Not by Bread Alone: Wheat, Pasta and Gluten for Cycling

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Part 3: Wheat, Pasta and Gluten for Endurance Sports

Gluten is only part of the story.

You are a combination, sort of average of your parents and in term they are the combination of their parents and so on. That more or less describes human genetics in a nutshell; we are diploid – we carry two copies of chromosomes – one from the mother and one from the father. When it comes to plants though, things are a lot more free. In that world a species can be the sum of the parents – it can be polyploid and species are free to cross-pollinate as they see fit. It’s a natural process that is controlled by the geographical isolation as well as plant’s different flowering times. The new hybrids contain all the chromosomes from their forebears.

Evolution and why do hybrids happen?

Sometimes you get pink flowers from red and white parents, sometimes you get both red and white on the same plant, and in other cases the new generation has features  that neither of the parents carried; such as disease and/or drought resistance – that is how evolution works some species makes it, some goes extinct. Crossing different plant species is relatively easy and we as humans have used it to create better plants such as the grapefruit – a hybrid between pomelo and Jamaican sweet orange. Sterile hybrids can happen and that is how you get seedless citrus fruits. Wheat is a plant that has evolved together with us as species relatively unchanged until the 1960s when it got modified significantly by our hands and is thus avery fascinating case.

Now is the time to rewind the clock a bit….

The End of Hunter Gatherer

Humans were initially hunter gatherers that followed the food around as well as eating the local plants. The beginning of agriculture changed all that and allowed for a more settled down lifestyle that led to the development of tools, language and culture and eventually modern life as we know it. This was somewhere about 8500BC. Growing grains represented a major part and archaeological evidence from the Fertile crescent (modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Iraq) demonstrated that wheat had a central role in human history.

The wheat that our great great ancestors were cultivating was called einkorn (Triticum monococcum). Genetically it is the simplest – with only 14 chromosomes. this was the grain found in the intestines of the Tyrollean iceman Otzi.

After the cultivation of einkorn, due to its natural crossing with a wild grass it became emmer (Triticum turgidum). As described above, the einkorn wheat inherited all the genes of the goatgrass and hence became a 28 chromosome plant. Emmer’s growing cycle fit nicely into the seasonal rise and fall of the Nile and hence it was widely planted in ancient Egypt. In addition the ancient Egyptians used yeast to make the bread rise and to make beer as well.

Emmer further crossed with another primordial grass – Triticum tauschii resulting in the ancient 42 chromosome Triticum aestivum – the closest to the grain we make flour from today. Since it is the most genetically complex, it has the highest potential for modification by crossing it with itself in order to get the desired features – a technique that has been used by farmers for centuries to get better crops. T.aestivum had other features that made it preferable to einkorn and emmer, particularly that the grains were not enclosed in a ‘hull’ so they could be separated by threshing first manually and later mechanized. Slowly emmer and einkorn got replaced.

The Road to Hell is Covered With Good Intentions

Wheat is a very hardy plant that can grow in 730m below see level in Jericho to the heights of the Himalayas as well as from the northern latitudes of Norway to the southern ones in Argentina, therefore it is no wonder it is considered a staple food in almost every culture.  Nonetheless Triticum aestivum evolved little since it’s ancient days until about 1943 when the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (IMWIC), located east of Mexico city at the foot of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains began an initiative to help Mexico achieve agriculture self-sufficiency. It developed into a worldwide effort to increase the yield of corn, soy and wheat with the ultimate goal to reduce world hunger – an admirable goal. Mexico was ideal ‘laboratory’ since it allowed for two growing seasons, cutting the hybridization times in half. In short scientists got a whole bunch of Triticum aestivum species and got to work breeding them together to get a super T.aestivum in the end.

The first problem was the fact that when you use nitrogen rich fertilizer the wheat gets large and the stalks get long, so the top heavy plant buckles (called lodging) and dies. In addition the stalk is useless and the longer it is, the more time and fertilizer it takes for the seeds to reach maturity, therefore that had to change. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution that reduced hunger worldwide, is credited for creating the super high-yielding (as much as ten times) ‘dwarf’ strains of what that we know today. I first saw grain in the fields in 2011 when on a bike tour in Sweden. As a city kid I had always imagined grain as the “amber waves” you read about in books; needless to say the short stocky grain at below knee height was a huge disappointment.

