Wheat-Free: How the Body Processes Food

By Rusty Gregory, Alan Chasen

To understand how wheat affects your body, you need to understand how your body breaks down food, processes it, and distributes the resulting elements to be used as energy or stored for later use:

  1. Metabolism begins when you eat food, which is made up of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and fiber.

    Your stomach releases hydrochloric acid (HCL) to start to break down the food.

  2. The partially broken-down food moves to the small intestine.

    Enzymes help break the food down even further. Proteins become amino acids; fats turn into fatty acids; and carbohydrates are converted into glucose and fructose (both forms of sugar). Fiber stays along for the ride, unfazed by what’s going on around it. It helps keep the process moving but also limits the absorption of some of the nutrients in the food particles.

  3. Amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars in the small intestine make their way to the liver.

    The liver takes as much as it can; any excess circulates throughout the body. At that point, the body (which keeps a very tight rein on how much glucose is allowed to circulate in the blood) tells the pancreas to increase insulin production.

  4. Insulin now makes glycogen (the name for stored glucose) in the liver.

    It also directs amino acids from the bloodstream into the muscles, and the excess fatty acids are stored in the fat cells for future energy needs in the form of triglycerides.

This figure shows the organs involved in digestion.

The body processes a wheat-free diet differently than it processes a standard diet. [Credit: Illust

Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born
The body processes a wheat-free diet differently than it processes a standard diet.

Insulin, also known as the fat storage hormone, leads the glucose and fatty acids to fat cells that will take them. When you have stable blood sugar levels, insulin does this job easily and within normal ranges.

However, when you eat carb-laden meals, the body is overwhelmed with glucose; the fat cells eventually quit responding to the knock on the door, so more and more insulin is required to perform the same task. This situation is the beginning of insulin resistance.

When insulin levels are high, the body tends to be in fat storage mode. When insulin levels are low, the body tends to be in fat purging mode (a state of using fat for energy).

A person who eats a wheat- or grain-free diet processes food differently than a person who eats an average diet filled with processed food, carbs, and sugar. This table shows the comparison for the two women shown in the figure.

Processing a Wheat-Free Diet vs. a Standard Diet
Wheat-Free Diet Standard Diet
Because the woman on the left isn’t carb dependent, she’s
satiated longer, requiring fewer meals and less thought about food
throughout the day.
Because the woman on the right is carb dependent, she needs to
eat every three to four hours to avoid a sugar crash. While
thinking about eating carbohydrates, she begins secreting
insulin.
She gets hungry and eats a meal free of wheat, grains, and
added sugar.
She starts eating food containing wheat, grains, and added
sugar.
Blood glucose, which has been stable all day, doesn’t spike but
slightly rises at a slow rate.
Blood glucose rises in the bloodstream quickly.
The pancreas releases a limited amount of insulin needed to
clear glucose from the blood. Glucose levels return to baseline
quickly.
The pancreas releases large amounts of insulin to clear the
excess glucose from the blood.
Lack of insulin causes fat cells to release triglycerides for
energy. She gets leaner.
Insulin transports the excess blood glucose to the fat cells
for storage as triglycerides. She gets fatter.
In addition to her weight management, she won’t develop leaky
gut. Her risk for chronic illnesses such as heart disease,
arthritis, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes is reduced.
In addition to weight gain, she will likely develop leaky gut
due to her inflammatory diet of wheat, grains, excess sugar, and
vegetable oils.