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This morning, I stumbled across a realfarmacy article which poses the question [Note: the linked page breaks in Chrome but worked in Firefox]:

Why is there such a strong emphasis on the development of wheat products all over the world when there are so many adverse and crippling effects such as neurological impairment, dementia, heart disease, cataracts, diabetes, arthritis and visceral fat accumulation, not to mention the full range of intolerances and bloating now experienced by millions of people? [Emphasis mine]

It goes on to provide rationale [citation needed] such as the following for its claims that wheat is bad for people:

100% whole wheat products are based on modern wheat strains created by irradiation of wheat seeds and embryos with chemicals, gamma rays, and high-dose X-rays to induce mutations.

More specific explanations are:

Each grain of wheat contains about one microgram of Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA). Even in small quantities, WGA can have profoundly adverse effects. It may be pro-inflammatory, immunotoxic, cardiotoxic … and neurotoxic.

and:

Dr William Davis has documented several hundred clinical studies on the adverse effects of wheat. These are studies that document the neurologic impairments unique to wheat, including cerebellar ataxia and dementia; heart disease; visceral fat accumulation and all its attendant health consequences; the process of glycation via amylopectin A of wheat that leads to cataracts, diabetes, and arthritis; among others.

and:

Due to the unique properties of amylopectin A, two slices of whole wheat bread increase blood sugar higher than many candy bars. High blood glucose leads to the process of glycation that, in turn, causes arthritis (cartilage glycation), cataracts (lens protein glycation), diabetes (glycotoxicity of pancreatic beta cells), hepatic de novo lipogenesis that increases triglycerides and, thereby, increases expression of atherogenic (heart disease-causing) small LDL particles, leading to heart attacks. Repetitive high blood sugars that develop from a grain-rich diet are, in my view, very destructive and lead to weight gain (specifically visceral fat), insulin resistance, leptin resistance (leading to obesity), and many of the health struggles that many now experience.

And, when discussing people with "wheat related" health issues, a doctor claims

"...Once we remove wheat from their diets, most of their symptoms disappear within three to six months"

This isn't the first time I've heard such claims. In fact, a quick search for "Is wheat toxic" brings up a number of supporting results. I can't say that I read them all, but from the summaries, it seems that they all have doctors making statements about how wheat is, in effect, poisonous.

While it all sounds more like correlation than causality (100% of people who drink water die!), I was wondering if there is a grain of truth to the article. Is there something in wheat (even 100% whole wheat products) that makes it innately "bad" for human consumption? The second part is whether or not this bad stuff can legitimately be considered a cause for many health issues?

  • The author of Wheat Belly has done a lot to propagate the claim that wheat is evil. I've always been a little skeptical myself, and have read various criticism of that author, but I've never found a conclusive answer. So +1. – Flimzy Jul 12 '13 at 0:19
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    There are a lot of claims here. Perhaps limiting the question to one claim (e.g. diabetes OR cataracts) would help get authoritative answers. We also need to decide whether being unhealthful for coeliacs (and, arguably, people with other forms of gluten-intolerance) counts. – Oddthinking Jul 12 '13 at 1:07
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    I have always felt this was organic / gluten fear mongering more than factual. – AthomSfere Jul 12 '13 at 17:34
  • Is it specifically wheat, or the more general Paleo tiet type "white bread is bad for you, carbs are bad" – user5341 Jul 12 '13 at 18:44
  • I'm not sure which specific claim you're interested in: a paper which I cited in my answer seems to analyze 50 of those assertions/claims. Is that enough? Do you have a specific or follow-on question? – ChrisW Jul 13 '13 at 5:27
8

I would call this one a falsehood.

Starting with something peer reviewed and accountable:

Individuals with high intakes of dietary fiber appear to be at significantly lower risk for developing coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and certain gastrointestinal diseases. Increasing fiber intake lowers blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels.

Seeing as that information seems more substantial and credible, lets look at the article you originally saw, and where the claim came from.

The expert from the article is Dr. Marcia Alvarez. Searching for her, she appears to be making the wheat circuit only, and I am not finding good peer reviewed articles from her or on wheat toxic.

I tried the Tripdatabase and found nothing. The results were no better on PubMed

In fact, all searches on Google appear to circle back to Alvarez, or the Paleo diet (Meat only).

