How to Safely Bring Wheat Back Into Your Diet

Story at-a-glance

  • Wheat was domesticated about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, and grains covered much of the African continent, making them hard to ignore as a food source
  • Wheat is hard to digest and is known to cause digestive problems. But the best answer may not be to remove wheat altogether
  • By properly repairing and restoring your digestive function, you may regain your ability to eat organic, whole wheat


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Is it ever appropriate to eat wheat or grains? John Douillard's book "Eat Wheat: A Scientific and Clinically-Proven Approach to Safely Bringing Wheat and Dairy Back Into Your Diet" would seem to be in direct conflict with my first book, the New York Times Best Seller "The No-Grain Diet: Conquer Carbohydrate Addiction and Stay Slim for Life."

Interestingly, our views are nowhere near as conflicting as you might think. About 90 percent of our views are actually in agreement. But the devil's in the details, so I thought it would be interesting to have a dialog about this perceived conflict.

To Wheat or Not to Wheat

Douillard, who began his health career as a chiropractor, went to India for a two-week vacation in 1986. He ended up staying for a year and a half, studying traditional Ayurvedic medicine. During that stay, he met Deepak Chopra, and ended up running The Chopra Center for eight years upon his return to the U.S.

"What I write about in my newsletter every week is the ancient wisdom of time-tested traditional medical practices that are now being proven with modern science.

When you have techniques that have been successfully used for thousands of years and now backed by science — we should take interest in these concepts," Douillard says.

"Early humans have been eating gluten-rich grains like wheat and barley for as much as 3.4 million years according to a handful of studies.

There is a lot of science that has not been publicized that suggest many health and longevity benefits of whole grain, including wheat. We now have a $16 billion gluten-free industry that is promoting more processed foods.

Most of the science that frowns on grains has been done on processed grains, not whole grains. My book 'Eat Wheat' shares over 600 references suggesting the documented benefits of whole [versus] refined grains.

Thirty years ago, I was treating Epstein-Barr, chronic fatigue and Candida. The first thing you do is tell them, 'get off wheat and dairy.' They feel better … Six weeks later … their problems are back. We'll say, 'Get off of meat or become a vegetarian, or a vegan or a raw foodist.'

You find that, again, we keep kicking the problem down the road, never really dealing with the underlying problem, which is our global inability to digest hard-to-digest foods, which is a result of a diet of processed foods, pesticides and environmental pollutants.

There's good science that shows that these processed foods, not whole grains, have literally broken down our digestive system, particularly the microbes and the enzymes that help us break down wheat."

Humans May Have Eaten Grains for Millions of Years 

When Douillard speaks about humanity eating wheat, he's specifically referencing a subspecies of humans that have been shown to be eating wheat-type grains a few million years ago.

Paleo, on the other hand, teaches that grains are a fairly recent addition to the human diet, and that our ancient ancestors were primarily hunter-gatherers that ate a minimum amount of grains.

"There's a handful of studies; one done at the University of Utah. They found gluten in the teeth of ancient humans throughout Africa 3.4 to 4 million years ago," Douillard says.

"They also found that these ancient humans could gather enough wheat berries in just two hours to feed them for an entire day. The entire continent of Africa was covered with grasslands.

It does make sense that if they could gather in two hours enough wheat berries for the entire day, it's a lot easier to do that than try to chase down a woolly mammoth or a lion.

We didn't start hunting our own meat until about … 500,000 years ago. We have genetics for meat that are 500,000 years old. There's genetics for eating wheat, barley and gluten … [going back] 3.4 to 4 million years … In a lot of ways, we have a lot more genetics for wheat than meat."

Daniel Lieberman, Ph.D., a Harvard researcher and professor wrote the book, "The Story of the Human Body." His research shows that in the Paleolithic period, they ate about 35 to 45 percent of their diet as carbohydrates, including cereal grains.

According to Douillard, wheat was domesticated about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, and grains covered much of the African continent, making them hard to ignore as a food source. He also points to research showing that amylase, an enzyme that helps break down wheat, was genetically acquired around 2 million years ago.

