Feel tired? Feel miserable? You might want to rethink the bread basket.

Our carbaholic nation is taking a good long look at why we feel so terrible and increasingly, fingers are pointing to a loaf of bread or basket of muffins. Popular diets such as Wheat Belly, the Paleo Diet and raw foods diets are helping many people lose weight and feel healthier as they totally avoid grains. Proponents of whole grains have had their messages co-opted by marketers to sell you disease-causing foods with a bit of fibre sprinkled in. When I talk whole grains, I mean grains as they grew out of the ground. Steel-cut oats, not Oatmeal Raisin Crisp. Wheat berries, not boxed macaroni and cheese.

Eating more plants can do wonders when you’re not feeling your best. However, I am meeting enough people who are convinced that grains are making them sick to know that something is up. Our love affair with the staff of life is causing a few nasty breakups. So what, exactly, is going on in our digestive tracts and why does it feel like wheat is to blame?

Is wheat making us sick?

The truth is, health professionals really don’t know. Anyone who claims to have the definitive answer is probably comfortable jumping to conclusions on the basis of some early research. I’m not. In the literature, there are dozens of options emerging on our body’s relationship with carbohydrates, the components of grains and how, when times get tough, eating grains might lead to dis-ease. And you know what? Our bodies are not test tubes: each one of us has our own individual prescription for health and happiness. Your best friend might adore meat but you feel better as a vegetarian. You might enjoy feasting on raw nuts while your neighbour has a terrible allergy to them. So why are we so quick to try and create a single, reductionist answer to our ills?

Probably because so many of us are feeling unwell. And we are sick and tired of being sick and tired. The trouble is, once we feel terrible, investigations become a chicken-and-egg scenario: is the food making you sick or is it because some imbalance occurred in your body that now it doesn’t handle the food you eat as well? It is incredibly difficult to get to the root cause of many chronic digestive concerns. If you are curious as to whether wheat is to blame, take a look at some of the reasons why wheat may be causing you to feel unwell…and why you might falsely be blaming gluten when something else is at the heart of your tummy troubles.

Causes of wheat intolerance

  1. You could have Celiac Disease, an auto-immune condition where eating even the tiniest crumb of gluten causes the body to attack itself. This is may be 1% of the population but the number seems to be on the rise…
  2. You could have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is a diagnosis of exclusion that is reached when your doctor has ruled out every other potential cause of your symptoms. Even though ‘nothing’ is medically wrong, when you cut out gluten, your symptoms resolve and when you retrial gluten, the symptoms come back.
  3. You could have a wheat allergy, which is a classical immune reaction to wheat.
  4. You could have irritable bowel syndrome, which often has food triggers that intensify symptoms. One approach to dietary management, called the low FODMAP diet, works by lowering the carbohydrates in your diet that are fermented by your colon bacteria. Wheat has substances called fructans that are highly fermentable. In the absence of food triggers, stress can bring on massive flare ups and most of us stress eat carbohydrates…so we could link the two unfairly.
  5. Since we are talking fermentation, you might simply have some nasty bugs in your digestive tract causing GI distress and of course, wheat and carbs provide lots of fuel for the bacterial fire. Eating a high fibre, plant-based diet can also cause some GI distress as you adjust – many of our healthiest plant foods are high in FODMAPS. A good dose of probiotics could ease all that gas…I love Bio-K+ of course.
  6. We generally consume our wheat and carbohydrates in their most processed, lifeless form. Doing so probably means that we are lacking in nutrients for our body to feel well. Try cutting back on processed carbs and only eating them in their whole, intact form such as wheat berries, whole barley, steel cut oats or quinoa. Eat WAY more fresh fruits and veggies. See if it makes a difference.

How to figure out if you have wheat or gluten intolerance

In need of some nutritional healing and not sure what to do? Don’t self diagnose…or rely solely on Dr Google. Work with health professionals you trust to help you get well. If your usual team can’t get on side with your plan, find a new team. If you think that wheat and/or gluten is making you feel ill, here is what you need to do with your team of health champions:

  1. Start keeping a notebook of everything you eat and drink, along with any symptoms that you feel such as fatigue, excessive gas or stomach upset. This journal will be wildly helpful to any allergist, dietitian or naturopath that you work with in the future to identify potential culprits and patterns.

Symptoms of wheat or gluten intolerance

These symptoms mean that something is up…but they aren’t specific to gluten or wheat intolerance. If they show up in your symptom journal, be sure to tell your doc!

  • Chronic diarrhea or constipation
  • Chronic gas, bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Sudden, unexplained weight loss
  • Brain fog, difficulty concentrating and depression
  • Significant unexplained fatigue
  • Iron-deficiency anemia
  • Rash
  • Unexplained joint pain
  • Swelling, itching of mouth
  • Difficulty breathing or anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction, call 911)
  1. Go to your GP and get screened for Celiac Disease. This is the easiest first step as it involves a concrete test that can point you close to a diagnosis. This simple blood test is called a Ttg. Please don’t try to cut out gluten or wheat before you do the test or you could get a false negative that prevents you from finding your root cause.
  2. If you screen negative for celiac disease, get a referral to an allergist or gastroenterologist if your GP thinks there is a medical issue at play such as IBS, classical food allergies or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. If your GP thinks you are fine and you feel that something major is going on you can see a naturopath or integrative MD to help you get to the root cause of any health issues. A dietitian who is well-versed in food intolerance can walk you through an elimination and challenge program if you are convinced that food is at the heart of your ills.
  3. Don’t give up – digestive concerns can be the most difficult to unearth and find the root cause as there is no single test to confirm issues. Even the best allergy testing at the hands of an allergist is only a tool to guide elimination and challenge of foods for confirmation of food culprits.

How has your life changed by making dietary change? Let me know on Instagram!