Realfarmacy, also appears to be a pseudo-medicine site. Most articles are anti-vaccine, anti-wheat, or other anti-established good health practices.

There are certainly times when wheat or gluten are bad, such as with celiac disease. But I see no reason to give this idea any further attention.

  • 14
    This answer doesn't strike the centre of the claim, but dances around the edges. On the surface, it is plausible that dietary fibre is good for you and wheat (or gluten) is bad for you. Dr Alvarez may be an expert in reading the literature, rather than writing it. Realfarmacy may well be a pseudo-medicine site, but dismissing its claims for that reason is an ad hominem fallacy. – Oddthinking Jul 12 '13 at 23:50
  • @Oddthinking On the surface, yes both could be true. But what we have is a single reference, essentially which has other references pointing back and forth at each other, this same single reference is not reputable in itself either. Also, the quotes and the article mentioned do not drill down between fiber and gluten, however I suppose I could have included more information specifically to wheat / cereals such as ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23679924 – AthomSfere Jul 13 '13 at 2:56
  • Later in the article it cites research by a Dr William Davis, a.k.a. "Author and preventive cardiologist William Davis, MD", saying Dr William Davis has documented several hundred clinical studies on the adverse effects of wheat. These are studies that document the neurologic impairments unique to wheat, including cerebellar ataxia and dementia; heart disease; visceral fat accumulation and all its attendant health consequences; the process of glycation via amylopectin A of wheat that leads to cataracts, diabetes, and arthritis; among others. -- So can you look at Davis, as well as Alvarez? – ChrisW Jul 13 '13 at 3:04
  • @Oddthinking I added more quotes to the question, to try to identify that "centre of the claim". – ChrisW Jul 13 '13 at 3:14
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    @ChrisW, although I missed Dr. Davis, I think its interesting still that a) there are no peer reviewed sources which back up their claims, and b) Dr. Davis is the director of this website which proudly makes all of its revenue and fees through subscriptions to the site selling alternative medicines... trackyourplaque.com/about.aspx – AthomSfere Jul 13 '13 at 3:21
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The principle authority, whose writings are being cited in the OP, seems to be "Dr William Davis".

I found a paper titled Wheat Belly—An Analysis of Selected Statements and Basic Theses from the Book which appears to analyze all of Dr Davis' points against wheat.

Note:

  • The PDF document settings prevent me from copy/pasting relevent extracts.
  • The paper analyzes 50 of Dr Davis's points, and is 9 pages of printed text (not easy to summarize)
  • http://www.aaccnet.org is a pro-wheat advocacy site

My summary of the paper's summary is:

  • Removing wheat may be part of a low-calorie/low-carbohydrate diet: useful (only) for people who want to use lose weight (and a better weight-loss strategy is eating less of everything, keeping a balanced diet, and exercising)
  • Something vague about celiac disease and genetic engineering

Here is my attempt to summarize the paper itself. The paper groups Dr Davis' points into the following cateories:

  • Obesity and Weight Loss
  • Glycemic Index and Starches
  • Addiction and Mental Function
  • Wheat Breeding and Genetics
  • Celiac Disease
  • Other Diseases and Allergens
  • Nutrition Considerations

Assuming you know already what the points/claims were in each category, my summary of the paper's analysis/refutation of each category is as follows:

Obesity and Weight Loss:

  • corresponds more with low-carb than specifically low-wheat.

Glycemic Index and Starches:

  • 50g sugar is like 145g of wheat
  • a lot of chemistry (more than I understand)
  • Davis statements about GI are "inaccurate and misleading" in four defined ways

Addiction and Mental Function:

  • It's like other foods, e.g. milk and rice.
  • Foods (except coffee) aren't addictive
  • There' little data showing an effect on mood

Wheat Breeding and Genetics:

  • Waffle (not a cogent answer, but not cogent points to begin with)

Celiac disease:

  • A wheat-free diet can cause higher BMI, because "starches in potatoes etc are highly available".
  • It seems to be true that the incidence of Celiac disease (in the population of US Air Force recruits) has increased e.g. from 0.2% in 1950 to 0.9% recently.

