Weight loss after 50: What’s wrong with “Wheat Belly”?

Trading one dietary enemy for another

Dear Wendy,

Do you remember back in the late 1980s, when the root of all evil, at least health-wise, was supposed to have been Candida albicans? alt="IMAGE-candida-self-test"Back in the good old days, we were told that almost every chronic disease, from diabetes to housemaid’s knee, was caused by “candida overgrowth”—yeast that permeated our bodies, to our terrible detriment. I remember a doctor telling Mitchell that he needed to take all sorts of anti-yeast concoctions, and eliminate foods like sugar, bread, most starches, cheese, mushrooms, wine, beer…anything the yeast might consume. If he didn’t follow this regimen, he was told, he would be cheating himself of optimal health, and opening himself to a huge range of terrible consequences, including obesity.

For a while, he managed it. But eliminating entire food groups from his diet took its toll. Unsurprisingly, while he lost weight initially, he didn’t feel a whole lot better. Plus, he was trying to stick to a rigid, arbitrary set of dietary rules; and within a few months he’d fallen off the yeast wagon, and regained—with interest—the 30 pounds he’d lost.

Over time, people tired of trying to rid themselves of Candida (which would be pretty much impossible anyway), and the fad passed into well-deserved obscurity.

The new dietary enemy

These days, yeast doesn’t seem to be the enemy any longer. Nope, now we are supposed to be freaking out about a new, terrifying substance that we used to think was pretty benign: gluten.

First, I want to say that celiac disease (CD), which is actually an autoimmune disease, not an allergy or an intolerance, is a very serious condition. CD causes inflammation and injury to the bowel when gluten is consumed, and sufferers must avoid gluten for life. That’s not in question here.

But what about the general population? If Dr. William Davis’s wildly popular book Wheat Belly is to be believed, none of us should be eating gluten at all. Ever.

alt="IMAGE-wheat-belly-book"

This book makes me want to eat a bagel, just for spite.

In fact, this book is being touted as a weight-loss manual. On the cover, it states, “Lose the wheat, lose the weight, and find your path back to health.” Dr. Davis’s basic premise appears to be that modern genetic modifications to wheat have rendered it somehow toxic—and it’s killing us.

alt="IMAGE-toxic-wheat"

Toxic wheat. You can tell, because it’s in a test tube.

According to him, wheat (and the gluten it contains) is now at the bottom of pretty much every chronic illness you’d care to name. Type 2 diabetes. Irritable bowel syndrome. Arthritis. Schizophrenia. Breast cancer. Autism. Pancreatic cancer. Osteoporosis. Cataracts. Erectile dysfunction. Kidney disease. Heart disease. Migraines. Dementia. Seizure disorders. Dandruff. The list goes on…and on. No mention of housemaid’s knee, but maybe he just forgot that one.

To avoid these dire diseases, Dr. Davis lays out a very restrictive dietary regimen. He wants his followers to cut out all wheat, most other carbs, and a list of other foods, including canned meats, self-basting turkey, most fruit (except small amounts, such as 8-10 blueberries, two strawberries, or a couple of wedges of apple or orange), soy products, and…gluten-free foods?

Wait, what?

You can’t have gluten—because it’s bad, bad, bad—but you also can’t eat gluten-free foods? How does this make sense?

In fact, Dr. Davis seems to contradict his own “wheat is the problem” argument, when he states that if you stop eating wheat, but replace it with “the wrong foods,” “you’ve achieved very little. And you may indeed become deficient in several important nutrients, as well as continuing in the unique American shared experience of getting fat and becoming diabetic.”

Okay, let’s think about this: Wheat is toxic. The worst food ever. No one should eat it. But if you eliminate this toxic genetic mutation from your diet, that’s not enough. In the end, you’ll “achieve very little”…unless you follow Dr. Davis’s bizarre and highly restrictive dietary instructions.

Oh, and don’t think following his instructions will be easy, either: he compares it to “a root canal or living with your in-laws for a month.” Hey, where do I sign up?