Grains Have a Place in Your Diet — After You've Regained Your Fat-Burning Ability

When I wrote "The No-Grain Diet" 13 years ago, it was primarily in response to the majority of the patients I treated that had insulin resistance. Avoiding grains is an important step if you're struggling with this issue. That said, my current position on grains has become more refined over the years.

While I believe normalizing insulin resistance is still crucial, optimizing your mitochondrial function is even more critical for good health and disease prevention. A major part of that is regaining the ability to burn fat as your primary fuel — something 90 to 95 percent of people are challenged with.

Becoming an efficient fat-burner involves a dietary shift away from net carbs — including grains — toward higher amounts of healthy fats. For this reason, I believe it's still wise for most people to avoid grains in the early phases of recovering the ability to burn fat as your primary fuel.

As a general rule, I recommend keeping your net carbs below 15 or 20 grams per day, until you've recaptured your ability to burn fat. At THAT point, I believe grains can be reintroduced, and can be part of a healthy diet.

"I think you're absolutely right, we must reset fat burning," Douillard says. "In 1960, when they took cholesterol out of our diet, they replaced it with these processed, bleached, deodorized and refined oils that are completely indigestible.

You walk down the grocery store aisle and [see] all those clear bottles with vegetable oils in them  that have nothing in them that can go rancid, that are completely indigestible, and these processed oils found in almost all packaged foods break down our digestive strength by congesting our liver and gallbladder. When you look at how we digest things, the liver and the gallbladder are the kingpins of digestion.

The bile your liver makes is like a Pacman that gobbles up toxins, fats and environmental pollutants. When bile from the liver and gallbladder is congested, you lose your ability to digest good fats and detoxify bad fats. The bile also buffers the acid in the stomach. [When you] eat wheat or dairy, [your stomach] produces a significant amount of acid that requires bile to neutralize it once it leaves the stomach.

But if there's no buffer from the bile because the liver and gall bladder are congested by years of processed foods, the stomach will slowly stop producing the acid we need to break down wheat and dairy. As a result … we have broken down … our digestive system to the point that we find ourselves taking more and more foods out of our diets rather than fixing the broken down digestion.

I agree with you — you first have to reset fat burning — [and] those processed foods … inhibit us from doing that. But before we take the grains out, or in addition to taking the grains out temporarily, we must reset liver, gall bladder and digestive function because our digestive system is the same system as our detoxification system."

Your Digestive System and Detoxification Systems Are Interlinked

According to Douillard, the primary reason people feel ill when eating wheat is not because there's something inherently bad about wheat, but rather because it's hard to digest, and part of the problem relates to an impaired ability to digest foods in the first place.

He believes that if all you do is avoid wheat, you'll continue experiencing problems down the road related to this impaired digestive ability, even if you initially feel better. The reason for this is because you've still not addressed the underlying problem, which is poor digestion.

This is why he advocates getting rid of processed foods and foods contaminated with pesticides. And, when eating grains, eat the right kind of grains. In essence, you need to reset your digestive function. Once that's done, you can begin to enjoy certain types of bread (such as organic whole wheat and sourdough) in moderation without suffering any ill effects.

"We've eaten grains, wheat in particular, three times a day for 50 to 60 years in a processed version that does nothing but congest our ability to digest well. That has to be fixed," he says.

How to Optimize Your Digestive Function

So how do you restore your digestive function? One area of importance is avoiding pesticides such as Roundup, which has become a staple food contaminant over the past two decades. Research now shows glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup — causes leaky gut syndrome. Genetically engineered (GE) foods are notorious for having higher amounts of glyphosate contamination, due to the crops being glyphosate resistant.

Conventional (non-GE) wheat also tends to have high amounts of glyphosate residues, courtesy of a process called desiccation. The crop is basically sprayed with glyphosate just before harvest, which increases yield. I was very pleased to see Douillard address this issue in his book, as many are still unaware of this problem. Knowing that's part of the problem, the answer becomes more readily apparent: Eat organic foods, and that includes organic wheat.

