A Dietitian’s Confession: Why I’m Turning My Back on Whole Grains

why wheat lectins are harmful
It’s not all gluten’s fault.
Photo credit: H. Neal

Oh if I had a dollar for every time I scoffed at someone going on a gluten-free diet because it was “the thing” to do. For people with celiac disease, eating wheat can be a matter of life and death; good health and bad. But for someone who gives wheat and baked goods up just because Elizabeth Hasselback said it was cool, ha!

And then I had to give up wheat.

Cue the retractions (and the tears).

After years and years of preaching to “make half your grains whole” as a dietitian and claiming that wheat wasn’t bad for you as long as it wasn’t processed, I’ve had to change my tune based on personal experience and admit that it just may be true that wheat is killing us.

It’d been suggested to me before by a doctor or two that I may have a gluten sensitivity, but I adamantly refused to fall for it. I’d had the test for celiac disease and it was negative, so clearly I was immune to this problem with wheat the whole world seems to be rapidly discovering. Then my son was born with a wheat allergy (among other food allergies). I didn’t hesitate to raid the pantry and rid it of all of its wheat contents when it came to my son’s health. This is where I’m supposed to tell this amazing story of how much better I suddenly felt and how much better my health was. That didn’t happen. What happened is I started eating it again and quickly started feeling like crap. Much to my dismay, I cut it out again under doctor’s orders and slowly but surely began to feel better again.

So what the heck is this sudden, massive problem with wheat and gluten so many of us seem to be encountering? There are lots of theories, like we didn’t know to look for the problem before; the way our food is grown is affecting the gluten content; we’re all in such bad health that even the tiniest things do damage, and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of debate on the whole topic — that it’s bogus, nonsense, and fabricated. But with so many personal stories of improved health, it’s not something we can ignore.

The question remains: what the heck is going on? Well, it comes down to a lot of things, but one of those things is called WGA, or wheat germ agglutinin. While “agglutinin” sounds similar to “gluten,” it’s not gluten that’s at fault here. While gluten gets most of the credit, it’s merely one of more than 20,000 different proteins found in wheat. WGA is a type of protein called a lectin. (Lectins are found in all grains, not just wheat, by the way.) Lectins are nature’s pesticide. They bind to fungi and bacteria, protecting plants from damage.

The problem with WGA is that it can also bind to proteins that line your gut. Not to get science-y on you, but when this happens, it can leave the cells in the gut wall less protected from harmful substances. A poorly protected gut wall can lead to something called “leaky gut,” meaning things that shouldn’t be going through the lining of your intestines do. That’s how things end up in the blood that shouldn’t be there and thus cause autoimmune responses. Aside from damaging the gut itself, WGA has been shown to rapidly enter the brain and could potentially cause toxic effects there as well as the immune and endocrine systems.

As Dr. David Perlmutter, the author of Grain Brain explains, “This may explain why chronic inflammatory and degenerative conditions are endemic to wheat-consuming populations even when overt allergies or intolerances to wheat gluten appear exceedingly rare.”

The part of the argument that says it’s modern wheat that is causing the problem (and thus explains the exponential increase in people with problems) states that selective breeding of wheat plants has increased the concentration of WGA.

This foe we now know as lectin is particularly damaging because of its ability to disrupt digestion and absorption, as well as throw off the balance of healthy gut flora (the “good” bacteria that live in our intestines). Lectins are often called “anti-nutrients” because of how disruptive they are to the absorption process. Not only are they not providing nutrition, they are actually preventing important vitamins and minerals from being properly absorbed by the body. Lectins like WGA tend to be even higher in whole grains, meaning all those healthy choices we made over the years striving to make “half our grains whole” may actually be backfiring.

While we tend to hear the most about celiac disease, a specific autoimmune response to wheat (specifically gluten), more than a handful of autoimmune diseases may actually be attributed to our intolerance to wheat proteins like WGA. Dr. Del Thiessen suggests a few: “insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis, nephropathy, aphthous stomatitis (canker sores), and even multiple sclerosis.” (Celiac disease is often referred to as a wheat “allergy” because that’s easier way for a lot of people to understand that wheat is dangerous to an individual with celiac, but it’s not an actual allergy like say, a bee sting or peanut allergy. Celiac disease is an abnormal immune reaction triggered by gluten that can damage the small intestine, lead to malnutrition, and other complications. You can also have an allergy to wheat that follows the same immune response model as a peanut or shellfish allergy. Still, you’ll hear many people with celiac disease say, “I’m allergic to wheat” because that’s a lot easier than explaining immune response and autoimmune disorders during a casual conversation.

According to Dr. Mercola, WGA can be connected to a variety of problems such as inflammation, programmed cell death, activation of white blood cells, interference with gene expression, and imitation of viruses. It’s not sounding too promising, huh?

The focus on other proteins in addition to gluten can help explain why so many people feel better on a gluten-free diet without actually testing positive for a concrete disorder like celiac disease. It still leaves a lot of questions that I’m by no means qualified to try and answer, but it does give me reason to believe that even though I touted the benefits of whole grains for years, I might — might — have been wrong.


**Correction: Edited to clarify definition of celiac disease.**


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