Is Wheat Good For You? We Asked Experts & Here's What They Said
Over the last few years, there's certainly been a trend around vilifying carbs — more specifically, wheat — as being evil and unhealthy. Some believe that as the manufacturing process has changed over the years due to technology, modern wheat has become less healthy because of genetic modifications and farming techniques. There is research to suggest that wheat's nutrient contents isn't what it used to be in decades past. According to the Broadbalk Wheat Experiment, concentrations of minerals found in wheat like iron and magnesium saw a decline after 1968 — but is wheat really as bad for us as so many people seem to think? And is it something we need to be worried about in 2018?
With so much misinformation and confusion out there, it can be difficult to know what is true, and what is simply fake news. One thing is certain — wheat is a major staple in many people's diets, and that's probably not going to change any time soon. But, while wheat gets a bad rap, it's actually filled with important nutrients that your body needs to function. And, while the ways we manufacture wheat has changed, that's not necessarily always a bad thing. "The wheat food industry has become more sophisticated, in that new wheat varieties have been developed to meet the nutritional and functional needs of food processors," registered dietitian nutritionist Crystal Karges tells Bustle. "The many wheat foods and products we enjoy today are a result of the selective breeding of wheat classes with qualities for specific products."
Still have questions? Here's what experts want you to know about how modern wheat has actually changed — and how it affects us.
All About Whole Wheat
Before we even dive into this investigation, it's important to note that there's a major difference between whole wheat, and white wheat, and it definitely affects nutritional quality. Whole wheat contains bran (which makes up the outside layer and is packed with Vitamin B), the germ (the inside layer filled with healthy fats and other vitamins), and the endosperm (the part that's between the bran and the germ and is mostly starch, with some proteins and vitamins).
Once you process wheat to take out the bran and the germ, you get white wheat. All that's left in the now-white wheat is the endosperm, which doesn't have the same types of nutrients that you find in the bran and germ. "The process of going from the whole grain wheat to the white wheat destroys the germ and the bran parts of the grain, removing all the vitamins, fiber, and minerals," nutritionist Brigitte Zeitlin of BZ Nutrition tells Bustle. Foods with white wheat also tend to contain more starch, which means that your body converts it into sugar faster (hello, energy crashes and jitters).
Whole wheat is important because it's high in fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals. The combination of all this goodness helps you feel less stressed, have higher energy levels, and leads to plenty more health benefits, Zeitlin says. White wheat doesn't offer the same additional benefits, which is where some of the confusion comes in when we talk about wheat being "good" or "bad" for us.
How Whole Wheat Has Changed
In the past 50 years, a lot has changed — including how we manufacture our wheat. Thanks to modern technology, whole wheat is becoming more accessible and convenient for us — especially when we're on-the-go (think: pre-sliced breads, and easier access to different types of bread). But it's also made it easier for us to process and refine grains. According to Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, "The invention of industrialized roller mills in the late 19th century changed the way we process grains. Milling strips away the bran and germ and leaves only the soft, easy-to-digest endosperm. Without the fibrous bran, the grain is easier to chew. The germ is removed because of its fat content, which can limit the shelf life of processed wheat products. The resulting highly processed grains are much lower in nutritional quality." Remember that whole conversation about white wheat? That's what we're talking about here.
"A slice of whole wheat bread (while still a lightly processed food) still offers great benefit. Some food industry meddling has actually helped us out a bit."
But just because the manufacturing process has changed doesn't mean whole wheat is inherently bad. "A slice of whole wheat bread (while still a lightly processed food) still offers great benefit. Some food industry meddling has actually helped us out a bit, like having pre-sliced loaves of bread, or whole wheat pita bread," Zeitlin tells Bustle.
In other words, not all industry changes have been a bad thing. Many of these changes have helped to ensure we have variety in our wheat products, while also providing us with the necessary nutrients and vitamins we need to function on a daily basis.
How It All Affects Us
Whole grains add a ton of benefits to our lives when we consume them, and there's research to prove it. A 2016 study confirmed that whole grain consumption "is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and total cancer." Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports that eating whole grains actually lowers cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels. It also says that "women who ate two to three servings of whole-grain products each day were 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease over a 10-year period than women who ate less than 1 serving per week." In general, it also found that those who ate 2.5 or more servings of whole grains a day were 21 percent less likely to suffer from cardiovascular diseases than those who ate less than two servings of whole grains per week.
That's not to say there aren't downsides to modern-day wheat. "The pesticides and chemicals used on wheat crops show some correlation with the rise in sensitivity and wheat intolerance issues," nutritionist Lauren Minchen tells Bustle. And, even if you don't have a wheat or gluten allergy, you still might feel its effects. Non-Celiac gluten insensitivity (NCGI), where patients feel the same symptoms as people who have Celiac Disease, but on a much less severe scale, is more common than Celiac; approximately six to eight percent of people have NCGI, compared to the one percent of people who are diagnosed with Celiac. In 2014, The Journal of the American College of Nutrition performed a literature review on a study done at University Hospital of Palermo in Italy which sought to provide insight on NCGI. Overall, the results concluded that NCGI was, in fact, a legitimate concern among "a significant percentage of the general population" who "report problems caused by wheat and/or gluten ingestion, even though they do not have celiac disease (CD) or wheat allergy (WA)."
So while, yes, there are many reasons why eating whole wheat can be great for some people, it's still not going to be for everyone. If you feel you have a wheat sensitivity or potential allergy, consult with your doctor and/or nutritionist.
But if that's not something that concerns you, then go forth and soak up all the nutritional goodness whole wheat has to offer you. Whether in the form of whole wheat pasta or a whole wheat turkey club, eating your favorite foods can help you feel like your best self. So eat on, wheat lovers!