The key is to repair the epithelium of your intestinal tract. Douillard notes there are several studies showing there's a significant difference between whole wheat and refined wheat in this regard. Whole wheat supports and increases levels of good bacteria, and supports tissue resistance in the epithelium, thereby protecting against leaky gut syndrome.

Whole wheat may also help decrease inflammation and pain associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The problems many associate with wheat in general are specifically restricted to refined and processed wheat.

"There's interesting science … that I didn't [include] in the book because it came out afterwards. One study showed that people who eat gluten-free have four times more mercury in their blood as people who eat wheat. People who are gluten-free have less good bacteria and more bad bacteria in their guts than people who eat wheat.

People who are gluten-free have less killer T cells, a measure of immunity, than people who eat wheat, suggesting that these hard-to-digest foods, the lectins and the phytic acids … [have] some benefit … [C]ertain irritants and poisons in our food (like tomatoes got tomatines, and potatoes have solanines, which are poisonous) … are a big part of our diet today … Those irritants have been shown to be immune stimulants for our immune system …

What we're beginning to see is that [when] we … take all the hard-to-digest foods out of our diet ... our immune system is being compromised as a result … [W]e've been eating [grains] for almost 4 million years. Do we have a genetic need for these types of irritants to trigger our immune system? The science is pointing in that direction."

The Importance of Seasonal Eating

In his book "The 3-Season Diet: Eat the Way Nature Intended," Douillard delves into other fascinating research suggesting there may be biological imperatives to eating foods in accordance to season. Different microbes will be present in soil and plants during different seasons, and by eating certain foods at certain times of the year, you may be able to radically optimize your gut microbiome.

For example, in the fall and winter, enzymes like amylase are increased in grains. During summer and spring, amylase is decreased, and this enzyme specifically helps your body digest foods such as grains. So it may not be a fluke that grains are harvested in the fall and winter, when amylase levels are at their highest.

"When you think about [it], maybe we are supposed to eat these grains at the right time of the year, as opposed to eating everything all day long three times a day in a processed form, which we can't digest," Douillard suggests. "We're part of the circadian rhythm of nature. We completely lost that … Birds fly south, whales migrate. Our survival also depends on us being connected to those rhythms of nature. Part of that is what we eat.

I actually published, for free, a monthly grocery list, superfood list and recipe list1 for people to eat seasonal food … for every month of the year, because I feel it's such an important thing for people to know what foods are in season and how to prepare them.

The microbes in the soil change seasonally. Seasonal foods carry these seasonal bugs into our guts which become our new seasonal microbiome. They help us have better immunity in the winter, decongest in the spring and dissipate heat in the summer …'

I think that's a piece of the puzzle … [I]t's one of those insidious key points that we've just completely ignored. If deer die when they eat [tree bark] out of season, does that mean we just get to eat whatever we want, whenever we want? I don't think so …

Of course, we would eat higher protein and higher fat, a more Paleo-ish diet, in the winter … More nuts, seeds, grains, meat, stews and soups. More leafy greens, sprouts and berries in the spring, and fruits and vegetables in the summer. The diet would change dramatically from a high-protein and high-fat in the winter, to low-fat in the spring, to high-carb fruits and vegetables in the summer. That's something that we just generally don't do.

If you get a grocery list and stick it in your purse and shop along that way, you start to bring more of those foods into your diet. That, along with rebooting the digestive system and trying to clean your diet up and eating organically, can help people reboot the strength of their digestion so that they can begin to break bread again …

Real bread has the ingredients of organic whole wheat, salt, water and an organic starter. It takes three days to bake that bread, where the bread in the supermarket takes two hours. That [store-bought] bread won't ever go hard. It just sits there and stays soft for weeks because of the oils they use extend shelf life but, for us, they are indigestible."

