Fast food companies and the “buffet” mentality have led to a fattening of America to the point where nearly 70% of Americans are overweight. An estimated 15% of Americans were obese in 1980. Now, according to the CDC, more than 1/3 of all Americans are obese. Those statistics baffle me!
Sugar rich foods lead to the release of a substance called “dopamine” in the area of your brain that involves addictive feelings of pleasure. Dopamine release in this same part of your brain is involved in the addictive properties crack cocaine. Furthermore, dopamine regulation is a large part of the function of many anti-depressant medications. Studies suggest that palatable or “sweet” foods may act as self-medicating for day to day stress and depressed mood.
Unfortunately the manipulation of our minds and our appetite doesn’t end with sugar. Humans are addicted to wheat, as more than ½ billion tons are produced each year. This is not as much as corn, but 40% of corn grown is for production of ethanol based fuel. Wheat is processed into breads, pastas, cakes, cookies, breakfast cereals, etc. and is even used as a thickening agent in many other food products.
Over the last century wheat has been grown via breeding techniques to provide favorable characteristics to not only wheat farmers, but also to food processors. Breeding a type of wheat that is more palatable leading to greater consumption is obviously ideal. How about breeding wheat that contains an addictive substance?
Wheat contains protein in the form of wheat gluten. Wheat gluten has a protein fraction called gliadin. Gliadin is a protein that has some disturbing effects. A study performed way back in 1984 made an interesting discovery. They found that the gliadin fraction of gluten exhibited remarkably high opioid-like activity. In other words, gliadin acted like very addictive heroin in laboratory assays. This suggests that wheat gluten proteins may be addictive in their own right despite our addiction to the “sugar high”. Furthermore, we know that the opioid addiction medication, naltrexone, helps with weight loss. The author of Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis, has suggested that cultivation and breeding of wheat has led to wheat containing these addictive proteins to the advantage of food manufacturers. By producing more addictive wheat, people eat more and manufacturers make greater profits.
What does all this mean for you? Processed foods that contain wheat flour are potentially addictive and can lead to unhealthy food choices that are hard to overcome. A recent push has been made to eliminate gluten from the diet because of potential adverse health effects. These effects are even more evident in a disease where people have significant sensitivity to gluten leading to intolerance and gut distress. Laboratory studies can be performed to determine if you are sensitive to wheat proteins. Others suggest that wheat proteins can cause “leaky gut syndrome” allowing more allergens and pathogens to get into your system causing a whole host of other problems like autoimmune diseases and inflammation.
I can tell you first hand that wheat and sugars are addicting. As a bodybuilder, part of my preparation for contests involved fairly extreme dieting to become as lean as possible. I employed the technique of using an extremely low carbohydrate diet with sufficient protein and healthy fats to maintain muscle. The first 2 weeks of eliminating carbohydrates like wheat is very mentally challenging. There are constant cravings and even feelings of withdrawal from carbohydrates like extreme appetite, jitteriness, fatigue, and loss of concentration or focus. However, once you get through that brief episode (~2 weeks) energy levels stabilize, focus returns and even improves, and appetite becomes even less.
It is fairly remarkable how well I would feel on a very low carbohydrate diet. Combined with the drive of contest prep the addiction is easier to overcome. Finding that drive in everyday life is a personal challenge for all of us. But I will give you one more benefit of breaking the addiction to wheat. After you have been away from wheat for so long, the slightest bit of it becomes a delicacy. After contest prep I could always taste the sweetness of foods one-hundred fold. For example, a piece of white bread would have the flavor and pleasure of eating cake. In fact, eating a piece of real cake was overwhelming to almost an intolerable level of sweetness. Check with your doctor first, but I think we should all try a brief “very low carb diet” to understand this phenomenon in your own body.