Is Modern Wheat Making Us Sick?

Does today’s wheat really send the body into “fat-storing panic mode”?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #220



Kevin writes:

“One of my New Year’s resolutions is to drastically reduce the amount of wheat in my diet. I have heard from numerous sources that wheat bread can spike blood sugar levels even more than consuming a candy bar. The argument is that today's wheat has been modified to a point where the body does not recognize it as something natural and so it goes into a fat-storing panic mode. Would spelt bread be a better option? “

I promise to dedicate an upcoming episode to the pros and cons of spelt as an alternative to wheat. But first, I want to address some of the other concerns about wheat that Kevin raises—because I’ve been hearing variations on these themes from other listeners as well.

Let’s start with the effect of wheat on blood sugar.

Is Modern Wheat Making Us Sick?

Is Wheat Worse than a Candy Bar?

The notion that wheat is worse than candy seems to stem from statements made by William Davis, author of the best-selling book Wheat Belly. On the website for his book, Davis states that “wheat raises blood sugar higher than nearly all other foods, including table sugar and many candy bars.” Really?

The best tool we have for measuring the effect of foods on blood sugar is the glycemic load, which takes into account both the speed at which various sources of carbohydrates are digested as well as how much of them you consume. Most of this data has been collected by the Glycemic Index Research Service at the University of Sydney in Australia.

According to their database, the glycemic load of a piece of white bread is between 9 and 13. (Whole grain bread ranges from 6 to 11.) A dark chocolate bar has a glycemic load of 8. So it is true that a piece of white bread raises blood sugar higher than a dark chocolate bar. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll see that this isn’t really the whole story.

For one thing, the glycemic load of most candy bars is significantly higher than that of bread. A Snickers bar is 23; a Milky Way is 26. As for the bread, as soon as you combine bread with anything else, such as meat or cheese or peanut butter, the glycemic load goes down, because the fat and protein in those other ingredients slows down the digestion of the carbohydrates in the bread. Add a slice of cheese to a piece of white bread and the glycemic load of your snack goes from 11 down to 5. And if you were to choose whole wheat bread instead of white, the glycemic load would be even lower.

Now, I guess if you were to eat a piece of cheese with your chocolate bar, that would lower its glycemic load as well. I don’t know about you, but I’m far more likely to eat a candy bar all by itself than I am to eat a piece of bread all by itself. So, although it has certainly attracted a lot of attention to the book, I think the blanket statement that wheat raises your blood sugar more than a candy bar is misleading, manipulative, and unhelpful.

Does Your Body Recognize Modern Wheat?

It’s certainly true that modern wheat is quite different than strains grown a hundred or more years ago, due to intensive hybridization. However, it is still made up of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. As such, the body still “recognizes” it as food, the same it way it “recognizes” a Fuji apple or a seedless watermelon, neither of which existed 50 years ago.

The body has no genetic “memory” of foods eaten by previous members of our species. Every food you eat over the course of your lifetime is unfamiliar the first time you eat it. That’s not to say that your body will tolerate every food on the planet equally well. You might lack enzymes needed to fully digest a certain food. You may have an allergy to a particular food protein. However, a food is not toxic simply because it’s new—either to you or to the biotope.

As for the idea of unfamiliar foods throwing your body into “fat-storing panic mode,” that doesn’t really square with the facts either. Foods with a high glycemic load trigger the release of insulin, a hormone which (among other things) stimulates the conversion of excess energy into fat. But this would be true whether the foods were new strains or heirloom varieties. And I don’t think there’s any “panic” involved in this process. The hormone most closely associated with panic is adrenalin, which actually does quite the opposite: Adrenalin mobilizes the body’s fat-burning mechanisms, converting that stored energy back into muscle energy so that you can outrun that saber-tooth tiger.

Should You Cut Back on Wheat?

Keep in mind that all grains trigger the release of insulin to some extent. Whole grains have a lower glycemic load than refined grains but when it comes to managing blood sugar and insulin, the amount of grains you consume is even more important than whether they are whole or refined. 

Please see: The Whole Truth about Whole Grains

All of which suggests that, even if the recent charges against modern wheat don’t hold much water, your New Year’s resolution to cut back on wheat might still be a good one—but not if you simply replace one grain with another. Instead, consider replacing some of the grains in your diet with vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods

See also: Are Grains Necessary to a Healthy Diet?

Keep in Touch

If you have a suggestion for a future show topic or would like to find out about having me speak at your conference or event, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com. You can also post comments and questions on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page. I answer a lot of listener questions in my free weekly newsletter, so if you’ve sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.

White Bread and Wheat images from Shutterstock

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.