Quick: Name a common food, consumed every day by most people, that:
• Increases overall calorie consumption by 400 calories per day
• Affects the human brain in much the same way as morphine
• Has a greater impact on blood sugar levels than a candy bar
• Is consumed at the rate of 133 pounds per person per year
• Has been associated with increased Type 1 Diabetes
• Increases both insulin resistance and leptin resistance, conditions that lead to obesity
• Is the only common food with its own mortality rate
If you guessed sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, you're on the right track, but, no, that's not the correct answer.
The true culprit: Triticum aestivum, or modern wheat.
Note that I said "modern" wheat, because I would argue that what we are being sold today in the form of whole grain bread, raisin bagels, blueberry muffins, pizza, ciabatta, bruschetta, and so on is not the same grain our grandparents grew up on. It's not even close.
Modern wheat is the altered offspring of thousands of genetic manipulations, crude and sometimes bizarre techniques that pre-date the age of genetic modification. The result: a high-yield, 2-foot tall "semi-dwarf" plant that no more resembles the wheat consumed by our ancestors than a chimpanzee (which shares 99% of the same genes that we do) resembles a human. I trust that you can tell the difference that 1% makes.
The obvious outward differences are accompanied by biochemical differences. The gluten proteins in modern wheat, for instance, differ from the gluten proteins found in wheat as recently as 1960. This likely explains why the incidence of celiac disease, the devastating intestinal condition caused by gluten, has quadrupled in the past 40 years. Furthermore, a whole range of inflammatory diseases, from rheumatoid arthritis to inflammatory bowel disease, are also on the rise. Humans haven't changed — but the wheat we consume has changed considerably.
You've heard of "beer bellies," the protuberant, sagging abdomen of someone who drinks beer to excess. That distinctive look is often attributed to alcohol consumption when in fact it's just as likely to be caused by the pretzels — not just the beer — you're downing after work. A wheat belly is a protuberant, sagging abdomen that develops when you overindulge in wheat products like crackers, breads, waffles, pancakes, breakfast cereals and pasta. Dimpled or smooth, hairy or hairless, tense or flaccid, wheat bellies come in as many shapes, colors, and sizes as there are humans. But millions of Americans have a wheat belly, and the underlying metabolic reasons for having one are all the same.