In the continually changing world of diets it can be a challenge sometimes to navigate our way through the mine field. Low carb versus the 5:2, volumetric versus Palaeolithic; the list is endless. Every day it seems there is a new diet aimed at making us healthier, skinnier, more dynamic.
But before we get caught up in the latest trend, perhaps the best advice we can give ourselves is to be sensible. To stop and think about what we already know is good for us (plenty of whole food, fruit and vegetables, along with foods like bread, pasta, rice and other grains) and to eat that as part of a plant-based, balanced diet.
Macronutrients and why we need them
Of course everyone's bodies are different and often individuals require different amounts and types of nutrients. Moderation is the key too; eating or drinking anything to the extreme, is likely to put our bodies out of balance.
But what if our bodies become unbalanced as the result of a food intolerance? For example, researchers estimate that 1% of the US population are celiacs. How do we manage to eat a balanced diet, if one of the staples that we rely on, for example wheat, is making us ill?
Are carbs good or bad?
Carbohydrate has become a dirty word in recent times, especially in the weight loss world, due in no small part to the popularity of low-carb diets such the Atkins, Dukan and South Beach.
However, carbohydrates are essential for health. They are the main source of energy which our bodies convert into glucose (sugar) and then use to fuel our brains and muscles. Of course not all carbs are the same and it is the type and quantity of carbohydrate in our diet that is important.
For example, whilst we should try to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet, it is important that we make sure that along with other fruits and vegetables, we are eating enough starchy carbs.
Read More: Is bread vegan or even healthy?
One of our main sources of carbohydrate (starchy foods) here in the west is bread, so eliminating it from our diets isn't an easy task, nor is it necessarily a good idea. Starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and cereals should make up at least 65% of the food that we eat.
Whole grains are best as they contain more fibre, vitamins and minerals than white varieties. As well as starch, they contain fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.
Why we need fibre and carbs
Some people think starchy foods are fattening, but gram for gram they contain fewer than half the calories of fat. Most of us need to eat more fibre and have fewer added sugars in our diet. Fibre is only found in foods that come from plants. It helps keep our bowels healthy and some types of fibre may help lower cholesterol.
Research shows diets high in fibre are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. Good sources of fibre include vegetables with skins on, wholegrain bread, whole-wheat pasta and pulses.
Carbs should be our main source of energy in a healthy balanced diet, providing about 4kcal (17kJ) per gram. They are broken down into glucose before being absorbed into the bloodstream, fuelling our activities - whether going for a run or simply breathing.
After all, with starches being such an important factor in our diet, how can we manage if we have to start excluding some of them? But before we explore this area, let's get clear on the difference between wheat and gluten free diets.
Gluten is made up of proteins found in the cereal grain’s endosperm. Its purpose is to feed the plant embryos during germination. When we’re baking, it’s gluten that affects the elasticity of the dough, which in turn affects the chewiness of what we are baking.
Gluten is composed of two different proteins: gliadin (a prolamin protein) and glutenin (a glutelin protein). Grains containing gluten are wheat, rye, and barley. Sometimes, oats aren't 100% free either. So someone who struggles with a gluten intolerance has to cut out all of the above, not just wheat.
A gluten free diet is helpful or even necessary for people suffering from
- Crohn's Disease (necessary)
- Celiac Disease (necessary)
- Allergic reactions to gluten (necessary)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
On the other hand, a wheat free diet is usually associated with an allergic reaction to wheat itself and is more of a generalized allergic response, whereas a gluten intolerance is more specifically to do with digestive disorders. A wheat allergy might include symptoms like
- Skin irritations
- Nasal congestion
- Digestive issues
Why can Wheat be harmful?
So why has wheat become such a demon in our diets, when the majority of the world’s population has relied upon whole grains as a main stay for nearly 4000 years?
The problem lies not so much in wheat itself, but in the processes surrounding it. For example, it is common practice in wheat production in the US to drench the wheat fields with Roundup several days before harvesting which allows for an earlier, easier and bigger harvest. No wonder so many of us are developing an intolerance.
There is also the economic factor. In today's market, gluten free is almost becoming a trend. You only have to look at the vast array of products that are labelled as gluten free. And even shampoos and soaps are latching on to what for many is a real fear, to see what big business this is becoming.
Many people are also now buying gluten free products, simply because they have heard, or have been led to believe that they are a healthier choice.
Apart from the fact that it can even be harmful to many people if they avoid all of the gluten-containing grains, it's completely unnecessary and just another greenwashing of pre-packaged bagels, breads, and muffins - most of the time having up to 20 ingredients to make them taste like something else than cardboard.
