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The health benefits of whole wheat and whole grains are being challenged by a new and growing 16-billion-dollar-a-year gluten-free industry. Before we take wheat out of our diets, let’s be sure we are not making another major mistake as we did when we took cholesterol out of our diets in the 1960s.
In this article, I want to share some of the science that reveals a few of the many health-protective benefits of whole wheat and whole grains.
Wheat: A Natural Prebiotic
Prebiotics, in the form of fructans and arabinoxylans naturally found in wheat grains, significantly increase intestinal beneficial bacterial populations, such as Bifidobacterium and lactobacilli. (3) Another study showed that when healthy subjects went on a gluten-free diet for a month, the amounts of beneficial bacteria in the gut decreased and those of unwanted bacteria increased. This suggests that wheat may be more important than we think! (6)
In another study, being on a gluten-free diet for just six days significantly reduced NK cell activity in the immune system, suggesting, once again, that wheat (7), a grain we have been eating for 3.4 million years may be tied to good health in ways we are still discovering. (8)
Heart and Cancer Protection
Numerous studies have shown that whole grain foods are protective against heart disease and numerous cancers, especially gastrointestinal cancers. (9,10) There are plentiful beneficial compounds in whole grains, such as dietary fiber, resistant starch, antioxidants, trace minerals and concentrated phenolic compounds including ferulic and caffeic acid. (12) Whole grains have been found to bind to carcinogens and lower glycemic index and blood sugar levels. (1)
Leaky Gut and Diabetes
Consumption of whole grain foods has been associated with decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and leaky gut by reducing permeability of the gut wall. (11) Over millions of years, we have evolved to digest whole grains and wheat. (8) It seems grains were designed to be only partially broken down in the upper digestion, so they could ferment in the large intestine where they boost beneficial microbes. This fermentation of grains in the gut produces immune-boosting and blood sugar-lowering bacteria that produce gut-healthy short chain fatty acids. (2)
Whole Grains on Human Health
Studies find that whole grain intake is protective against cancer, CVD, diabetes, and obesity. (9,10) Despite recommendations to consume three servings of whole grains daily, usual intake in Western countries is only about one serving per day. Published whole grain feeding studies report improvements in weight loss, blood-lipid or cholesterol improvement, and antioxidant protection. Although it is difficult to separate the protective properties of whole grains from dietary fiber and other components, the disease protection seen from whole grains far exceeds the protection from isolated nutrients, such as the fiber and phytochemicals in whole grains. (4)