September 28, 2011

Bread: The Root of All Evil?

Last week I was forwarded a Maclean’s news story entitled “On the Evils of Wheat“. The story was an interview with Dr. William Davis, a preventative cardiologist who has recently written a book entitled Wheat Belly.

Now to be fair, I have yet to read the book so can only comment on some general points raised in the the article itself. Although I found Dr. Davis’ position a little extreme, I do believe his message of “ditch wheat for better health” is the right one.

As any regular reader of this blog will realize, I’m no big fan of bread myself. This isn’t to suggest I don’t think bread tastes great (because it does) but I think there are way better foods to put in our mouths if we are interested in optimizing our health or performance.

That being said, I don’t view bread as “evil” or an equivalent societal ill on par with cigarettes (sorry Dr. Davis).

I can count on one hand the number of clients I’ve worked with where increasing their wheat intake led to superior outcomes. The common thread for these three individuals: they were young, still growing males who needed a ridiculous number of calories in a day (4000+).

Bagels are some serious mass builders…

And as Dr. Davis alluded to, bread does seem to have the ability to allow people to consume quite a few calories in a day.

Conversely, for almost any other client I’ve worked with, dramatically better body composition and health results have come from limiting (or downright avoiding) wheat products.

Now I don’t think superior health outcomes from limiting wheat occur because “wheat will kill you”. According to our general scientific consensus, only about 1% of North Americans has coeliac disease (a severe gluten-allergy).

However, just because eating wheat might not cause your airway to close or lead to the sudden onset of crippling stomach pains, there is similarly no compelling scientific or health reason to centre a diet around wheat-based products. In my experience (take it for what it’s worth) I think a lot of people do show signs of gluten-intolerance (general malaise, fatigue, skin issues), signs that resolve when you pull gluten from the diet.

Yes gluten intolerance is highly subjective, so I’m not about to debate this with anyone who cares to argue. You have your opinions, I have mine.

To date there is ample published literature showing that human health improves after 1. eating more vegetables, 2. eating more protein, 3. eating more fruit, 4. eating more of the right kinds of fat, and 5. eating more legumes.

So essentially, if you aren’t eating any (or enough) of the following, adding these foods to your diet typically leads to better results.

Whereas the data on whole grains is always “eating more whole grains in the place of refined grains” leads to better health outcomes. This is not at all the same thing as saying that going from eating zero whole grains wheat to some whole grains wheat leads to superior health…. because that data doesn’t exist.

Better DOES NOT equal good!

Unfortunately, just because whole grain bread does less damage to your health, it still doesn’t make it a great choice.

Of course, just because something isn’t actively promoting health, doesn’t mean you can’t eat it. We are adults and can make our own decisions. Not everything foodstuff we eat needs to represent the pinnacle of health.

However, wheat is definitely something I think works best showing up in 10% or fewer of someone’s weekly meals (i.e. treating wheat more similarly to junk food or as a treat).

Unfortunately, I’m still in the minority as there continue to be a mind-blowing number of “health” experts who continue to  recommend bread (and bagels, cereals, muffins, pitas) as staple foods, which literally makes ZERO sense.

  1. Humans cannot readily digest wheat in it’s natural state, therefore, wheat (like many grains) requires substantial milling to release the nutrients contained within. This doesn’t means humans should never eat wheat, but it’s strongly suggestive that the human genome isn’t designed to predominantly fuel itself with wheat-based calories…
  2. And wheat does seem to have an addictive quality about it. It’s rare that I hear a client suggest that “oh, I could eat 4 cups of rice or quinoa no problem” or “man, oh man – those baked potatoes, I just had 6!”. But when it comes to wheat-based foods the number of times I’ve been told something along the lines of “I just couldn’t help myself, I ate the entire loaf of french bread…”

Basically, my advice on bread consumption is simple: if you are currently struggling to portion control your consumption of wheat-products, given that bread is not necessarily for survival, you are probably better off ditching it from your diet.

No amylopectin A, gliadin, or small particle LDL reasons necessary… just common sense.

Till next time, train hard and eat clean!


Dfrn says:

What is the source of the claim that humans can’t digest wheat? I’ve heard this before but I don’t really understand. What is the definition of “natural state” and why does milling make wheat more digestible? Does this suggest that for all of history people didn’t get calories from wheat due to indigestibility until the mill was invented? Is this supported by archeological evidence? Why would a people cultivate a plant for food if it was indigestible and therefore provided no calories? Just curious because I can’t make sense of this myself. Do we not have specific enzymes in our bodies specifically for the breakdown of gluten (found in wheat products). Given this why would we have evolved this way? I agree that many wheat products are hidden sources of empty kcal and fat but not sure about the backing on the digestibility piece.

graemethomasonline says:

Essentially, wheat (much like oats, barley, millet, etc) are all cereal grasses. The primate gut is not equipped with the enzymatic system necessary to derive significant nutrients from grasses in their natural state. In contrast, herbivores (likes cows or deer) have evolved an efficient second gut with bacteria that can ferment the fibre found in grasses/leaves/shrubs to effectively extract the nutrients contained within.

What milling does is breaks down the outer cell wall of these grasses. Then, when milled grassses are cooked, the starch granules become crystalized which renders them more digestible for the primate digestive system.

Additionally, modern cultivars of wheat, rice and other cereal grains have been selectively bread to increase both yield, as well as digestibility. Some of these changes in agriculture also appear to increase the pro-inflammatory potential of cereal grains.I’m by now means an expert in the matter, but if you’d like to learn more, one of the leading researcher on the matter is Dr. Loren Cordain. He has published quite a few papers available on Pubmed, however, I’ve linked to one here that is freely available for download from the journal Research Reports in Clinical Cardiology:

The Western Diet and Lifestyle and Disease of Civilization

He covers quite a lot about the evolution of our hominid diet, antinutrients & inflammatory potential and we as current intake patterns and how it may precipitate the onset of several chronic disease.

MaryL says:

Great response, Graeme!  I find Dr. Davis to be a little, umm, florid
(did you read his freakout
about the minimal amounts of sulfuric acid in oats?). But after looking
through his book and blog, I did decide to try dropping wheat and
wheat-ish things, including barley, rye and beer (sob!) for 30 days,
while maintaining the same moderate calorie deficit and activity level
that had previously led to some weight loss, then stalled. I still eat
beans/legumes, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and brown rice, but in small

Result:  I haven’t reached the 30 days mark yet, but I have seen over 5
pounds disappear and my pants are fitting better. The wheat ban works
great as a meta-rule that keeps me from adding a Timbit or a cookie to
my tea breaks: in fact, I’ve cut out all impulse food buys. No more
“well, one McDonald hamburger is actually fairly healthy”. I’m planning
meals better, can deal with genuine gaps in my day until I can find some
decent food, and after paying $6 for two Bacon and Egg McMuffins, no
muffin, no processed cheese in a rushed morning a couple of weeks ago, I’m saving money, too.

Best of all, I’m doing this without feeling hungry. I think wheat really
does spark your appetite. I’m going to keep this up until I reach my goal, then
see if I can work in wheat as an occasional treat once I’m done.

Hey Graeme,

Great critical look at this article.  Pretty much what I’ve seen with my clients too, drop the grains and results improve dramatically.  Only problem is that half the time when you suggest no more bagels for breakfast, you get a shotgun pulled on you lol. Grain addiction in effect!