Ayurvedic Principles to Improve Your Digestive Health

To improve your body's ability to burn fat as its primary fuel, consider intermittent fasting. Never skipping a meal is a major part of the problem, as the constant feeding prevents your body from burning stored fat.

Becoming a more efficient fat burner will also improve your energy levels and stabilize your mood. "Make lunch a bigger meal," Douillard says. "Supper comes from the word 'supplemental' or 'soup,' so try to eat smaller meals in the evening the very best that you can."

To reboot your digestive health, be sure to avoid processed foods. Douillard also recommends incorporating ginger, cumin (regular, not black), coriander, fennel and cardamom in your cooking. These spices have powerful digestive benefits that support digestive health. "

When you put them all together, something sort of magical happens. This is an old ancient formula that has been used for thousands of years to reboot digestion," Douillard says. They do this in part by decongesting your bile ducts and improving your production of hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes and pancreatic enzymes.

When you take cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger and cardamom together, they amp up each other's benefits. He also sells these spices as a supplement called Gentle Digest. Ideally, add them to your meals every day. It typically takes two to three months to reset your digestion using these herbs on a daily basis. If you use a supplement, take it with your main meal.

Next, to improve bile flow from your gallbladder and improve your ability to digest fats, incorporate bile-promoting foods such as artichokes, fenugreek, fennel, beets, apples and celery into your diet. Drinking a small amount of juiced beets, apples and celery with your meal is a simple way to improve your digestion. Fenugreek tea or fennel tea are other traditional options.

"Your bile flow allows you to go to the bathroom. It regulates bowel movement function. It detoxifies you, scrubs your intestinal villi. It allows for emulsifying of fats, for delivering good fats to your brain and your body and getting rid of the bad fats, and it buffers the acids from your stomach. Without that, digestively, we're in really big trouble," he notes.

What Does Lymph Have to Do With It?

Lymphatic health and optimizing lymphatic flow is also important. According to Douillard, studies have shown that when your body cannot break down the wheat, it goes undigested from your stomach into the small intestine. As a result of being undigested — due to weak stomach acid and lack of bile to buffer those acids — the proteins enter into the collecting ducts of your lymphatic system, which lines your entire intestinal tract.

The lymphatic system is the biggest circulatory system of your body. It's the detoxification system for bad fats, and a carrier of your immune system. When the lymph around the intestinal tract gets congested, your intestinal tract will swell, making you feel bloated.

"The lymph can get so congested that it'll push those fats into the fat around the belly, causing belly fat. There's good science to back all this up. There's lymph underneath your skin. When the lymph around your gut gets congested ... [it goes] into your skin, causing rashes and irritation, which is what we'd like to think are gluten-related grain issues.

Recently discovered by the University of Virginia about two or three years ago, they found brain lymphatics, called glymphatics, that drain [3] pounds of toxic chemicals and plaque out of your brain every year while you sleep.

When those brain lymphs are congested — because of digestive-related  gut lymph congestion, which is where the lion's share of the lymph in the body is located — the brain lymphs can't drain, and they've now been linked directly to anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, infection, inflammation and autoimmune conditions … We have a real problem in the lymphatic system because of weak digestion."

To improve lymph health, you can use beets, most greens, polyphenol-rich berries such as cherries, blueberries and mulberries, and certain herbs, including red root and manjistha. Movement will also improve lymph flow, and a rebounder is great for this. To optimize glymphatic flow, be sure to get enough sleep, as your brain can only detoxify during deep sleep. Douillard goes into a number of other strategies as well in his book.

Once Digestion Is Properly Restored, Wheat May Be Reintroduced

In addition to my own work, I also wanted to address the potential perceived conflict between what Douillard is promoting in his book "Eat Wheat," and Dr. David Perlmutter's recommendations, detailed in "Grain Brain," and other books. Perlmutter actually interviewed Douillard recently, and appears to be willing to embrace many of Douillard's notions. You can listen to this interview on

"David is an old friend of mine as well. He was delighted to have this debate," Douillard says. "I really feel like this issue of wheat or non-wheat … really needs to be talked about in an open forum.