Here’s a list of what you’d be allowed, if you were foolish enough to give it a try:

  • Vegetables
  • Cheese
  • Oil
  • Eggs
  • Raw nuts
  • Uncured meats
  • Non-sugary condiments
  • Ground flaxseed
  • Avocado
  • Olives
  • Coconut
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Raw seeds
  • Herbs and spices

…and th-th-that’s all, folks!

As far as I’m concerned, this is weight-loss faddery at its worst:

  • Claim that a hitherto benign substance is in fact toxic
  • Claim that it’s responsible for every disease state known to humanity.
  • Back up your statements with broad sweeping generalizations and pseudo-scientific jibber-jabber.
  • Lay out a highly improbable dietary regimen that will leave followers hungry and frustrated.
  • Tell them that if they can’t follow this “simple plan,” they’ve doomed themselves to a life of illness and obesity.

So far, I’m not seeing the up side.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. I won’t be following Dr. Davis’s odd diet, and I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy. Well, not unless they really pissed me off.

Love,

Karen

p.s. Apparently Peter Gibson, the Australian researcher who confirmed that gluten could cause abdominal distress in non-celiac people, has carried his study further, and has reversed his earlier conclusion. I love this: when actual scientists aren’t satisfied that they’ve done a rigorous enough job, they keep going until they feel they have.

37 Comments

  1. With all the stuff out there that is supposedly “good” or “bad” for a person, I think the best thing is still to consume in moderation. Interesting post!

  2. Amanda is right. Moderation in everything. Veggies, fruit, whole grains, low fat dairy, limit red meat, lots of omegas from fish oil. That’s how we eat. (Of course I still need to lose weight!). This whole gluten thing applies to some who have celiac and other stomach issues. But a reputable physician would not back up the claims of this quack. Great post!

    • Thanks, Cathy. I find the adulation of this book and its author disturbing–the book is full of odd claims, wild over-generalizations, and pseudoscience. I worry that it’s hurting, not helping.
      Karen

  3. I’m studying for a nutrition coaching certification. “Gluten” isn’t even listed in the index of the textbook. In fact, I read a research article yesterday by the text author that concluded restrictive diets result in weight gain (as in your example with the yeast). I do believe that many people have food sensitivities, but gluten probably isn’t the culprit. Even sensitivities can sometimes be alleviated by avoiding the food for 8 weeks, then reintroducing it to the diet. Everyone is looking for a quick fix. Whole foods. Physical activity. Strength training. Splurge now and then…Repeat.

  4. My generation would wonder whether why this of guy’s pseudo-scientific circumlocution stopped short of declaiming that everything we would enjoy is either fattening,illegal or immoral.

  5. Great post! It seems as if any “guru” who tweaks statistics and publishes a book can find people willing to do whatever he/she says these days. Even if the figures are wrong. Even if the “cure” is worse than the “illness.” Sad that we’ve become a world of “Chicken Littles,” huh?!!

  6. I’ve been listening as my co-worker has been reading and imparting to me the “wisdom” of this book. I think it derailed totally for me when she said she could eat a large side of fries and that was perfectly fine as long as she didn’t eat it with ketchup! What? I agree that we just need to use common sense and eat with moderation. Really enjoying your thoughts on weight loss, Karen!

    • Thanks, Kath. I looked at the suggested meal plans in the book, and calculated that if I followed them, I’d be eating 2 to 3 times the calories I currently do. And wacky health claims aside, weight loss really does come down to calories. Fries vs ketchup? Good lord.
      Karen

  7. I was seeing a nutritionist who recommended that I got “Gluten-Free” to improve my menopause symptoms. Sooo, I gave it a try. I followed the diet to a ‘T’ for 45 days and became so depressed that I would cry when it came time to prepare a meal because I did not like the taste or texture of the foods I was eating, and I didn’t feel any better physically…actually I felt worse!

    I ended my sessions with her when I told her that I could no longer eat gluten-free and she told me that I wasn’t giving it long enough and that I needed to weigh the benefits…What benefits?!? I felt awful physically and emotionally!

    After going back on gluten my energy came back, my dark cloud lifted, and I felt so much better.

