Amber Waves Of Pain

I gave up eating wheat almost three years ago when I realized it was making me sick.

I’d had a laundry list of health problems my whole life and despite lots of tests and doctor’s visits no one could figure out why.

I’d decided the culprit must be something dark and scary, but no, it was just a little anticlimactic piece of protein.

Within three days of giving up gluten, my body began to heal itself, and now, almost three years later, I’m in a much better place. I am no longer underweight, burned out and half crazed.

Of all the things, I thought, to have a reaction to, why does it have to be wheat?

Because wheat is elemental, like air and water. Beyond what’s plucked from the dirt of the earth or the branch of a tree, there is little in the American diet that doesn’t contain some form of grain. Wheat is the most widely produced and consumed cereal grain in the world.

It sleeps in ketchup, shines the licorice, lurks about in cans of soup and arrives as mold in blue cheese. It’s in beer, beauty products, gin martinis, chocolate cake, pork fried rice and tea. It thickens, coats, rises, fills, batters, dusts and springs our food to life. It is the basis of bread – the staff of life-the walking stick that humankind has leaned on as it trudged through barren desserts or sailed on stormy seas. It has been buried with pharos, stowed in the rucksacks of peasants and hoarded in a million wooden cupboards from our past, often the thing standing between humanity and famine.

There is increasing evidence, however, that wheat may not be good for any of us-not just those who are allergic or sensitive to gluten. And here’s why: The wheat we are eating today is not the wheat your grandmother ate and not the wheat of 1960, thanks to genetic manipulations introduced to increase yield-per-acre. Scientists have manipulated wheat without checking to see if it was safe for human consumption.

I know, I know. The latest health advice tells us to eat healthier whole grains, but it just might be a “franken food,” otherwise known as a GMO.

Plant breeders changed wheat in dramatic ways. Once more than 4 feet tall, modern wheat-the type grown in 99 percent of wheat fields around the world-is now a stocky 2-foot-tall plant with a large seed head. This involved crossing wheat with non-wheat grasses to introduce altogether new genes, using techniques like irradiation of wheat seeds and embryos with chemicals, gamma rays, and high-dose X-rays to induce mutations.

In his book, “Wheat Belly,” Dr. William Davis describes some of the remarkable improvements he observed in his patients when they gave up wheat: weight loss of 25 to 30 pounds over several months; marked improvement or total relief from arthritis; improvement in asthma symptoms; relief from acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome symptoms and the disappearance of leg swelling and numbness and an increase in energy. Most of the patients reported increased mental clarity, deeper sleep, and more stable moods and emotions.

Wheat can bring your blood sugar level up as much as eating a candy bar or drinking a soda. And with 8.3 percent of the population diabetic and 79 million Americans pre-diabetic, this can’t be a good thing.

I’m not trying to advocate junk science here, and certainly more studies need to be done. But sometimes you have to advocate for your health before science catches up. I am still incredulous that most of the doctors I saw over the years did not test me for celiac disease despite the fact that my symptoms warranted it. But this is a country where amber waves of grain bend in the breeze, and we’re just a tad bit ignorant of gluten allergies and intolerance unlike other countries like Italy-where their citizens are tested for celiac disease at birth.

Abstaining from wheat products and all forms of gluten hasn’t been difficult for me because the quality of my life has improved. But for most people, the thought of never eating pizza again, or slathering butter on a warm piece of bread is beyond the scope of their sensibilities.

For many, just cutting down seems to provide some benefits.

Which brings the debate around to what most of us already know: Try to eat more whole foods. You know, those foods grown in the ground or on trees, full of nutrients and with no processing involved. And try to eat more whole foods that haven’t been contaminated with chemicals.

We can take what’s hard about eating and make it simple again.

Have a carrot. Not a Twinkie.