Gluten-free movement growing amid controversy

With his 2011 best-selling book Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, William Davis has triggered a food revolution that makes the success of the Atkins diet look minor. The Milwaukee cardiologist claims that weight loss and optimum health result when you ditch not just wheat but all grains from your diet, with people reporting astonishing accounts of overcoming everything from Crohn’s disease to mental illness.

Poll

Do you buy gluten-free products?

All the time 37%
58 votes
Sometimes 26%
41 votes
Never 36%
56 votes

However, although the gluten-free movement might still be growing, so is the controversy.

Registered dietitian Shelley Case, who wrote Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide, says that Davis’s theories are just that: theories that lack solid science to back them up.

In an interview from her Regina, Saskatchewan, office, Case points out that people with celiac disease or “nonceliac gluten sensitivity” must eliminate gluten—a mixture of proteins found in wheat grains—from their diet. And although it’s a good thing to increase awareness about the health needs of those who truly can’t tolerate gluten, those people aren’t the ones driving the wheat- and gluten-free phenomenon, she says.

“The big buzz is really coming from celebrities who are promoting it for weight loss,” says Case, who’ll be speaking at the upcoming Gluten-Free Expo in Vancouver. “There is no research to show a gluten-free diet is proven for weight loss. The only reason people most likely lose weight when they go gluten-free is that they suddenly start getting rid of cookies and cake and high-fat pastas and snack foods that have gluten in them and start eating things like fruits and vegetables….They’re eating more nutritious food. They’re losing weight because they’re paying more attention to their diet and possibly exercising. Gluten is not, per se, the enemy that causes you to gain weight.

“Dr. Davis claims he has science, but they’re really just snippets,” she adds. “He’s got a new cookbook and he’s got enough half-truths…but the public doesn’t know the other side of the story. He’s capitalizing on the buzz, that’s for sure.”

Davis, meanwhile, maintains that human beings were never meant to consume grains in the first place and that the wheat on the market today is far removed from its pure origins because of genetic modification. And he says the modern-day version of gliadin, a protein present in wheat, stimulates hunger.

“I think what we’ve tapped into is a much larger conversation: yes, we have to talk about fat and protein and carbohydrates, but we also have to factor in what agribusiness has been doing,” Davis says in a phone interview from his Wisconsin office. “We do know that gliadin of 2013 is distinctly different than gliadin from 1960….Celiac has quadrupled over the last 50 years….So there’s the proliferation of this kind of protein, which was absent in 1960. That’s just one. There are probably thousands of uncharted proteins.

“So we took something that was probably unsuited for human diet but was an expedient and an excessive source of calories,” he adds, “and we fast forward to the 20th century and we change it, not for reasons of enhancement but for increased yield.”

Davis himself gave up wheat and other grains about six years ago after having so many of his patients tell him they were feeling better after going completely wheat-free. He says he continues to hear those kinds of positive reports all the time.

“There’s a continual outpouring of success stories,” says Davis, who also advises cutting out grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth as well as beans and brown rice. “It’s about fifty-fifty, divided between spectacular weight loss and spectacular turnarounds in health, people who are losing all the gastrointestinal complaints,” such as acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, ulceritis, and Crohn’s. “Appetite stimulation: there’s the big freeing effect people get; they’re no longer hungry. They’re no longer having their appetite buttons pushed by gliadin. It’s the mental clarity; it’s the lifting of depression; it’s the relief from anxiety. It’s the relief from food obsessions in people predisposed to bulimia and binge-eating disorder….We don’t see this too often, but it’s relief from paranoia, people with schizophrenia. It’s relief from joint pain: hand, wrist very commonly, but even large joints.”

Another reason wheat is so unhealthy, in Davis’s view, is that it scores high on the glycemic index (GI). This measure uses a scale of 0 to 100, with higher values given to foods that cause the most rapid rise in blood sugar. Whole wheat has a GI value of 72, which, he points out, is higher than table sugar (59).

“I’m just shocked,” he says, “that something as glaringly obvious as the glycemic index of whole wheat being 72, high above nearly all other foods… Why in the world would that justify wholesale endorsement of grains in the diet?”

