Living Against the Grain

“Try cutting wheat out of your diet,” the nutritionist said.


Photo Copyright by Moyan Brenn

I was sitting his office as he proposed some dietary changes. His desk was cluttered, more like that of a college professor than a medical professional. He even had the shaggy, graying beard.

He explained to me that some people have difficulty digesting wheat gluten. Back in the mid-80’s, I had some vague and undiagnosed ailments and my mom thought this guy could help.

Up to that point I had, quite literally, never contemplated that wheat was anything but a good thing. I ate Wheaties for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner. Cutting wheat out entirely was going to be tricky.

After leaving his office, my mom took me out to lunch. I wanted a sandwich but clearly, under these new circumstances, bread would pose a problem.

“I’m not supposed to eat wheat,” I explained to the guy at the counter, hoping he’d suggest some alternatives.

“Try the rye bread,” he said. “It’s mostly white flour.”

I was flustered. Did he think that when I said ‘wheat’ I meant ‘whole wheat’? Did he not know that white flour is also made from wheat? This was just the first of many misunderstandings, miscalculations, and misinterpretations that I would experience in my attempt to lead a wheat-free life.

Fast forward to today, where being wheat-free and gluten-free is so trendy that, according to a recent radio piece, restaurants are creating specialized menus for this “new” diet. Grocery stores have aisles stocked with wheat- and/or gluten-free products. In addition, people following the “paleo” diet are also shunning the grain. Wheat skepticism has reached critical mass and, unlike 25 years ago, the wheat-free choices abound.

IMG_0747Just to be clear, I don’t have celiac disease, which is a recognized autoimmune reaction to gluten. I can eat wheat in small amounts on occasion, and oats and other gluten grains don’t bother me. According to an article in Slate, there is a spectrum of wheat-related ailments, the others being wheat allergy and gluten intolerance. Wheat allergy can be diagnosed clinically, but gluten intolerance is more of a syndrome than a disease. Which is not to say that it’s imaginary. There are many syndromes, such as irritable bowel syndrome or Sjögren’s syndrome, that are very real to the sufferers even if little is known about them medically.

While eating food that is wheat- or gluten-free is not for everybody, my feeling is that there is no downside. Unlike diet trends such as the low-carb fad, where people have avoided fruits and vegetables to the detriment of their overall health, avoiding wheat has no adverse consequences. For me, I have much more energy, fewer digestive and allergy problems, and feel generally more healthy.

If anything, my experience has heightened my awareness of how pervasive wheat is in our diets.

  • Breakfast?  Muffins! Bagels!
  • Lunch?  Sandwiches!
  • Dinner?  Unlimited bread basket!
  • Dessert?  Cookies! Cake!

Which leads me to ask, must everything be served with bread? The answer is no, and here’s why.

One of the greatest events in human civilization was the domestication of grains. According to Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, wheat was cultivated as early as 8500 B.C., a result of efforts to simply stay nourished. “People seek to maximize their return of calories, protein, or other specific food categories,” Diamond says, by eating food produced “…in the least time with the least effort.” Gardening, and later farming, probably began as a way to “provide a reliable reserve larder as insurance in case wild food supplies failed.”

Over time, this provided a plentiful and dependable source of calories, and many societies switched from being hunters and gatherers to being settled farmers. As a result, these domesticated foods such as bread and wine became part of our culture. We have internalized culturally the significance of bread even as we have surpassed the nutritional need for it.

Today, calories are cheap. A soda can provide more calories than our ancestors ate in a day. Supplementing our diet with grain-based calories is no longer a necessity. And when something ceases to be necessary, it must seriously be considered for reduction or elimination from our lives.

I have not read this book, but this is what I'm talking about.

I have not read this book, but this is what I’m talking about.

So, to a greater or lesser degree, I have cut wheat out of my diet. And while there may be times when I feel culturally obligated to eat some (pizza anyone?), I have embraced this essentially wheatless diet, and I have no regrets.



  1. Matthew Taylor

    Interestingly, the Food and Drug Administration just issued a final rule defining the requirements under which manufacturers can claim food to be gluten-free, a rule that has been in the works since 2007. How far we’ve come.

  2. Matthew Taylor

    I just read an article describing “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” as “people who reacted poorly to gluten but had none of the diagnostic or histological markers for celiac disease.” This could also be an explanation for how I feel. And yes, according to the article, it really is a thing.

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