Why Wheat is Unhealthy for You and Your Child
by Dr. Phil Maffetone
Next to sugar, wheat may be the most unhealthy food staple of the Western diet, contributing significantly to ill health and disease. We all know how bad sugar is for our health due to its high-glycemic nature – but wheat and wheat products can actually be worse due to an even higher glycemic index. Eating that piece of whole-wheat bread is not unlike eating a couple of spoonfuls of white table sugar! The baby’s first foods, we’re told by manufacturers and advertisers, should be cereal, but how many parents would feed their child a jar of pure sugar? The introduction of processed wheat along with other high glycemic cereals begins a sudden, massive biochemical assault on a young child’s brain and body.
In addition, a significant portion of the wheat a child consumes, like sugar, turns to fat. For example, in many children almost half of that bowl of cereal can turn to stored fat. After only two or three generations of cereal eating, its contribution to the obesity epidemic, beginning in childhood, is obvious.
Wheat has other problems for children, notably the risk of allergy. This can have a serious and sometimes silent affect on the gut; and as we discuss in chapter 5, the gut directly affects brain function. Sometimes the gut problems are not so silent, as a full-blown disease – celiac disease – a real threat. These and other problems of wheat are discussed below.
Wheat is a political lobbying success story, like the tobacco industry. For a baby’s first solid food, it certainly should be avoided for its nutritional reasons as we can obtain whatever benefits wheat contains (some fiber and nutrients) in many other healthy foods. And, considering the health risks, wheat’s place on any food pyramid is a marketing scheme that serves those who are addicted and the companies that sell it. As a dominant part of school lunch programs, wheat is not only found in the obvious places – bread, cereals, pretzels and other snacks – but also hidden away in hamburgers, soups, gravies, sauces, desserts, and many packaged foods, often to cut costs.
The facts are clear: wheat is unhealthy. It’s a common cause of intestinal problems, allergy and asthma, skin problems, it can prevent absorption of various nutrients, and can contribute to weight gain. And the list of specific conditions associated with wheat keeps growing – from autoimmune diseases that begin in childhood (such as arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, lupus, MS) and chronic inflammation to chronic skin disorders like eczema and brain dysfunction.
The reason for wheat’s failure as a healthy food is twofold; the protein component of wheat, called gluten, is difficult to digest and highly allergic in many children, including infants who are unfortunately given this as their first food. And many people are adversely affected by gluten without realizing it, leading to a slow, silent buildup of chronic illness. Gluten is what makes bread rise, so most baked goods and packaged foods are full of it. The second reason wheat is unhealthy is that almost all wheat products are high glycemic – from bread, bagels and muffins to cereals and additions to many packaged foods to wheat flour itself, a staple in almost all kitchens and common recipes.
Gone are the days when people would buy real whole-wheat berries, grind them and make flour or sprout them for use in food products. While the berries still contain gluten, they’re not high glycemic. But almost all wheat used today is processed, making it high glycemic.
Consider too that wheat makes up a significant part of most children’s diet. In doing so it also replaces many potentially healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, protein foods such as eggs and meat, nuts and seeds, etc. For example, instead of cereal as baby’s first food, vegetables should be the healthier choice.
Some children are more sensitive to the harmful effects of wheat than others. Wheat allergy is among the common allergies in children and adults, along with milk, soy, peanuts and corn. The most practical way to assess this is to note how you feel after ingesting wheat. The most common symptom is intestinal bloating, but other signs and symptoms are associated with skin, breathing and edema, and may be immediate or delayed. But tradition dictates that many of the problems in infants come with being an infant, which is wrong. Babies and young children can’t explain their symptoms.
Here are some of the details about how wheat can be harmful:
-Wheat can bind important minerals from our food and prevent their absorption. These include calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and copper – all essential for good health.
-Wheat can reduce our digestive enzymes, especially those from the pancreas, rendering key foods less digestible – including protein and fats. By not digesting protein, amino acid absorption is impaired, and whole protein absorption could cause allergies. And by not digesting fat, essential fatty acids may not be absorbed adversely affecting a whole spectrum of problems from skin quality to inflammation and hormonal balance.
-Since wheat is high glycemic, it can lead to the production of higher amounts of insulin by the pancreas. In addition to causing more fat storage, this can also increase the risk of various diseases later in life, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
-Combining physical activity and wheat can trigger allergic reactions is some people. This occurs when a person eats some form of wheat, and exercises within a given time period. This is followed by some allergic reaction, from mild problems (sometimes so mild people are used to it) like skin rash or hives to more severe problems including anaphylaxis and even death. This may also include breathing difficulty. It is sometimes difficult to diagnose because of the need for both triggers (wheat and exercise) around the same time period.
-High glycemic wheat products, which are often sweetened with more sugar, results in the development of a sweet-tooth that not only perpetuates the desire for more sweets, but the dislike for health promoting less sweet tasting and bitter foods, like vegetables.
-Wheat, like all refined carbohydrates, promotes cavities.
-Wheat can sometimes cause mental or emotional symptoms, including poor concentration, fatigue, depression, moodiness, attention problems and anxiety.
The most serious condition of wheat intolerance is called celiac disease, affecting at least one in 150 people, with the problem starting in childhood. These individuals must avoid any amount of wheat or risk serious, sometimes life-threatening reactions. Celiac disease has profound effects on the brain too, not just the body. This can result in brain atrophy – literally, the loss of brain tissue. The problem, however, may not be noticed until the child grows into adulthood. In the meantime, the child’s life is riddled with intestinal problems along with many other potential signs and symptoms noted above.
While we have considered the full range of wheat problems throughout our own professional careers treating children and adults, many professionals now agree that mild forms of wheat allergy, much more common and now finally being recognized, is the same condition – a sub-clinical celiac disease that begins early in childhood. Eliminating wheat, or never introducing it to a child, is one of the first steps to take toward improving brain function.
Dr. Philip Maffetone is an internationally recognized researcher, educator, clinician and author of 12 books in the field of food and nutrition, exercise and sports medicine, and biofeedback. During his 30-year career, which included 20 years in private practice, Maffetone has been a respected pioneer in the field of complementary medicine, bringing the latest advances to healthcare professionals around the world. In 2003, Maffetone was presented with the prestigious Statuette award by the International Academy for Child Brain Development. His website is www.philmaffetone.com where many of his articles are archived.