Throughout history, wheat and other grains have been the cornerstone of the human diet. Some have even called wheat the foundation of civilization. Over the past 40 years, wheat demand has risen dramatically, due in part to the global population boom, as well as its use in conquering the world's famines. To keep up with demand, modern wheat has been drastically changed, making it easier to grow and harvest. The changes to the grain staple have increased yields, as well as maintained a high gluten content in order to produce high-volume commercial baked goods.
Meanwhile, the incidence of celiac disease, wheat allergies and sensitivity, other autoimmune diseases and the global obesity rate have dramatically risen. At one time, celiac disease affected only about one in 10,000 Americans. Recent studies, however, indicate that rate is as high as one in 133. Plus, about 20 million Americans now experience gluten sensitivity; four times the rate just 40 years ago. Since genes couldn't have changed that much in a similar period of time, experts are looking at environmental causes for the increases.
Today's wheat is not the same as the grain our grandmothers used to bake breads, muffins and other goodies. In fact, today's wheat isn't even wheat, according to author and preventive cardiologist William Davis. Once more than four feet tall, the wheat now grown in 99 percent of the world's wheat fields is now just two feet tall with a larger seed head. Today's wheat is genetically modified, crossed with non-wheat grasses to introduce new genes.
"The wheat products sold to you today are nothing like the wheat products of our grandmother's age, very different from the wheat of the early 20th century and completely transformed from the wheat of the Bible and earlier," Davis said.
How has hybridized wheat made people sick? Since it can no longer survive in a wild state, farmers now rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep their crops alive. Furthermore, intense crossbreeding has significantly changed amino acids found in wheat's gluten proteins, a change Davis says is responsible for the 400-percent increase in celiac disease over the past 40 years. As for obesity rates, wheat's gliadin protein, a potent appetite stimulant, has also undergone vast changes.
"We're seeing hundreds of thousands of people losing 30, 80, 150 pounds (after abstaining from wheat)," Davis said. "Diabetics become no longer diabetic; people with arthritis having dramatic relief. People losing leg swelling, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and on and on every day."
But how can anyone avoid wheat in today's society where everything from ketchup to wine coolers include the grain in one form or another? Americans now consume an average of 146 pounds of wheat each year. Davis suggests eating what he calls "real food," including olives and olive oil, meats, vegetables and avocados - foods least likely to have been changed by agribusiness.
"It's not my contention that it is in everyone's best interest to cut back on wheat; it is my belief that complete elimination is in everyone's best health interests," Davis said. "In my view, that's how bad this thing called 'wheat' has become."
Another option is replacing wheat with spelt, an ancient grain that has long been popular in Europe and has recently made a comeback in North America. A non-hybrid relative to present-day wheat, spelt has a high water solubility, so its nutrients are easily absorbed by the body. It's also significantly higher in protein than wheat, as well as higher in B complex vitamins and both simple and complex carbohydrates. Although it can be more expensive, spelt has been found to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and the occurrences of migraine headaches.