It used to be that reaching for two slices of whole wheat bread to make a sandwich was considered a healthy choice. But now, with popular eating plans such as Paleo and Whole30 taking wheat off the table entirely (no grains are part of either), wheat’s healthy reputation has come under fire. With grocery store aisles full of gluten-free substitutes, it’s relatively easy to get away with avoiding it all together anyways.
On the other hand, wheat is “allowed” for followers of the Mediterranean diet, which is often heralded by doctors as the healthiest way to eat. Confusing, right? I called up Liz Weinandy, RD, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, to set the record straight on wheat.
Speaking of gluten, here’s what a registered dietitian has to say about cutting it out completely:
Despite its bad rap, Weinandy is quick to tell me that wheat has many positive traits beyond being cheap and readily available. “Wheat has beneficial vitamins such as B6, iron, zinc, and selenium, and is also a good source of fiber,” she says. Given the many benefits of a high-fiber benefit (it lowers inflammation, is linked to optimal gut health, and boosts metabolism), this last point is worth paying attention to.
But according to Weinandy, not all foods with wheat are equally healthy. Shocker—a diet high in processed carbohydrates, like cookies, white bread, and baked goods, isn’t a particularly great idea, regardless of wheat’s health benefits. “But if you’re eating minimally processed wheat as part of a diet that also includes protein, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables, then it’s widely considered a green light healthy food,” she says. Think whole wheat bread, which utilizes all parts of the grain to ensure you get fiber and some protein along with those carbs.
Most of the concern about wheat comes from the fear of gluten, the protein in wheat that gives baked goods their structure. Avoiding this protein (and thus, wheat) is essential for people who have Celiac disease, Weinandy says. The autoimmune disease prevents people from properly digesting gluten, which can lead to serious digestive distress in the short-term and malnutrition and other serious health complications if not properly managed.
“Something I am seeing more is non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” Weinandy adds. While she says doctors and researchers are still trying to pinpoint exactly why, Weinandy says some people with health issues ranging from digestive distress to skin rashes, feel tremendously better if they cut out wheat completely. “I think we’re going to be learning a lot more about this in the next decade,” she says. This is why wheat—and gluten in general—is so commonly cut from many popular eating plans; if someone is experiencing health issues, it’s a way to see if wheat could be the culprit.
However, healthy people should not worry cut wheat or gluten out of their diets just for the sake of it. “There is much fear-mongering going on [with gluten],” Tracey Lockwood Beckerman, RD, previously told Well+Good in an episode of You Versus Food. “If you’re going gluten-free just because, it’s possible you’re losing out on some valuable nutrients.”
For people who must avoid wheat, Weinandy offers up this important tip when buying gluten-free products: “Many aren’t healthy, unfortunately, so it’s important to read the label and look at the ingredients list,” she says. Because wheat is traditionally a good source of fiber, check out the fiber content in the GF product you’re eying to see if it’s comparable—and be sure to prioritize it in other food sources, like cruciferous vegetables and fruit.
So yes, wheat can absolutely be part of a healthy diet as long as you’re mindful of the source—and don’t have Celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. Consider this permission to enjoy another piece of avo toast.