Learn how a “healthy whole grain” can pack on belly fat—and what this dietary staple has in common with opiate drugs.
It’s been drilled into our heads that whole grains are heart-healthy and essential to a diet that keeps us slim and satisfied. But the wheat toast you opt for over a muffin or bagel in the a.m. may not be as smart of a dietary decision as once thought. In his new book Wheat Belly, preventative cardiologist William Davis, MD, argues that the world’s most popular grain, found in everything from lager to licorice to lunch meat, is destructive to weight loss—and overall health.
According to Davis, the compounds found in wheat are responsible for appetite stimulation, exaggerated rises in blood sugar, and the release of endorphin-like chemicals that get the brain hooked on breads, pastas, and crackers, while increased wheat consumption can also be linked to higher incidences of celiac disease, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and schizophrenia.
If you think this talk about wheat sounds like a new spin on the gluten-free fad, it’s not so simple. While wheat is the dominant source of gluten in the human diet—gluten is what gives dough the ability to be stretched, rolled, and shaped into bagels, pretzels, and pizza crusts and is the culprit underlying inflammatory damage to the intestinal tract in those with celiac disease—it also contains a unique carbohydrate called amylopectin-A, which sends blood sugar soaring higher than table sugar or a candy bar ever could.
This isn’t your great grandmother’s wheat—or waistline—we’re talking about. Amounts of wheat’s destructive compounds have increased over the past 50 years as the grain has been hybridized and crossbred to be resistant to drought and fungi, produce higher yields per acre, result in better baking consistency, and cost less to produce. Not surprisingly, the increase in wheat in the American diet parallels obesity rates that have nearly tripled since 1960.
We took a close look at Wheat Belly, chatted with Dr. Davis, and discovered eight ways that wheat could be wrecking havoc on your weight loss efforts and how going wheat-free can help you slim down.
Whole Wheat is Marketed as Healthy
Studies performed during the 1980s show that when processed white flour foods are replaced with whole grain flour products, there is a reduction in colon cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. While the science here can’t be disputed, the logic is faulty, says Davis: “If something bad for you (white flour) is replaced by something less bad (wheat flour), and there is an apparent improvement, then plenty of the less bad thing is [considered] good for you. What was not asked: What about the effects of total removal? That’s when far greater health benefits are witnessed.” Davis compares this misguided nutritional advice surrounding whole grains to substituting hydrogenated fats for saturated fats, margarine for butter, and high-fructose corn syrup for table sugar.
Many of Davis’s overweight patients report eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and avoiding junk food, fast food, and sugary soft drinks, some adhering strictly to dietary guidelines and many exercising for an hour every day. Still, they continue to gain weight.
Until they cut out wheat, that is. Davis says he’s witnessed the wheat belly weight loss effect thousands of times, watching patients replace processed, wheat-based foods with vegetables, nuts, meat, eggs, avocados, olives, and cheese, and drop 50 to 100 pounds in one year. (Search: Wheat-free recipes) Among 30 patients he recently placed on wheat-free diets, the average weight loss was 27 pounds over the course of 6 months.
Whether patients on wheat-free diets consume non-wheat carbohydrates, like quinoa and millet as well as non-grain carbs such as fruit depends on the individual’s carbohydrate tolerance.
For an established diabetic looking to become a non-diabetic, for instance, I would advise complete avoidance of these blood sugar-increasing foods since diabetes, by definition, is a disease of high blood sugars. On the other hand, a young, slender, athletic female usually can include these carbohydrate sources and do just fine. Still, most people fall somewhere in between, doing well with portion sizes of non-wheat carbohydrates of a half-cup or less.
Bread Breeds Belly Fat
Conventional healthy eating wisdom tells us that toasting a slice of whole wheat toast is a healthier choice than grabbing a Snickers bar or gulping down a sugar-laden soft drink. However, when eaten by itself, bread spikes blood sugar more than candy bars and soda. It has a higher glycemic index (GI)—the extent to which a particular food increases blood sugar relative to straight-up sugar, or glucose—of 72, while a Snickers bar has a GI of 41 and sucrose a GI of 59.
One explanation for the differences in GI can be explained by the fact that combining a high-GI food, like whole wheat bread, with low-GI proteins and fats, like slices of ham and cheese, lessens the food’s effect on blood sugar. Still, better is not necessarily good, argues Davis. Sure, blood sugar is better, but it’s still high enough to provoke the entire constellation of undesirable phenomena associated with high blood sugar, including growth of visceral fat.
Why belly bulge? Because where there’s glucose, there’s always insulin, the hormone that allows entry of glucose into the cells of the body, where it’s converted to fat. It works like this: When you eat wheat, your body gets a huge helping of a blood sugar-spiking carbohydrate called amylopectin-A. To move the sugars from the wheat into your cells where they can be used for energy—or stored as fat, the pancreas responds by releasing insulin.
The higher your blood sugar is after eating, the more insulin that is released—and the more fat that is deposited in the abdominal area. When belly fat builds up, it floods the body with inflammatory signals that cause energy-requiring tissues, like muscle, to stop responding to a proportional amount of insulin. As a result, your pancreas churns out more and more insulin to help metabolize the carbohydrates you eat. Years of running your body through this high-blood sugar, high-insulin cycle result in the growth of visceral fat, or what Davis has deemed a wheat belly.