Other Diseases and Allergens:

  • Yes of course "baker's athsma" is well-known
  • Removing wheat does alleviate schizophrenia, "in a small subset of schizophrenia sufferers"
  • Data are scarce w.r.t. wheat and autism

etc. (it's late at night so I don't want to finish this now)

  • 1
    So the conclusion to the original statement is... false? – AthomSfere Jul 13 '13 at 5:36
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    @AthomSfere I don't know what "the original statement" was, exactly: apparently, there were at least 50 of them. To tell you my own, personal conclusion: wheat can be a contributing factory to obesity and to swings in blood sugar levels; however, my doctor calls me healthy; I exercise; and I try to eat a balanced diet per the Canada Food Guide (e.g. meals of 25% carbs, 25% protein, and 50% vegetables); wheat (bread and pasta) is a significant source of my carbs, but is far from being the only source. My conclusion after reading is, I haven't yet found a reason to remove wheat from my own diet. – ChrisW Jul 13 '13 at 5:52
  • @ChrisW "25% carbs, 25% protein, adn 50% vegetables" is itself a fallacy. Vegetables are mostly carbs and water with some proteins mixed in (and in beans some fat). – jwenting Feb 11 '14 at 7:57
  • FWIW I now have found reason to remove wheat from my own diet. – ChrisW May 21 '15 at 16:23
  • @ChrisW In the future, you can save the PDF, then run an OCR engine on it, then you will be able to copy and paste. Adobe Acrobat Pro is probably the most common program that can do this. There's free ones though. – fredsbend Jul 13 '15 at 22:44
4

Some components of wheat do cause health problems, but not in most people

The problem with the claim that wheat is bad for you is that it is a generalisation to the whole population of something which does cause problems for a minority of people. And, in the specific source quoted here, that claim is mixed incoherently with a general rant about modern agriculture, genetic engineering and radiation.

Many of the problems described do occur in those with coeliac (or celiac in the US) disease who suffer an immune reaction to the gluten protein in wheat. Many of the symptoms described in the article will occur in people with coeliac disease. Prevalence of coeliac disease is common, but not that common (upper estimates in the USA are 1% of the population according to the wikipedia article on the disease). One peer-reviewd (pubmed abstract here) study using antobody techniques suggests:

The overall prevalence of CD in not-at-risk groups was 1:133

This is large enough (perhaps 20m americans) to generate a lot of anecdotes to feed scare sites and generate plausible stories. And the absence of any statistical analysis at all doesn't make a case that the problem is bigger.

There is also the issue that many people not suffering from coeliac disease (that is not exhibiting the immune response that characterises it) may have some sensitivity to gluten. This is controbversial, but possible. Web MD summarises the whole situation well (my emphasis):

There is an academic controversy whether a broader group of people show some degree of gluten intolerance but not the immune reactions that characterise coeliac disease.

Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, and barley that is commonly found in bread, beer, pasta, and a wide range of other processed foods containing these grains.

For about 1% of the population, eating gluten causes celiac disease, an intestinal condition characterized by the inability to absorb nutrients from food.

Celiac disease is diagnosed through blood and bowel tests, but there are no good tests to determine non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and there has been considerable debate about whether the condition even exists.

In their essay published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Celiac researchers Antonio Di Sabatino, MD, and Gino Roberto Corazza, MD, of Italy’s University of Pavia, explored what is and is not known about gluten sensitivity and addressed the growing hype about the benefits of gluten-free eating.

Claims [about gluten-free diets] seem to increase daily, with no adequate scientific support to back them up,” they write. “This clamor has increased and moved from the Internet to the popular press, where gluten has become the new diet villain.”

The (paywalled) article Web MD is referring to is here.

In summary: the current state of knowledge recognises that some people have a reaction to gluten. This explains many of the anecdotes quoted by antiscientific scare sites. But, unless they produce hard statistics and proper evidence to the contrary (which they don't even attempt) their general claim is simply bogus.