  8. I love being old enough to recognize fads when I see them.

    I understand his reaction to “gluten-free” products, though. That’s just the food manufacturer’s cashing in on the latest diet craze, like SnackWells did in the fat-free days — so we all got fat on sugar, instead. Gluten-free processed junk food is still processed junk food.

    • That’s very true–and I think labelling every food under the sun as “gluten free” or “no trans fats!” Is just part of Big Food’s massive consumer scam. Caveat emptor, as always.
      Karen

  9. It’s all so confusing! The cheese on his diet plan is a possible trigger for those with gall bladder issues, cheese is all fat anyway and we don’t really need it. oh well. We try to grow a lot of our food and eat brown rice and lentils and beans. i just had a cookie, hope it’s OK !!

  10. It’s amazing what we humans can be led to believe–think we all need better science grounding, so we can tell the truth from the hype.
    Karen

  11. Karen, you are right that sometimes it does not easier to follow the instructions of Dr Davis. However, I have tried to spell out it in a simple way in book-‘How to lose your wheat belly’ available on Kindle.

    William

  12. I actually gave up wheat in August. I lost 10 lbs, and my menopausal symptoms disappeared (that was worth it right there). I had very bad digestive issues that disappeared also. I read the book, and agree with a lot of what you said. I thought it was geared too much to losing weight, but then again that’s what sells! Since August I’ve realized that only certain things bother me, so I’ve added some things back into my diet, but I continue to stay away from bread, and pasta. All on moderation.

    • Agreed–and I do think some people tolerate things like wheat or milk better than others. It’s the wholesale “wheat is a toxin” claim that I take issue with. Glad you’re doing so well!

  13. Here’s the problem with scientific studies…If there’s no money to be made, no one is going to fund it or take it seriously. I’m surprised this guy was able to get interviewed on national television. Wheat is cheap, has a long shelf life, and is easy to grow. Not many parties are interested in funding studies that hurt business. In addition, there’s money to be made by big pharma…. No money in healthy people.

    Sometimes you have to trust the little guy (William Davis in this case)…The big guys generally don’t care about our well-being.

    It’s crazy to discount everything as ‘fad diet’…Avoiding wheat is a lifestyle, not a diet. My personal experience is very positive when I cut out wheat.

    Moderation doesn’t work for me. When I have a little bit I need more. It takes me a few weeks to lose the cravings. I know some people can handle it, I can’t. People that can’t handle it and are uniformed become obese (which happens to be about 30% of our population)

  14. I went wheat-free Feb 2013 after reading through wheatbellyblog.com in Oct 2012. Mainly because my triglycerides were high and HDL was low and doctor wanted to put me on statins. 6 weeks later all my blood work came well with in normal range. I’m now 8 months in and have lost 10″ off my waist and my triglycerides continue to drop. I weigh less now than I have in over a decade. I can count on one finger how many “diets” I’ve been on (I’m 48 years old) where I’ve lost 10″ off my waist. I finally bought the book 5 months in because of the tremendous results I had.

    Why did it take so long for me to try wheat-free? Because I couldn’t wrap my head around wheat being the cause of my bad blood and morbid obesity. But I finally tried because, quite frankly, I had run out of “diets.” There was nothing left to try but wheat-free.

    Back in 2010 I spent 9 months jogging 10k/day 5 days a week (quit running in 2011 because I had foot pain). The lowest weight I hit then I am now 10 pounds lighter today with an average of just 7k steps per day (I’m down a total of 65 pounds since Feb). So now I am just obese and not morbidly obese. So, yes, to me franken-wheat developed in the 1960s is a toxin.

    Yes, avoiding gluten-free foods that contain starches is on the list of not to eat. And I did avoid them. But I had no desire to replace regular bread with gluten free bread. I live off of bacon and eggs in the morning, sometimes scrambled with shredded cheese, fish, burger or steak with veg at lunch (if I’m hungry enough) and mortadella (wheat free) wrapped around cheese at dinner. I’m perfectly happy eating whole, single ingredient products.

    I think you missed some of the points in Wheat Belly. For some of us wheat is an appetite stimulant. Something Big Food and Big Ag know about. Why else put wheat in soy sauce or tomato soup? Before I used to be hungry all the time. Now most days I only eat breakfast and dinner because I’m simply not hungry enough to need lunch. Sometimes just breakfast. All I did was eliminate wheat from my diet.