People can hear the science on both sides, because there is science suggesting that whole wheat (not refined wheat) is actually quite beneficial, and there's science that says it could be risky and dangerous. We need to understand it more. The only way to do that is with dialogue.

Perlmutter was great. I think he totally got the idea that it is the digestive breakdown. His contention was stop eating wheat because it's hard to digest, and my contention was, 'OK. But let's fix the digestive system. Then maybe we could eat healthy wheat and not take the grains out of our diet,' which is exactly what you're saying.

I think it's really great to see us all coming on board with the same philosophy. For 30 years, I have been helping people reboot digestion and go from not being able to eat wheat or dairy to being able to eat wheat and dairy. I know it's very possible and people can pull this off.

I also know when they do that, the ability to detoxify … is significantly enhanced. That, we don't want to go without. We don't want to go without ability to detoxify our body naturally. Doing a detox is a very important piece of the puzzle as well, but we have a natural detoxifying system that we have to optimize on a regular basis. That comes from rebooting digestive strength."

Refined Wheat Versus Whole Wheat

You may have heard the term "wheat belly." Douillard believes a more appropriate term would be "sugar belly." Refined, processed wheat has a high glycemic index, which is in part why it has been blamed for increasing your risk of everything from belly bloat to Alzheimer's and cognitive decline.

However, some studies show whole wheat may actually reduce cognitive decline, protect against Alzheimer's and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Part of this may be related to the fact that whole wheat has a much lower glycemic index.

"I think that the biggest thing that we can do, in addition to getting rid of processed food … is to look at the amount of sugar we're eating, and get that out of our diet the best we can. We have one taste bud for sweet. We have 300 taste buds for bitter … People are addicted to [sweet] taste. We can break that addiction by actually bringing the body back in the balance.

One of the ancient principles from that perspective is to have all six tastes with each meal: sweet, sour, salt, pungent, bitter and astringent.

Each of these tastes provides a different type of emotional support. We leave the meal emotionally stable and balanced, not craving a dessert because the meal provided you with all these six tastes, and therefore fed you emotionally in a complete and balanced way. Balanced meals are really important," Douillard says.

"That's where I have a little issue with the Paleo diet, because the Harvard anthropologist will tell you that the Paleolithic people didn't eat just meat and vegetables. They definitely had grains and tubers and carbohydrates in their diet.

I also agree with you. We have to first reset fat burning as a primary source of fuel, because you can't just eat a bunch of fatty foods and then eat a bunch of good, healthy carbohydrates. That's too many calories, too much fuel, and we're going to store that fuel as fat. We have to reset the function first and then we can go back to being balanced. That starts with rebooting digestive strength."

More Information

The devil's in the details, as they say, and Douillard's book is packed with details, including the specifics about what types of wheat to purchase, and where to purchase it if you decide to make your own bread.

Interestingly, I just upgraded my kitchen and now have a steam convection oven, which is the best way to bake bread, and I've slowly began experimenting with bread making. As noted in his book, sourdough bread, for example, is basically gluten-free because the microbes, similar to the ones in yogurt, digest all the sugar during the fermentation process.

"In one Italian study they gave gluten-free sourdough bread to people who [have] celiac and there was no intestinal inflammation," he notes.

"In fact, studies show that whole grains like kamut actually significantly reduce intestinal inflammation. There's a lot of information about wheat and baking in an old-fashioned traditional way that we've lost. If we get that back, most of us can begin to break bread again in the proper way, and stop taking things out of our diets as this only offers us a temporary solution. It doesn't  address the underlying problem."

If you're intrigued, I highly recommend picking up a copy of "Eat Wheat: A Scientific and Clinically-Proven Approach to Safely Bringing Wheat and Dairy Back Into Your Diet." In it, Douillard provides detailed guidelines for how to do it properly, so you may improve, not worsen, your health. You can also learn more about Douillard's work at

+ Sources and References

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