Why can some people digest European bread, but not most American bread? Hint: It has more to do with buying from the bakery, and less to do with where grains come from.
Is European Bread Better Than American Bread?
Why do some people seem to digest European wheat better than American wheat?
I work with many patients to reintroduce wheat into their diets. Many of them report that when they go to Europe, they can eat bread without difficulties, but when they consume bread stateside, they have digestive-related symptoms.
Of course, it’s logical to immediately blame the quality of American wheat, but the science actually doesn’t support that theory. In Europe, they have been eating domesticated wheat species the same way Americans do.
In fact, domestication, or intentional hybridization, of wheat has been happening for some 10,000 years, according to the seminal scholarly book on wheat cultivation, Wheat Breeding. The reality is that every food we consume has gone through major transformations as a result of hybridization, which makes eating a true ancestral diet difficult, if not impossible!
Take potatoes for example. Wild potatoes have a deadly natural pesticide called solanine, as do eggplants, apples, bell peppers, cherries, and sugar beets. These toxins are not a problem today because of hybridization.
In an exhaustive 19-year study in Canada, published in the journal Cereal Chemistry, researchers evaluated hundreds of ancient and modern strains of wheat and found no genetic differences other than slight variations of protein versus starch content, which is an expected and natural finding.
So, if it’s not the wheat, why do so many feel fine eating the bread in Europe, but not the bread here?
The Benefits of Going to the Bakery
Most of the bread consumed by vacationers in Europe is made in local bakeries, the old fashioned way—without preservatives or additives.
These local bakeries make artisan bread that can take up to three days to make from start to finish, and it may have a shelf life of just one or two days. By the end of day two, the bread is typically hard as rock—which is why, traditionally, bakers were up very early each morning baking the daily bread.
In the US and in a growing number of large supermarkets in Europe, you can purchase highly processed bread that takes only two hours to bake and can sit on the shelf for weeks or even months before going bad or getting stiff.
Look at the ingredients of your favorite whole wheat bread and see how many chemicals are added to so-called “healthy” bread.
The only ingredients needed to make a loaf of bread are wheat, salt, and water—that’s it!
While the laundry list of unpronounceable ingredients in more pre-packaged grocery store bread is bad enough, the killer (literally) is cooked vegetable oil.
Vegetable oils are added to preserve the squishiness and so-called “freshness” of bread. In their natural state, these oils are very prone to rancidity, so manufacturers bleach, boil, deodorize, and refine them to preserve them. They are so highly processed and refined that they cannot go rancid—which means that no bug, bacteria, or microbe will eat them.
Since the large majority of all the cells in our bodies are microbes, and microbes do the heavy lifting for nearly every physiological function, it makes sense that we should choose foods that they can actually consume.
Why Preservatives are Destroying Your Digestion
That’s right, no bacteria can or will consume a preservative, which is not a good thing.
Also, when vegetable oils are baked or boiled in the process of making bread or pasta, they oxidize and trigger the production of other dangerous oxidizing agents.
The science here is clear. In one study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, processed foods were linked to 141% increased risk of metabolic syndrome, a combination of high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, low good (HDL) cholesterol, and increased belly fat. In the same study, when whole foods were eaten, including whole wheat, a 38% reduction of these symptoms was seen.
In other studies, and there are many, when eating whole wheat is compared to eating refined or processed wheat, there are significant reductions in:
- Type 2 diabetes risk
- IBS-related symptoms
- Obesity and weight gain
- Cognitive decline or brain fog
- Intestinal inflammation
See also Why, How, and When to Eat Wheat
The Importance of a Rest and Digest Response
When we’re on vacation, we are typically in relaxation mode. Our daily hustle and bustle and high-stress lifestyle are replaced with the exact opposite. There are no alarm clocks, beds to make, meals to cook, or deadlines to meet. We are on vacation time!
Over the years, in addition to folks being able to digest better in Europe, I have had numerous reports from patients that their blood pressure, anxiety, and depression were dramatically reduced while in Europe.
Eating on the run or while stressed out has a powerful effect of literally turning off the digestive process. When stressed, the degenerative fight-or-flight nervous system predominates, which is more concerned about saving your life than engaging in a digestive process.
On the other hand, when you sit down, relax, and enjoy a meal European-style (which is also an important Ayurvedic principle), the rest-and-digest, or parasympathetic, nervous system engages, and we have all hands on the digestive deck!
In Europe, all meals are, in general, freshly prepared and served in an environment that forces us Americans to sit, relax, and enjoy the simple process of eating.
The biggest meal of the day in Europe is lunch. Just after noon, many shops close down and the restaurants fill up with locals stopping in for their two-hour midday meal break.
Circadian science now supports this idea, as studies show that we are meant to eat our largest meal when the sun is high. When the sun goes down, so does our digestive strength.
Bottom line: Eating while stressed or in a hurry is like attempting to paddle a canoe upstream. It is unsustainable!
4 Steps to Digesting Wheat Better
Make no mistake, gluten sensitivity is as big of a problem in Europe as it is here. In fact, my book Eat Wheat has been translated for a handful of European countries.
The digestive difference is not the wheat, but how the pasta or bread is prepared or processed.
Most Americans have been consuming excessive amounts of highly processed, pesticide-laden foods for decades. This has made it more and more difficult for us to properly break down and digest dense proteins, like those found in wheat, dairy, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and beans.
Taking all of these foods out of your diet is not the solution—it simply offers temporary symptomatic relief. The key to digesting more easily is to accomplish the following:
- Avoid processed foods.
- Eat organic seasonal foods. (Sign up for my free monthly seasonal lifestyle guide here.)
- Relax when you eat.
- Troubleshoot your digestive system for weakness. This is one of the main premises of my book Eat Wheat. I take you through a step-by-step process of finding your digestive weak link and then teach you how to repair with whole foods and plant medicines.