Of Wheat, Research, and the Hundred Breath Headstand

A while back, Steve and I gave up wheat. We didn’t do this because we were particularly unhappy with our diets. We were curious, after reading a review of Dr. William Davis’s book, Wheat Belly. I’d been mostly raw for a few years, and Steve had moved that way as well. But both of us still ate wheat. I sprouted it, and had the occasional bread/crackers/cereal. Steve still ate bread every day—of the healthy, whole grain organic variety. Steve wanted to go cold turkey, and, in solidarity, I did, too.

The results were, for lack of a better word, freaky. Keep in mind we both had a daily practice. Still, the fat slid off like a pat of butter on a hot pan. Steve lost ten pounds almost immediately—within two weeks. Both of us continue to thin down. We have closets full of clothes that—and I’m very serious here—no longer stay on us. I’d like to stress at this point that it’s fat we lost. We’re both in our 40s, and we lost fat.

Now, fast forward a bit. I volunteered to teach a new (for me) writing course last quarter. As I said in a previous post, it’s a course in research methods, an introduction to university-level research paper writing. Since I’ve been working as a freelance writer, tinkering with poetry, and teaching beginning writers, it had been a while since I’d done any academic research. About 15 years, actually. And, what with the internet and all, things had changed.

Since I, in fact, knew nothing about research, I decided brashly to, essentially, take my own course. I

Amber waves of death. Seriously.

did all the assignments, and (mostly) met all the deadlines, and wrote a research paper along with my students.

I could tell you tales of walking into my own class, bitching about the workload, and the dark moments when I thought about faking my own death, but that’s not my point. The topic of our research, chosen from an approved list, was “food,” centered around Michael Pollan’s wonderful book, In Defense of Food (read it!). Each student chose a specific food problem to deal with, and since I’d been seeing such freaky things happen in my own house, I chose wheat.

I’ve read Davis’s book now, and part of my job as a researcher was to not only read his book, but check his research, find additional research, and propose a solution to the problem. But because so many of you expressed an interest when we first wrote about our wheatectomy, I thought I’d report back my findings. Davis is totally correct, and his book is (mostly) solidly researched. Here’s part of what I discovered:

  • While humans have been eating wheat for thousands of years, they’ve only been eating a handful of varieties. These are now called “heritage” grains, and all are related, genetically, to the same strains of wheat we ate thousands of years ago. You can find them at seed banks still, and eat them even if you are “gluten intolerant.” My favorite bank is here.
  • The problems began in 1950, when the first human-caused wheat hybrids emerged from the first large-scale grain lab, sponsored by the U.S. Government, in Mexico. From this single farm (which is still there, actually), literally thousands of man-made hybrid wheat varieties have emerged and continue to emerge. Humans eat them all.
  • Because these grains are hybrids—that is, one plant pollinating another—they are not tested or regulated for potential health impact. (This is different from actually tinkering with the gene–your GMO–and is viewed as somehow safer or more natural, even though it amounts to the same thing.)
  • Since 1950, cases of gluten intolerance and celiac disease (a wheat allergy so severe, well-fed patients actually suffer from malnutrition) have steadily risen—tripling in the last ten years. The disease is slow to emerge, and people may suffer for years without knowing.
  • As it happens, these varieties of wheat have fundamentally changed the way we metabolize them. Studies (which I have now painstakingly read, thank you very much) are just starting to link these varieties to everything from heart disease to diabetes, and beyond. I’ve seen studies that link modern wheat to less grey matter in children’s brains, skin diseases, hypertension, and lower I.Q.s.
  • Because of this, modern wheat actually causes accumulation of visceral fat, no matter how much exercise you get. This includes fat you can’t see, such as around the heart. (Could this be Guruji’s “bad fat”?)
  • It doesn’t matter if it’s so-called “whole grain.” There’s actually no such thing, only white flour that’s had the bran and germ added back into it (the FDA allows manufacturers–or “bakers”–to call this “whole grain,” rather than what it actually is–reconstituted grain). Real whole grain—wheat that’s been milled using a special grinder—goes rancid fast. Real whole grain bread starts to go stale in a single day. If it needs a package, says Michael Pollan, it’s processed.

So, you’re asking, what does this have to do with sirsasana? Losing wheat—even the small amount I was eating—has made me stronger in, again, freaky ways. During my workshop with Nancy Gilgoff, she tossed off this little gem about urdva sirsasana (lifting the head off the ground just slightly): “Don’t even try it until you can hold a regular headstand for 100 breaths.” So, this morning, I thought, hey, why not. I’ll give it a shot. Now, it’s not really all that important if I managed it. It’s more shocking to me that I’d even think about it. Was it the lack of wheat? Maybe. I can say this—losing wheat has been one step that got me to a place where more became possible. Give it a shot.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

17 thoughts on “Of Wheat, Research, and the Hundred Breath Headstand”

  1. Hi Nick,

    Actually, more veggies replaced the wheat, to some extent. But Steve has now ground heritage wheats like emmer and einkorn into flour (using the dry Vita Mix blade), added yeast, salt and water, and made bread. It takes about an hour. It’s nothing like bread made with modern flour. Very interesting. If you want to try it, you can sometimes find these grains sold as cereals, but we’ve gotten ours at growseed.org.

  2. I’ve been gluten free for about 3.5 years now. I feel SO much better without it. I feel lighter after meals, even heavy ones, and my allergies don’t bother me as much, nor do I have as many digestive issues.

    I’m not technically versed on the production/growth of wheat, but it was my understanding that it has been “genetically modified” over the past 50 years, so that these hybrids you are talking about contain much more gluten than they should, making it even more difficult for our stomachs, who have only been consuming gluten for a few 1,000 years harder to process than other things we’ve been eating for longer – meat, for instance.

    In addition to wheat, barley and rye also contain gluten — so stay away from those as well!

    If you’re interested in becoming gluten free, I have some tips on my blog, as well as recipes and reviews of gluten free products — http://www.glutenfreedietblog.com.

  3. Thanks for your inspiration, Bobbie (and I really enjoyed the snarky FB comments from Steve, too!). I’m on Day 5 now and have noticed a tapering-off of my carb cravings just a tad. I, too, have an otherwise healthy lifestyle and regularly exercise, but just can’t get the fat around the gut burned off. That’s my main health target right now — some of it melted off (not much) after I began treatment for severe sleep apnea (sleep deprivation can kill you, much less add fat around the midsection).

    Thanks again for still being a great teacher!

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