For more than a quarter of a century whenever I would mention coffee, a good friend of mine would smugly comment, “I don’t do drugs.” The caffeine in coffee is, of course, a stimulant drug. But he didn’t know that he does use a drug, one that is even more common than caffeine.
My friend didn’t realize that the wheat bread and other grains that he eats every day contain chemicals related to morphine called opioids. The daily bagel is addicting. No wonder that so many people who have diabetes find that as much as they want to control their blood glucose levels they have a devil of a time giving up grain.
When Rachael F. Heller and Richard F. Heller published The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet in 1993, they were certainly on to something. While not all carbohydrates contain addictive opioids, grains do, and they are a large part of the American diet.
Even earlier, William Dufty made a big splash in his vain attempt to sink sugar. His Sugar Blues (1975) said that this form of carbohydrate was addicting. While I am convinced that our regular table sugar is dangerous for our health — especially because it is half fructose — I haven’t seen any evidence that it is technically addicting.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you doubt that grains are drugs. I was skeptical myself when I read about it for the first time.
The new book, The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability by Lierre Keith is the first place that I remember reading that grain has opiods in it. This book, by the way, presents the best case I’ve ever read for shunning a vegetarian diet. Ms. Keith was a vegan for almost 20 years before she knew and accepted the fact that her diet had destroyed her health. Her book persuaded me that a vegetarian diet isn’t morally superior, is actually destructive of the environment, and is unhealthy for anyone.
“Grains are essentially sugar with enough opioids to make them addictive,” Ms. Keith writes (page 152).
Ms. Keith is not a scientist by profession. So I turned to the MEDLINE database of peer-reviewed medical studies. In just a few minutes I found enough to convince me that her assertion is true.
“Four opioid peptides were isolated from the enzymatic digest of wheat gluten,” wrote S. Fukudome and M. Yoshikawa. Their research came out in FEBS Letters of the European Biochemical Societies, which publishes short reports on molecular biology.
“Peptides derived from wheat gluten proteins exhibit opioid-like activity in in vitro tests,” wrote F.R. Huebner. His research came out in the journal Peptides. “Peptides with opioid activities are derived from wheat gluten or casein, following digestion with pepsin,” wrote D.D. Kitts and K. Weiler. “Exorphins, or opioid peptides derived from food proteins such as wheat and milk (e.g. exogenous sources) have similar structure to endogenous opioid peptides, with a tyrosine residue located at the amino terminal or bioactive site.” Their research came out in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design.
If milk is also addictive, it wouldn’t surprise me. Both grains and milk and dairy products other than Greek-style yogurt are inflammatory, according to Binx Selby, the founder of BalancePoint Health. Tests of my diet before and after consuming wheat gluten and cheese showed me that they did indeed increase the inflammation of my arteries.
Nowadays, I avoid eating both grain and dairy products (except Greek-style yogurt) to avoid inflammation. Whether or not dairy is addictive, my experience teaches me that I can’t control my consumption of grains with my addictive personality.
For much of my life I struggled with my addictions. Coffee may seem benign, but it probably caused the severe headaches that I experienced about six months ago. Breaking the tobacco habit in 1965 was tough, but I did it and would never smoke another cigarette. I also used marijuana heavily until 1984 and the thought of getting high again tempts me all the time. While I could almost always handle alcohol in moderation, I know that I will always be addicted to marijuana.
However, I have reached a point in my life where I control all of my addictions. Coffee, tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, and grain are all in my disreputable past. Now, like my friend used to say, “I don’t do drugs.”
This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.