Many of us love bread and pasta and cannot think of living without it. But an increasing number of people are discovering that wheat, or gluten - the sticky protein component of wheat, takes a toll on their health.

The good

  • It is delicious. Wheat, the basis of many different and delicious foods, is loved by young and old alike.
  • Wheat is healthy. Whole wheat contains some good nutrients as well as fiber, a well-known key to health.
  • Wheat is easy to eat. Bread, cakes or biscuits provide an easy and convenient snack.

So what is there not to like about wheat? Read on if you want to know why your friends may be so averse to wheat.

The bad

  • Gluten is hard to digest. Not only do we eat more wheat than in ancient times but modern wheat also has a higher gluten content which is harder to digest than ancient grains such as kamut, faro and spelt. Gluten can cause tiredness, bloating, reflux and other symptoms.
  • Wheat starch is quickly turned into sugar. Bread has a high glycemic index similar to that of table sugar.
  • Gluten is addictive. The proteins in wheat are digested into gluten exorphins. These bind to opioid receptors in the brain causing a "high" and lead to addictive cravings.

These issues don't stop most of us from eating wheat but there is more.

The ugly

  • Wheat is inflammatory. Both gluten and wheat germ agglutinin can cause inflammation which is at the heart of all chronic disease.
  • Wheat contains FODMAPs. FODMAPs (fermentable oligo, di and monosaccharides) can cause a problem for people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). The FODMAP diet , pioneered by Dr Sue Shepard and supported by research at Monash University, is a diet for people with IBS which can be very helpful in reducing their symptoms.
  • Gluten can contribute to autoimmune conditions. Conditions may include type1 diabetes, thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases.
  • Gluten triggers coeliac disease. The symptoms are variable and can include gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. Increasingly, coeliac disease presents with untraditional symptoms that don't involve the gut, such as fatigue, anemia, osteoporosis, dermatitis, infertility, neurological problems and many others. Coeliac disease is also associated with anxiety and depression.
  • The incidence of coeliac disease is increasing. It can develop at any age and an estimated 83% of the people with coeliac disease are undiagnosed. However, tests are unreliable if the person is already eating a gluten free diet as symptoms generally resolve once gluten is no longer consumed.
  • Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is real. Recent research suggests that NCGS needs to be taken seriously. It's different from coeliac disease although the majority of the symptoms are the same. Gluten sensitivity is currently diagnosed by excluding coeliac and other possible causes.

The message here is that in some cases, wheat damages the working of the brain and other vital organs. It is too early to say how common these damages are but it's clear that wheat can cause far more than the odd case of bloating or diarrhoea. And just maybe, that annoying gluten-free person you know is not trying to be difficult but has a serious issue.

Dr Helen Hudson, Retire & Flourish