He notes that when dietitians and other health professionals point to the health benefits of wheat, they’re comparing whole-wheat products to those made of white flour. He agrees that between the two, whole wheat is, indeed, better. But he says that such a comparison still doesn’t justify its ubiquitous presence in food. Wheat can be found in everything from salad dressings to soup. And he says there are other ways to get fibre aside from whole-grain and -wheat items.

“If you replace fibre [from whole grains] with real, single-ingredient, nongrain foods like avocados, olives, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, there is no net reduction in fibre,” he says, adding that people seeking to eliminate wheat should stay away from all obvious sources, such as bread and pancakes, as well as less obvious sources. “Avoid processed foods made with wheat, which is virtually all processed foods. I think that’s on purpose. There’s no way to justify wheat in virtually everything from cans of soup to sauces…to all frozen dinners….This is my raw speculation, but I think it’s there to stimulate your appetite. I think it’s the nicotine of cigarettes; the gliadin protein stimulates appetite. If you can’t trust processed foods in this world, turn to single-ingredient foods.”

Case, however, says Davis is skewing the facts when he compares wheat’s glycemic index to that of sugar. She points to a paper published in Cereal Foods World in August 2012 that refutes this claim and others by Davis. Written by St. Paul, Minnesota, nutritionist Julie Jones—who is a scientific advisor to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a member of the General Mills speakers’ bureau—the analysis states that the GI is often misunderstood in that the measure is used to compare different amounts of food. Jones claims that it would take more than five slices of whole-wheat bread to equal the amount of carbohydrates he’s comparing to sugar. “Davis’ statements regarding the relationships between blood sugar, insulin response, and GI are inaccurate and misleading,” Jones writes.

With all the hype surrounding the Wheat Belly diet, Case says, she worries about those who have celiac disease but haven’t yet been diagnosed. To achieve a proper diagnosis for the condition (in which gluten damages the absorptive surface of the small intestine, resulting in the body’s inability to absorb nutrients), people must have been consuming gluten for at least two months. With so many men and women “jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon”, Case says, they may go for testing and end up with a false negative, exacerbating symptoms such as bloating, cramping, and chronic diarrhea and contributing to poor health.

Case, a member of the Canadian Celiac Association’s professional advisory board, also sits on the scientific advisory council of the Healthy Grains Institute, which was formed last fall. She admits that the institute is funded by grain-industry partners but says she joined because she felt consumers were being misled about the health benefits of whole grains. “My role is to help provide evidence-based information,” she says. “Nobody challenged Dr. Davis…and there was really no voice for dietitians.”
She encourages anyone suspecting that they’re gluten-sensitive or have celiac disease to see a health professional right away. From there, following a gluten-free diet can be challenging, but it’s a lot easier now than it was two decades ago, with so many more gluten-free products available.

Case and Davis agree on one thing: people ditching gluten shouldn’t necessarily go out and buy gluten-free cookies, crackers, and snacks. Many of these products are loaded with nonnutritious ingredients such as rice, potato, and tapioca starch.

“Everybody’s looking for a quick fix for whatever ails them,” Case says. “It’s a fast-food society; it’s a fast-information society; and it’s a fast, quick-fix society, but the bottom line is the only way to lose weight is to eat healthily and cut back on total calories...coupled with reducing fat intake—especially saturated fat—increasing fruit and vegetable intake, and getting more activity. But that doesn’t sell. That’s not sexy. That’s not what people want to hear. They want, ‘If I cut this out, I’m going to live forever or lose 1,000 pounds.’

“There’s always another diet because the last one didn’t work; diets don’t work,” Case says. “Take the ‘t’ off the diet and it means die.”

Davis, though, maintains that there’s much more to giving up grains than shedding pounds.

“People who say this is just another Atkins diet aren’t getting the message,” he says. “Yes, a wonderful accompaniment of wheat elimination is weight loss, anything from modest to astounding….But it’s about reclaiming health also.”