Norman Borlaug Amidst a Wheat Field
Norman Borlaug Amidst a Wheat Field

The IMWIC did accomplish its goals and provided much needed relief to hunger stricken, population explosion regions such as India, Pakistan, China, Colombia. Norman Borlaug went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 among some other extremely high honors. What he and his colleagues at the IMWIC accomplished is truly laudable and deserve a lot of respect.

There was one problem with the strains of T. aestivum developed – no human or animal safety testing was performed. I am sure right now you are saying that this is how agriculture had been done for centuries – you cross apples with other apples and you still get apples. In theory yes, in practice the results are quite disturbing.

The hybrid wheat offspring expressed 95% of the proteins of their parents, however, the remainder 5% were unique – found in neither parent. Gluten proteins are the ones that undergo significant structural changes when hybridized. In addition as compared to its ancient cousins, modern strains of T.aestivum express gluten proteins that are directly associated with celiac disease. The same goes for ‘modern’  genetically engineered wheat, where single genes are inserted with human intervention, just at the right places with the idea of getting the feature you want without changing anything else. Studies using modified soybeans fed to pigs showed alterations in liver, pancreatic, intestinal, and testicular tissue as compared to animals fed unmodified ones – information your multinational seed corporation does not readily share.

The modern wheat, the staple in a lot of diets was created with the goal – high yield per acre and pest/drought and disease resistance. Furthermore gluten is what makes dough stretchy and allows air to get trapped inside and make it fluffy a very desirable characteristic carefully selected among many strains to yield the most suitable flours. As well as having a crop that costs pennies and makes product worth many times more is every CEOs wet dream. Human health was not even considered.  I understand that criticizing world hunger ending efforts from the comfort of my desk is easy, however, there is more than one side to every story and maybe the old saying about the road to hell is actually true; corporate interests, consensus guidelines and good intentions is a peculiar combination.

Whole Grains, Empty Promises

T.aestivum being the sum of two other grains – einkorn and emmer carries all the genes and therefore expresses all the gluten proteins of it’s parents and then some. Glutens have gotten into the modern nutrition radar, however, as any fads and the motto of this blog  – It’s more complicated than that. I will get back to Gluten in a bit, until now let’s explore why and how wheat became a staple and especially here in France when I am out riding the tiniest village has the boulangerie (or bakery) as the absolute center and signs pointing you in that direction in case you miss it.

As I described in Part 1 of the series the “carbfather” or Ancel Keys was the man labelling animal meats and saturated fat as the evil heart disease causing agents and due to his work the 1977 dietary guidelines came to be. The food pyramid had it’s bottom or 60% of calories that must come from grains, rice, pasta, bread – in short from wheat. I am sure as well you are aware of the claims that whole grain bread is better than white bread and if you care about your health that is what you should be eating. Just like you I always ordered my club sandwich with the brown bread and haughtily at the thought of eating white. The wisdom goes that whole grains get absorbed slower keeping you feeling full for longer.

The question is why?

Wheat is 70% carbohydrate with the remainder 10-15% protein and fiber each. The carbohydrate exists in the form of amylopectin and amylose – both are branched forms of glucose – a plant’s version of glycogen. Currently there are three types of Amylopectin identified. Type A as found in most grains and wheat, Type B in bananas and potatoes and Amylopectin C exists in legumes such as beans. Type A is the most readily digestible by humans and Type B and C less. That is why you release gas after eating beans – the undigested amylopectin gets to the bacteria in your gut that break it down and release gas as a byproduct.

Wheat and Pasta for Endurance Sports and Cycling_1

As far as your body is concerned Amylopectin A is pure glucose. Glucose is what causes insulin release and energy storage as fat. Insulin unlocks your cells so they can take up and burn the glucose. Since we as humans have no essential need for carbohydrates (see Part 1) and each one of us has a carbohydrate tolerance threshold and if you exceed it your blood glucose remans high and as a result your pancreas releases more and more insulin. Do it long enough and  you become insulin resistant or Type 2 diabetic with all the consequences such as high blood triglycerides. hypertension, etc. (see the first paragraphs in Part 2). Lots of glucose = high insulin which in term when high enough masks the satiety signals in your brain, therefore making you hungry even though you not only just ate but have plenty of glucose to convert into fat. All that fat accumulates as visceral fat  in your belly and in your organs causing that unsightly bulge. Visceral fat is the single most important predictor for heart disease and a plethora of metabolic problems such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes. You get fatty liver as well. Unlike geese that have evolved to accumulate fat in their livers as fuel for their long migrations, for humans that is called hepatitis. A French delicacy – foie gras – literally fatty liver is done by feeding geese nothing else but grains! For the more number oriented whole wheat has a glycemic index of 68-72 (pure glucose is 100) putting it in the medium-high range, more than a candy bar (though sugar or sucrose in candy is worse and works differently.) Healthy (whole) grains…think again.

