it isn’t good for you; don’t eat it. Blah, blah, blah. But it’s more than that. Try not to think of wheat in either a “good” or “bad” category. Instead, realize what it is actually doing to your body. Every time you eat wheat, you are providing nutrients straight to the bacteria that naturally lives in your gut. These bacteria are a natural part of us. In fact we are more bacteria than we are human cells. But when the pathogenic bacteria starts growing in surplus, that’s when it’s an issue and ups your likelihood of developing diseases like diabetes, fibromyalgia, and other diseases.
Are you willing to take the chance? Every time you pick up a piece of either white or whole wheat toast, think about the decision you’re making and the chance you’re betting on. Is that wheat-avo-toast, boxed cereal, or whole-wheat tortilla really worth the pain associated with autoimmune disease?
Of course, there are alternatives. When buying bread, always make sure to check your labels. Is your bread masquerading as whole wheat, when in fact it’s made partially or totally made with refined white flour? Not good. Barely Bread is a truly lectin-free bread that is causing a stir within the health community for its health benefits and noted lack of lectins and other bad stuff. Barely Bread is an amalgamation of almond, seed, and coconut flours with absolutely no grains.
Unlike other gluten-free bread options, Barely Bread does not add in surplus carbs or sugars that can contribute to weight gain. With Barely Bread, you’re only getting the nutrients you need without the nasty additives.
That being said, all grains are iffy. Gluten-free options aren’t necessarily better as clearly, gluten is not the only villain here. With GMOs and bleached flour, hybridization, and Roundup used as a drying agent, there is a lot to be wary about in all breads. If a bread does not contain gluten, it likely is using other lectins as a gluten alternative. That’s not good either. What’s more, the body breaks these grains down into sugars which spike our insulin levels, thus keeping us living on another vicious cycle. In order to fully take control of your health (and your gut!), it might be worth noting that cutting grains entirely might be your best option.
Steph Osmanski is a freelance health and wellness writer, blogger, and brand consultant. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton.
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