Wheat and Health Risks: Heart Conditions

The negative effects of eating wheat are wide ranging. It has a part in gut damage, but eating wheat can also impact your heart, brain, and skin.

Many people are surprised to learn that wheat, sugar, and vegetable oils play a part in the lead-up to heart disease. Specifically, they contribute to metabolic syndrome, a conglomeration of disorders that are very strong indicators for heart disease.

Inflammation and oxidative damage are the true causes of heart disease, but some easily measurable markers can tell you whether you're on the road to trouble. Metabolic syndrome, also known as syndrome X, is made up of five characteristics that are risk factors for developing heart disease when at least three of them occur together.

The “official” list varies minimally among different organizations, but for these purposes use the American Heart Association's (AHA's) guidelines:

  • Elevated waist circumference: This factor is the broadest because so many things go into making someone overweight. However, insulin and leptin levels contribute to weight gain, and wheat's and sugar's effect on these levels is undeniable. Limit these foods and maintain a fairly constant blood glucose level, and bodyweight should remain stable.

    To measure your waist circumference, wrap a tape measure around the top of your hipbones. After a normal gentle exhale, gently tighten the tape. If your measurement is more than 40 inches (for men) or 35 inches (for women), you have elevated waist circumference.

  • High fasting triglycerides:Triglycerides are fats made by your liver. The AHA threshold indicates that levels at or above 150 are high, though that figure should probably be closer to 100. The only way to achieve low triglyceride levels is with a wheat-free, low-sugar, low-carbohydrate, and high-fat diet.

  • Low HDL:HDL is a type of protein that moves the good cholesterol around in your body. You want this number to be high, so the AHA considers numbers lower than 40 (men) and 50 (women) to be risk factors. (We consider these thresholds the bare minimum. Ideally, we'd like to see those numbers bumped to at least 50 and 60, respectively.)

    As you've probably guessed, wheat and vegetable oils contribute to lower HDL numbers. Fat, especially the healthy saturated fat found in grass-fed meats and butter, can raise your HDL number; it steadily continues to rise to between 80 and 90 for many people that maintain a wheat-free diet higher in healthy fats. Exercise contributes to an increase in this number as well, but not as much as diet does.

  • High blood pressure: Higher blood pressure causes stress on the arterial walls, which can lead to damage and heart disease. What constitutes “high”? Levels at or above 135/85.

    Cutting the grains and added sugar, including highly refined processed foods, naturally lowers blood pressure by decreasing the kidneys’ salt absorption (though in some cases, it does such a good job you may actually need to add some iodized salt back into your diet).

  • High fasting glucose: The AHA lists fasting glucose levels at or above 100 as “high,” though a number somewhere in the 80s is a better goal. Years and years of eating grains and sugar increases blood glucose levels. The body does an inadequate job of handling the excess glucose to the point that even after fasting, levels remain high.

All the risk factors contained in metabolic syndrome are just that — risk factors. They don't tell you whether you definitely will or won't get heart disease. They simply indicate whether your lifestyle puts you at a dramatically increased risk for heart disease.

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