    And I’m not the only person that has had such unreal results. One of my wife’s co-workers went wheat-free in Jan 2013 after she was diagnosed type 2 diabetic. In June she had completely reversed her diabetes and did not need meds anymore. See the “Wheat Belly” facebook page and all the people sending in before/after photos.

    I feel bad when I’m out shopping and see overweight/obese people and what they have in their shopping carts. Carts full of wheat laden goods. All because Big Government with farm subsidies needs people to consume wheat so the USDA lies to us and makes the food pyramid primarily wheat. Big Ag takes Big Government’s money to grow more wheat. Big Food puts this appetite stimulant into their products because hungry people will buy more of their processed junk food.

    For those who only tried the diet for a few days/weeks. You need to give it at least 2 months to see physical results. It takes a long time for the body to rid itself of the wheat and whatever by products it leaves behind in the gut. I didn’t see any real size differences until after 2 months and at month #4 I was 6″ smaller around the waist.

    • Thank you AP!
      Karen needs to read or REREAD SLOWLY…instead of brushing it off as nonsense….There is no way you could ever be hungry with all the support, recipes and choices…BLOGS like this are hurting and confusing people..I can attest to the wheat free lifestyle …Just the hundreds of case studies in Wheat Belly and Gran Brian should convince anyone with a brain to at least try this…

      • Uh-huh. Guess you can write me off as brainless, then, Gar.

      • Thank you for speaking up Gary and AP!!! Being Wheat free is not a fad! It has diminished my Anxiety, helped me slim down, and has cleared my brain fog. It has also helped my son’s ADHD so much that we don’t have to resort to meds. Not everything that comes out is a fad and saying so, confuses people who would greatly benefit.

        • I maintain that going gluten-free is a fad, but if your eating program works for you–and you think you’ll be happy eating that way for the rest of your life–I’d be the last one to tell you not to do it.

          Ultimately, that’s the true test of a diet’s worth: is it sustainable for you?

          As for the various illnesses and conditions alleged to be caused by wheat–I have seen no scientific evidence of any consistent results. If I do see a reliable, well-designed study that contradicts this, I’ll be the first to recant.

          As it is, I really don’t know why anyone feels the need to harangue me into “believing” in going gluten-free. What difference does it make whether I’m a true believer or not? If it works for you, fill your boots.

  15. You wouldn’t believe the number of outraged people who’ve emailed and messaged me on this one–I stand by my assertion (and yours!) that the true secret to healthy eating and body weight doesn’t lie in eradicating a single food (or food group), but in an overall approach. And that must include a reduction in calories…sadly, there’s no way around that one.
    ^K.

    • Aannd – that’s why we have a true epidemic of obesity and diabetes and related problems in this country – because people are too stubborn and set in their ways to realize that WHEAT is at the root of so many problems – from just being overweight to diabetes and heart disease to various stomach problems (acid reflux, GERD, etc.). If you would actually read the science portions of Dr. Davis’ book instead of just railing against it, you would see what he’s saying. This is not a faddish “gluten free” diet (though of course, since you eradicate wheat, it does end up being gluten-free). I’ve been on it only three months, but have lost 5 pounds so far (not even trying), my acid reflux and recurrent muscle aches and knee pains are completely gone, and my skin looks better than it has in years. And I am sleeping better and waking up feeling refreshed instead of achy and crotchety. If all it takes to feel this good is getting rid of wheat, then wow. It doesn’t take much effort to just try it — no one’s forcing it onto anyone. I’m just saying try it and see how you feel after 6 weeks or so. After the first week, you no longer miss or even WANT bread, pasta, starches or sugary flour desserts — in fact, if you slip and eat them, you will feel so awful you will go right back on wheat-free.

      • Since it seems to have done so much for you, I’m really not sure why you feel my opinion on the matter is worth arguing. If you don’t like it, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of other sites with views more amenable to you.

  16. Karen- I challenge you to actually read the book. It is clear you did not. Your ignorance is glaring and your comments misguided.

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