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!


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