Pasta is made from Tritium durum which does give a lower glucose response, partially due to the compression of the wheat, although in the end it still gives a significant rise in blood glucose.

The Enemy Within – Gluten

All disease begins in the gut.


If you take a look at most products that are made from wheat flour they range from the delicious light croissant to the thin pizza crust, to the strong chewy bread. All of these features would not be possible without the gluten family of proteins – the gliadins and the glutenins, which are most often just called simply gluten. Gluten makes the dough stretchy and hence allowing it to fill with air and rise and become nice and fluffy. These characteristics have been carefully selected by manufacturers and anybody who dabbled even a bit in baking knows that not all flours are created equal and some are better for bread, while some for pastries. T. aestivum being the sum of all it’s ancestors therefore it contains the einkorn gluten genes as well as the emmer ones and to out on top of that, some new ones specially bred/selected in order to obtain the desirable characteristics for baking. In addition there are other proteins in the grain that protect it from pathogens, etc. Why is this important?

The gut is 8meters (25ft) long and has a surface of 280square meters!!! (3000sq feet) (yes four (4) decent sized apartments) – it is our single largest organ with which we communicate with our (outside) environment, the skin and lungs are much smaller in comparison. The gut, similar to a castle wall both protects us from harmful elements as well as having the ability to ‘open the gates’ and let good nutrients in. At the same time our immune system is constantly keeping watch if and when things go wrong at the gut and when  it encounters a threat it creates an immune response, with the collateral damage of that called inflammation. In addition the immune system is the one that decides who is a friend (tolerance) or foe (intolerance, allergies).

All proteins when viewed by or digestive system are kind of like a pearl necklace with the each pearl representing a single amino acid. Each protein/necklace has a unique shape and we have to tear the necklace down in order to use the pearls. We have evolved enzymes to do that for us. The second point is that proteins are what the immune system is looking for; neither sugars nor fats can register on its radar. Therefore any still semi-intact protein is viewed as an enemy and an ensuing cascade of events and inflammation starts. The response is similar as in the presence harmful bacteria and pathogens.  Immune reactions are what causes allergies and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

The gluten family of proteins is relatively new to the our body. Our ancestors led a hunter gatherer lifestyle for millions of years and wheat entered our diets only in the last 300 generations or ~10,000 years. In evolutionary terms this is insufficient time to evolve the needed enzymes to digest wheat proteins – we cannot completely break down gliadins and glutenins so some pieces of the necklace remain intact. It is some of those pieces that have the ability to bind to zonulin. Remember the castle wall analogy? Zonulin can open the gates hence letting in stuff not always intended to be absorbed – in short leaky gut (and the lifetime work of [amazon text=Alessio Fasano&asin=1681620510]). Besides gluten nothing much has this ability. It’s here where the “gluten free” fad comes in. While it is true that this causes the immune system to work harder, it is rarely that our bodies lose the battle. We battle with pathogens daily and it is only when the immune system gets overloaded that we get sick, however, gluten is indeed proinflammatory and since wheat products are found into almost everything, chronic inflammation is inevitable. From the endurance athlete point of view this a high cost, since most of us have dealt or are currently suffering  with gut problems on a regular basis as well as that we push our bodies harder that most.

The Crazy Abnormal Teachers

Celiac disease

The most extreme example of gluten sensitivity is celiac disease where individuals affected cannot tolerate gluten at all and it degrades the lining of the small intestine, leading to inability to absorb nutrients from food and allowing gluten proteins and intestinal lining cells to enter the bloodstream causing a cascade of further problems. Gluten as a cause was not immediately identified until Dutch pediatrician Dr. Willem-Karel Dicke noticed during the 1944 Dutch famine that death rates among children with celiac disease went to virtually zero and increased when wheat was reintroduced at the end of WWII. The real disturbing part is that only 10% (1 in 133) of people know they have celiac disease – they are the most extreme sufferers while the remaining 90% test positive for antibodies. Why is that important?

