The Consumption Explosion of Wheat and Its Effects
The differences between the wheat of yesteryear and the wheat used in processed foods today explain the negative effects modern wheat has on the body. To avoid these negative effects, all you have to do is eat less wheat, right?
Not so fast. Most of the Western world is consuming more calories and becoming less healthy. Americans are eating an average of 10 percent more calories now than in 1970. Half of those additional calories come from wheat and other grains, but the other half come from sugar.
The rise in wheat and sugar consumption has several explanations: infighting in the scientific community, government nutrition guidelines, and subsidies for particular crops.
The American diet wars
The man considered to be most responsible for the changes to the American diet is Ancel Keys, an American scientist. Keys became famous for the invention of K-rations, the boxed meals given to World War II soldiers.
He turned his attention to diet and heart disease beginning in the late 1940s. By the early 1950s, he was speaking about the connection of fat and cholesterol in the blood to heart disease, even though the medical community was split on this link at the time of his initial findings.
Keys’s focus was on his famous Seven Countries Study, which he claimed proved the fat/heart disease link. How Keys came to his conclusions has always spurred a lot of controversy, but even without the consensus of the scientific community, he soon found believers in the politicians of the day.
Keys’s archrival in the diet wars was John Yudkin, a British physiologist and scientist. Yudkin spent most of the 1960s researching the effects of sugars and starches on animals and people. His findings culminated with the release of his book Pure, White and Deadly in 1972. He asserted that blood sugar levels and triglycerides (fat in the blood caused by eating carbohydrates) were more dangerous than the consumption of fat and cholesterol in regard to heart disease.
He linked sugar and starches directly to Type 2 diabetes and obesity. By the time Yudkin published his book, his theory was in direct opposition to Keys’s theories, which had been accepted by the medical community as fact.
People took sides on the issue, with Europeans tending to side with Yudkin and Americans tending to side with Keys. What many didn’t realize was that much of the data used to prove Keys’s fat theory simultaneously proved Yudkin’s sugar theory.
Low-fat and wheat-filled fad
Enter Senator George McGovern, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. The committee members were focused on trying to solve malnutrition in the mid-1970s when they found their mission coming to an end. Before the group disbanded, they decided to create some nutritional standards and policy for the United States.
After hearing expert testimony from both sides of the high-fat/low-fat argument, McGovern wanted to come to a consensus that the scientific community couldn’t. Rates of obesity and diabetes had taken an upward swing earlier in the decade, and he felt changes needed to be made on a national level before things got worse.
McGovern employed a young staff writer with no training in science writing or health and nutrition to finalize some recommendations. The writer consulted Harvard nutritionist Mark Hegsted, who convinced him that low-fat eating was the way to go.
What followed in 1977 was a report entitled “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The new recommendations were as follows:
Increase carbohydrate intake to 55 to 60 percent of calories. (“Carbohydrate intake” included grains, fruits, and vegetables.)
Decrease dietary fat intake to no more than 30 percent of calories.
Decrease cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams per day.
Decrease sugar intake to 15 percent of calories.
Decrease salt intake to 3 grams per day.
Meat and dairy producers were obviously upset with the government’s report. What had been staples in the American diet were now portrayed as villains to the country’s health. The National Academy of Sciences ( NAS) Food and Nutrition Board felt, like many nutritionists, that the government shouldn’t get involved with what should be a scientific recommendation.
They felt that people should be instructed to consult with their physicians on nutritional matters and that evidence didn’t exist to recommend reductions in fat and cholesterol.
Soon after, the NAS issued a rebuttal report called “Toward Healthful Diets.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture claimed the NAS had ties to the food industry, and public perception favored the new Dietary Goals. The meat and dairy industries got the bad end of the deal, while the grain industry came out on top. In the United States, wheat was now supposed to be the answer.
The Dietary Goals for the United States gave way to the Dietary Guidelines, which would be issued every five years. The grain recommendations before 1977 were four servings per day. By 1984, the guidelines recommended 6 to 11 servings of grains per day, while recommending a total of only 2 to 3 servings of meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts per day.
During the 1980s and 1990s, fat was removed from practically everything to appeal to those on a low-fat diet; however, the fat was replaced with sugar and, usually, refined grains to help maintain the flavor lost with the fat. Thus began a dangerous downward spiral in the standard American diet.