But it's also true that the range of processed foods with wheat based components make up an increasing percentage of the ingredients.
This aspect, coupled with the hybridisation of wheat and consequential high gluten content of processed foods, makes for a saturation that many of us cannot cope with.
This is not to say that wheat and grains per se are unhealthy – far from it. We have already seen how important carbohydrates are as part of a balanced diet. So make sure to fill your plates with plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Benefits of a Wheat Free Diet
If you have a genuine wheat intolerance, you'll be sure to get a whole bunch of benefits from going wheat-free. Though it's not necessary for someone who has a wheat intolerance to be gluten free, since their allergic response is only in relation to wheat itself and not to gluten.
The benefits of a wheat free diet can be
- Increased energy
- Improved bowel function
- A more efficient digestive system
- Improved mood
- Less unhealthy cravings
If you are concerned that you have an intolerance, the only real way to test it, is to eliminate it from your diet for 2-4 weeks and then gradually reintroduce it. It's not the easiest thing to do, given the quantities of wheat in the products available to us, but for some people, it really is worthwhile.
There are of course alternatives for wheat intolerance and the answer lies in switching to other whole grains that might suit our bodies better and in finding ways of feeding ourselves that don't cost the earth.
Going wheat free, doesn't mean you have to eat more animal based proteins; quite the opposite in fact. It's easy to be wheat free and vegan, particularly if you're a foodie and like to cook.
Otherwise, it's just a question of being careful and checking ingredients as you would anyway with a vegan diet. It's just that the list of things that you don't want to eat is little longer.
How to eat a Wheat Free Diet
Many products on the market are made of wheat, though they are not necessarily obvious. Items and ingredients to look out for include:
- Wheat bran (rice bran is fine)
- Durum wheat
- Seitan (made from wheat gluten)
- Kamut (ancient grain)
- Modified starch (can be wheat based)
- Triticale (cross between wheat and rye)
Knowing what you have to cut out is obviously not enough though. You want to replave what you remove with with equal quality carbs, not cutting it out altogether.
A diet low in carbohydrates can also be lacking in iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus and zinc. Gently swapping junk for healthy alternatives is a good way to start. If you eliminate wheat from your diet, make sure to replace it with a healthy grains like:
- Wild Rice
*Cautious: Oats can sometimes become contaminated with wheat during growing or processing, but as a whole do not contain the protein that effects people with a wheat allergy.
Make sure to stick to the whole grain version and don't rely on wheat-free processed foods too much since they are low in nutrients.
The Benefits of eating Wheat
Only about 0.4-0.5% of the population is allergic to wheat, so for most people, a wheat free diet wouldn't provide the benefits that someone with a wheat intolerance would experience.
Besides, wheat is extremely beneficial for healthy living. Due to its comparatively low fat content, wheat is effective against heart disease. It also regulates blood glucose levels, so is beneficial for those of us with diabetes.
Wheat is rich in magnesium, which is a mineral that acts as a co-factor for more than 300 enzymes. These enzymes are involved in the body’s functional use of insulin and glucose secretion.
Whole grain wheat can help control weight. The high fibre content of whole wheat helps in our digestive processes and improves our overall metabolism. It is extremely beneficial for those of us with metabolic disorders, such as visceral obesity, high triglycerides, low levels of protective HDL cholesterol and high blood pressure.
From inflammation to heart disease and type-2 diabetes
The betaine content of wheat is also helpful in the prevention of inflammation. It is also thought to be beneficial for those of us suffering from osteoporosis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline, and type-2 diabetes.
There are many more benefits to eating wheat, due in the most part to the high content of B vitamins, such as thiamine, folate, and vitamin B6, and the minerals magnesium, zinc, and manganese. However, these effects are dependent on the quality of the wheat consumed and the less refined the grains the better.
Whole grains are healthier and tastier than refined grains and can easily be incorporated into our diets.
Of course for some of us, excluding wheat from our diets is not something that we have a choice about. If this is the case then what we need to bear in mind when changing to a wheat free diet is to make sure that we replace wheat with viable and effective alternatives.
If you like cooking, try out as many different recipes as you can, experimenting with alternative grains such as those suggested above until you find a taste and consistency that works for you. Most of our recipes here are actually wheat-free, so be sure to take a look around!
If you are wheat free, or are considering it, let us know about your experiences. Do you have a hard time finding products? Are you feeling better without eating wheat? Let us know in the comments below.
About the Author
Alena has been eating a plant-based diet for 6 years and is passionate about sharing her learnings in the fields of nutrition, wellbeing, and vegan ethics. She is the co-creator of nutriciously and loves music, reading, nature, traveling, yoga & good food. Alena received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy, and social work.