How Can Bread Be Bad For Me?

November 18, 2014

Abstaining from gluten-based breads is one of the biggest objections I hear from clients. The notion that whole grain bread is healthy is deeply entrenched but quite flawed.  You might think, “But bread is the staff of life. How can a food that has sustained us for millennia be bad for you?”

I get it. You have toast in the morning, a sandwich for lunch and perhaps more bread with dinner. And you’re thinking, yeah, this is healthy. Here are the problems with bread:

  1. The wheat produced today is not the same wheat produced 50 years ago. Selective breeding for higher yields and a stockier plant for easier harvesting has resulted in a wheat product with much higher amounts of gluten protein. For many thousands of years it was ancestral strains of wheat such as einkorn and emmer that were cultivated for bread. These strains had a different set of gliadin proteins than the wheat we produce today. Even if most humans had successfully adapted to these ancestral strains they would have had to go through another adaptation period for today’s new wheat strains. (Wheat was not harvested in America until 1777.)
  2. Humans evolved over about 2.5 million years with consumption for most of that time being wild game, vegetables and sometimes berries. Grains have been widely consumed for just a few thousand years; a blip on the evolutionary timeline.  Humans have not in just a few hundred generations been able to adapt to a food that co-evolved with cows, lambs and goats. Cows on MeadowThese mammals have rumens that are designed for the digestion of grasses whereas the human stomach and intestinal biome are not.
  3. Our gut microbiomes have grown more sensitive to the new gliadin proteins due to environmental toxins, including the excess use of antibiotics which kill essential microbiota.
  4. Wheat, like most grains, contains phytates which bind with minerals and block their absorption into our bloodstream.
  5. While gluten-based bread enabled us to survive for many centuries this does not mean that it is a food that is optimal for our health. Gluten proteins can keep us alive during our reproductive years but health issues can emerge as we age.
  6. Since gluten causes “leaky gut” syndrome this can lead to the development of a number of autoimmune diseases including hypothyroidism and rheumatoid arthritis. Just because you test negative for celiac disease doesn’t mean gluten is not affecting other tissues such as the brain. David Perlumutter, MD and board-certified neurologist, has identified gluten as causative in migraine headaches, depression, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, insomnia, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, schizophrenia, autism and ADHD. (Gluten is not only in wheat. It’s also in spelt, barley, rye and kamut as well as thousands of processed foods.)

The Introduction of Bread

How did this happen? As hunter-gatherer tribes began to settle down into permanent communities it became harder to hunt enough game without traveling great distances. The best way to stay in one location was to develop food that could be grown. Grains became popular because they were relatively easy to grow and could be stored for long periods of time.

But while grains enabled populations to survive they did not provide optimal health. Archaeological evidence shows that the transition from a hunter-gatherer diet to an agricultural one was devastating to humans. They became shorter, developed weaker bones, anemia from iron deficiency and tooth decay.  Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel said that agriculture was “the worst mistake in human history.”

Why the Sudden Proliferation of Gluten Sensitivity?

Your next question might be, why in just the last decade are we seeing so many people with gluten sensitivities? big food factoryIs this a new problem or has it somehow been under the radar for a while? The answer seems to be both. Big Food uses gluten in a great many processed foods (soy sauce, pickles, hot dogs, beer, licorice, veggie burgers, salad dressing, candy, gravy, flavored potato chips, french fries, cosmetics, hand cream, ice cream) which means people are eating more gluten than they realize. Given the opiate quality of gluten no wonder Big Food wants as much gluten as possible in their products. There is also the recent discovery of non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Many people who do not have celiac disease react to gluten in other deleterious ways.  Gluten intolerance occurs on a spectrum rather than as an absolute yes or no. And gluten doesn’t affect just the gut. It affects the brain, liver, smooth muscle and endocrine system.

Gluten-Free Bread Alternatives

I recommend getting off of grains completely at least for a trial period of one month and then assess how you may have improved. That being said, I appreciate how difficult or inconvenient this can be. A somewhat easier step would be to start a trial period of no gluten. Alternatives to gluten bread can be found in most grocery stores. I’m not impressed with the taste of most of these grocery store breads. You would probably get your best tasting bread by either baking it yourself or sourcing them from a small artisanal bakery. Most recipes are based on a combination of almond and coconut flours. One particular favorite of mine is comprised mostly of cashew butter in the Against All Grain cookbook by Danielle Walker, also available at this link. Gluten free grains and starches include: amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, quinoa, rice, sorghum, corn, millet, potato, soy, tapioca and teff.

The First Few Days

Since gluten contains opioids you might encounter physical or stressemotional withdrawal symptoms when you first go off of grains and/or gluten. If these are too overwhelming you will find support in supplementing with l-glutamine. Try 500 mg on an empty stomach first thing in the morning and again in between meals when you’re blood sugar is lowest. You can go up to 2,000 mg/day. If this is insufficient, add chromium. If you’re craving sweets add sylvestre gymnema.

Recommended Reading

If you’re interesting in going deeper on this topic I recommend Grain Brain by David Perlmutter and Wheat Belly by William Davis.