What’s So Bad About Wheat?

I was speaking with a friend the other day who commented that “wheat is just so bad for you.” For me personally, yes, it is bad. Bad things happen to my insides when I consume gluten, the protein found in wheat and other grains such as rye and barley. For celiacs, my friend’s comment couldn’t be truer. But to hear my friend say that wheat in general is bad struck me as strange.

As I assessed my friend’s claim, I noticed three things about the way our society functions that I suspected might contribute to the perplexing way my friend thinks about wheat.

1) Blogs provide the freedom to publish just about anything.

I could easily publish anything without running them by editors or fact-checkers. I could write a post that is a list of “healthy foods that are really bad for you,” and I could write one about “demonized foods that are actually healthy.” I could put wheat on both lists and publish them as if they were fact.

When I started writing about gluten sensitivity, I made a conscious decision to write about my experience. And though experience varies for everyone, in many cases the experiences I describe are deemed some variant of “false” by some readers who perhaps had an experience that differs from my own. Can experiences be said to be definitively true or false? No. Does a new logic apply to blogs that allows experience to be objective rather than subjective? No.

When is the last time you googled something and said to yourself “I hope there’s something written about this online”? It’s not a thought that crosses my mind when I start typing in the search bar. I just assume that someone “out there” will have information on whatever topic I’m searching.

It occurred to me that because there is so much unfiltered information available online, perhaps we have developed our own internal filters. Some articles or posts might make factual claims that are in actuality unsupported by research, but they can make those claims unchecked because of the ease of Internet publishing. We read articles and sort them into two mental folders: things we believe, and things we don’t believe (let’s disregard the “I don’t know” folder for now). Those mental folders, however, don’t always correspond to what is actually true or false.

Did my friend read a compelling but ultimately unsupported argument for why wheat is bad? Did she read an experiential account of the consequences of ingesting wheat for a celiac? An anecdote of giving up gluten and shedding 15 pounds? Or maybe just an intriguing but misleading headline?

2) Provocative or catchy headlines are sometimes the only part of the article that is read, but they don’t necessarily sum up the article.

Look at the title of this article. “What’s So Bad About Wheat” might mislead you into thinking that the article is about all the ways wheat is bad for you. If you only read the headline, that might be your takeaway. You would miss the idea that “what’s so bad about wheat” is the question I asked after my friend made the claim that wheat is “just so bad for you.”

As I mentioned above, there is a lot of information online. A lot to read, a lot to retain. Say I’m reading an article online and the title of another article in the sidebar catches my eye. If it sounds better than what I’m currently reading, I’ll abandon my current article and click on it. Short attention span? Perhaps. Clickbait? Likely.

I happen to know that my friend weighs 10 pounds more than her goal weight. How long does she spend researching, talking to trusted dietitians, nutritionists, her fitness coach? Not very long. It’s easier for her to go online and search “five miracle exercises to lose every inch of belly fat in five days.” A few articles will pop up; she’ll click on the first. Because it aligns with her wish to lose 10 pounds as soon as possible, she’ll bookmark the page. She’s hooked on the idea of it only taking five days because of her desire for instant gratification. She is willing to accept the first, simplest solution, because she wants it to be true.

So if she reads a headline that says, “I stopped eating wheat and lost 15 pounds,” it seems like a fairly straightforward cause-effect and she skips the article, retaining only the headline. Her takeaway: Stop eating wheat and lose weight. But what if in the article the author specifies that he didn’t replace the wheat-containing sweets he used to eat with gluten-free sweets? If she had read that, my friend may have considered that the cause of the weight loss was likely a combination of cutting down on fat, sugar, and carbs.

3) We seem to always need a group to condemn or praise.

Has there been a time in recent history when there was no popular diet to follow? (Down with carbs! No, down with fat! No, down with wheat!) Or when there was no miracle superfood that was the new very best thing to eat? (Avocado is king! No, kale is king! No wait, coconut oil is king!)

Would we create groups to condemn if there were no “bad” groups, like we might pick fights when we’re bored? What would happen if there were no foods to condemn?

Over the years, different foods have been deemed “bad for you” and “good for you” at different times. By cutting down tremendously or eliminating fat from our diets, we stocked up on carb-rich foods. Then carbs “became” unhealthy, and fruits took a fall alongside carbs. Now wheat is experiencing it’s own fall from the idea that whole wheat = healthy, not surprisingly on the heels of an increased awareness of celiac disease.

The idea of “everything in moderation” seems pretty sensible, but it doesn’t seem to work for us. (For celiacs, it would be “everything in moderation except gluten.” For those with nut allergies: everything in moderation except nuts, etc.) Perhaps because everything in moderation doesn’t seem “active” enough for us. It seems to be the case that if my friend wants to lose weight, she wants something real that she can grasp, some specific food group that she can demonize and eliminate because she will feel that she is actively dieting her way to weight loss. If there were no “bad” foods, she might wonder: “Then why am I overweight?” Portion control seems insufficient as a direct cause of weight loss. Perhaps because then it would be her own fault if she didn’t lose weight: It’s not that the brownie was bad, it was that she had two of them. It puts the blame on her.

How exactly my friend deduced that wheat is bad from everything she consumed (mentally as well as physically), I cannot know. But I suspect it is a combination of the availability of unchecked information on the internet, sexy headlines, and the need for a dietary scapegoat.

– Kaitlin Puccio