  • I don't know of any good science out there either, but three out of four people I know who tried eliminating wheat from their diets found that they do better without it and notice adverse affects with it. And I hear very similar stories from others too, so I think we'll start seeing some good studies once the funding is made available, but that might be never unless it's private funding. – fredsbend Jul 13 '15 at 22:52
  • @fredsbend Did they make other changes to their diet as well? To their living habits? – JAB Apr 23 '17 at 23:03
  • @Jab Sure, but eventually they notice a cause and effect relationship with wheat and some symptom (usually gut/digestive or joint pain). Hard to confirmation bias that. – fredsbend Apr 24 '17 at 4:56
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A Case Against Wheat

http://jn.nutrition.org/content/69/2/202.full.pdf Rabbits were fed a diet of hydrogenated cottenseed, cottenseed oil, wheat germ, or sucrose. Rabbits fed wheat germ had substantially higher level of atheromatosis (hardened arteries) than any of the other groups.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21224837 Gluten causes gastrointestinal symptoms in subjects without celiac disease: "patients were significantly worse with gluten within 1 week for overall symptoms (P=0.047), pain (P=0.016), bloating (P=0.031), satisfaction with stool consistency (P=0.024), and tiredness (P=0.001)."

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25701700 In a cross-over trial of subjects with suspected NCGS (non celiac gluten sensitivity), the severity of overall symptoms increased significantly during 1 week of intake of small amounts of gluten, compared with placebo.

  • 1) Rabbits have a very different digestive system and diet from humans. They don't normally eat wheat germ. How is this relevant? Chocolate can be deadly to a number of animals, but I wouldn't therefore conclude that it harms humans. Also this study is over 50 years old. 2) this only looks at people with IBS. 3) People with gluten sensitivity react to gluten? This is very weak evidence, and it doesn't speak to the bold claims above that wheat causes nearly every disease. – user11522 May 22 '15 at 15:47
  • Weak evidence is evidence, and this is some of the most relevant data out there. The big advantage of animal studies is you can exert absolute control over the test subjects which might lend it more weight than some food studies. People with gluten sensitivity react to gluten yes, by definition that is true. The important part of the study, which you missed, is that people claiming to have gluten sensitivity actually have it. It does not directly address whether there are people who do not respond adversely to gluten, but it does show that it could be unhealthy for a large number. – Muhd May 22 '15 at 17:54
  • @dan1111 And please don't downvote people just because you disagree with them. This post has more quality information then the top answers. – Muhd May 22 '15 at 17:58
  • this doesn't answer the question "Is wheat the cause of numerous, serious health problems?" – user11522 May 22 '15 at 21:59
  • @dan1111 And rats can't vomit, yet they use them in toxicity tests. What's your point? We've been using animals for testing for a long time because it is unethical to test humans most times and very difficult and expensive when it is ethical. Animal tests aren't the gold standard, but they still count, assuming methodology is sound. – fredsbend Jul 13 '15 at 22:48
0

I wrote an article showing that wheat consumption could be a risk factor of coronary heart disease and obesity.

Some of the studies cited in that link:

  • a study on atherosclerosis in rabbits concluded that the severity of atherosclerosis after 5 months was greatest on the wheat germ-supplemented diet
  • wheat was associated with coronary heart disease in a Chinese study
  • a randomized controlled trial on men who had already suffered from a myocardial infarction saw an increase in death in the group advised to eat at least six slices of wholemeal bread per day compared to the group not receiving this advice.
  • The follow-up to the DART study seems to show that in the long term that is not necessarily true: nature.com/ejcn/journal/v56/n6/full/1601342a.html – nico May 21 '15 at 15:12
  • I talk about it in the article. It is just a questionnaire survey and everyone were told to eat more fish at the beginning of this study. So the design is not great. – Ale May 21 '15 at 20:24
  • The link you provide to support the "six slices of wholemeal bread" shows the result was "on the cusp of" significance (which is another tern for NOT significant!) It also doesn't support your claim that they were told to eat wholemeal bread in particular - as opposed to "grain fiber". – Oddthinking May 22 '15 at 1:31
  • Right, but you should have a look at the follow-up study from nico's comment above (or my article): after adjusting for more factors the researchers found the result to be significant (see Table 4). It also describes the fiber advice: "Those randomised to fibre advice were encouraged to eat at least six slices of wholemeal bread per day, or an equivalent amount of cereal fibre from a mixture of wholemeal bread, high-fibre breakfast cereals and wheat bran.". – Ale May 22 '15 at 8:33
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    +1 Nice answer. The community here is strongly biased against people claiming something is unhealthy (hence the downvotes), but this is useful information. – Muhd May 26 '15 at 15:32

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