Celiac disease presents itself with plethora of other complications such as cancer, cerebellar ataxia and dementia – think of people with strollers and ones who can no longer remember their own name, etc. The antigliadin antibodies bind to the Purkinje cells that are unique to the cerebellum – the part in your brain responsible for posture, balance, coordination and speech. Furthermore the gray matter – the one in charge of memories, etc gets drawn in the immune battle as well. Neurons do NOT regenerate – once they are gone, they are gone for good. The wheat effects on the brain are excellently detailed in Dr. David Perlmutters’ – [amazon text=Grain Brain&asin=031623480X]. Since 90% of people test positive for celiac disease antibodies, they are on the same track. In addition modern wheat strains express more of the celiac disease causing proteins as compared to wheat strains grown a century ago (1900s).


The schizophrenic brain is where things have gone haywire and sufferers sometimes can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, get auditory hallucinations, etc. Doctor F. Curtis Dohan from the Medical College in Philadephia dedicated his career to a hypothesis that wheat products are directly responsible for schizophrenia. While unlikely being the direct cause, in an experiment he and his colleagues removed wheat products form the diet of their patients and the amounts of symptoms decreased dramatically. On of Dr. Dohna’s publications that is definitely worth a read can be found full text.

In addition some of the digested products of gluten can cross the blood brain barrier. That barrier exists for a reason since the brain is our central governor and you don’t want just anything going in there wreaking havoc on your main thoughts and actions. The gluten derived polypeptides bind to the same receptors as morphine – a highly addictive opiod drug. As a proof of concept the effect is reduced by the administration of naloxone – the same treatment that medics use on heroine overdosed patients to reverse the harmful effects. In short wheat is addictive – why you crave that warm crusty baguette, or the smell of toasted bread in the morning. For the more inquisitive a full text review is available here.

“Gluten Free”

Fad or fiction? For one reason or another gluten free has gotten on the radar of some food industry people and it is as of 2015, $3.5 billion industry projected to grow to $20+ billion by 2020. That’s a lot of money. Since the people running a business care for profit above all, they turn to the cheapest alternatives – namely cornstarch or in other more well-wishing cases in non-gluten containing grains such as quinoa, sorghum, buckwheat, millet, and possibly oats. Either alternative falls into the refined carbohydrate camp which is detrimental for human health as outlined in Part 1 and Part 2. While looking for some recipe ideas I skimmed through some gluten free cookbooks that came on top of my search only to find out that while gluten free they still use hundreds of grams of sugar, among other ingredients….

But there is nothing left to eat!!!

Besides the detergent and personal care aisles in the supermarket, wheat products are into every processed food, posing the question what is there left to eat, let alone have a varied diet. The answer is: quite a bit and at the end of the Cycling nutrition series I will include an ever-increasing list of recipes that I have tested myself. Most importantly, since you will be eating for sustenance rather than because of cravings you will have a new outlook on food as well you will be taking charge of your nutrition rather than allowing others who have less than noble intentions tell you what you should be putting in your body.

Are we all doomed?

It is more complicated than that…

We have about 1 billion number of cells in our entire body, however, at the same time we have ten times as many bacteria in our gut, yes times ten. There is a reason for this and we are only starting to understand the complexity and fascination that is our microbiome. From the day we are born through environmental changes the gut flora responds. The western diet had changed from the freshly prepared food to processed one and so has the microbiome. Why and how is something we are only just starting to figure out.


Wheat and agriculture is what allowed the human race to move out of the neolithic society and become what we are today. Until the 1960s wheat evolved the natural way and saw little to no modification. Through efforts to end world hunger we created ‘super wheat’ with very high yields per acre and resistant to common plant pests and diseases In parallel consensus dietary guidelines in after 1977 stipulated that almost three quarters of the calories in a ‘healthy diet’ must come from grains, rice and pastas and as such making wheat and flour products finding it’s way into almost everything we eat. Even though wheat is probably what sustained our ancestors, the modern hybridized strains represent thousands of experiments in a very short time with zero safety testing on animals and humans.

Celiac disease is the perfect example where the cause – gluten – is known, however, the both interesting and disturbing part is that only 10% of sufferers, the ones with severe gastrointestinal problems know they have the condition. Therefore the remaining 90% falling victim to the ill effects of gluten without even realizing it. Something seemingly benign as our daily bread might be the cause of chronic inflammation, and many of the modern chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, dementia, rheumatoid and even cancer.

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[amazon text=Wheat Belly&asin=1609614798] – Dr. William Davis

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[amazon text=Gluten Freedom&asin=1681620510] – Alessio Fasano

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[amazon text=Gluten Freedom&asin=031623480X] – David Perlmutter MD

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