Comments (55) Add New Comment
KIM B
I Have been following a grain free diet for 16 months now. I have lost 60 pounds and also have lost my swollen left ankle, constant heartburn, pain in finger joints and pain in knee joints and have had my panic attacks almost vanish (I occasionally feel one coming on but usually am able to talk myself out of it). Over the holidays, I indulged in wheat products and the pain came back, especially bad in my knees. Feeling this good without grains is motivation to stick with this way of eating. It is so doable.
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Kris
It's the naysayers loss. I've lost 45 pounds in 6mos. Im no longer suffering from stiff joints, brain fog, IBS, headaches or acid reflux. I've never been tested for allergies. You can't argue with results. THIS IS NOT A WEIGHT LOSS FAD..
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Pam
LOL The two "experts" are both being paid by the grains industry. When someone claims to be a disinterested third party, check their bank account. I have been partially gluten free for several years and completely gluten free for one year. I no longer have IBS or acid reflux GONE, I no longer have eczema GONE, I no longer have any joint pain GONE and my energy level has doubled.
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LiveBetter
Wake up wheat lobbyists! It's not the era of big tobacco anymore. We have the Internet and we're a lot smarter than you think we are. How stupid do you think we are? All the naysayers work in industries related to GRAINS - I'm sure they’re being non biased and truthful. The reason this book is a best seller and continues to spread is because it IS the truth. People only need to do it for a few weeks to realize there is truth in Dr. Davis' words. Living is believing. This is NOT about weight loss but about freedom from ailments no one could help me with. Freedom from obsessive thoughts of food. And yes, freedom from the extra weight I've been burdened with for years. You can scream your protests from the highest mountain but I know what I believe. Wheat is for no one - period. As for the GI of wheat – Dr. Oz illustrated Dr. Davis’ point beautifully on his show when he had 5 women eat WW bread and the next day eat Snickers bars. All five spiked blood sugar as high as the candy bar – 3 went higher with the bread – and two of the 3 went TWICE as high. All anyone has to do is test their own glucose after consuming wheat and it will be obvious.
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Ailu
Sorry, you can quote whoever or whatever studies you want about how wheat doesn't raise blood sugar but Dr. Oz tested just 5 people in front of millions and 3 of them had way higher blood sugar from wheat than a candy bar. Yep. It was that simple.
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Kimberly
Went off wheat to support my daughter. 8 weeks in got the book. Confirmed what i was feeling: 3 plus months in my LIFETIME (50 years) of inhaled steroids daily - down to rare usage. All other allergies mostly gone, bloating, cramps gone. Lost some weight but didn't eat much wheat before- didn't do it for that reason. No idea all inflammation in my body would improve so much . Amazing.
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Isiris
I too have been gluten free for about a year although, sometimes I would have Pizza and then I'd get bloated and get a migraine. My husband and I stopped eating corn years ago because about 90% of corn grown in the US is GM. The only corn I buy is local from a Farmer's Market. All the farmers chose to grow non-GM corn. Now after reading Wheat Belly, we're completely gluten free. I'm free of migraines, pains in my joints, emotions going up & down!! Thanks Dr. Davis!!
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Janine
Give this woman a bestseller already...so she can leave Dr Davis alone. Wheat Belly is sooo right. I eliminated wheat and watched the pounds fall off. As an experiment I started eating wheat again. The weight is creeping back on but more than that, i am noticing knee joint and pains in my feet. My stomach at night just churns and is hot on the inside. Headaches have been frequent, and a bad temper. Seems wheat is affecting my sense of mental wellbeing. I have been feeling depressed a lot lately. And its not pms nor is it coincidence. The thing is I didn't notice these issues before I eliminated wheat. Cos I had these problems all my life. But after I went off wheat, I had a great feeling of wellbeing...getting out of bed was a happy occassion, and accomplishing my set out tasks for the day too seemed easy as a result. Im glad i did this little experience to prove Wheat Belly is right and to pinpoint exactly what my issues are. THe ones i mentioned I will say is because of an unknown intolerance I have to wheat and other grains. Im back on to being wheat free and I believe I'll feel much better
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Patrice
I haven't been tested for Celiac. I feel better physically and mentally eating a grain free diet.

But, I need to eat wheat to be tested for celiac's disase so I can stop eating it to see if I feel better?
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Jamie
Alcoka
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm
I read the book THE WHEAT BELLY, and was so disgusted by what is currently in the "wheat" that Monsanto built,

Alcoka...Monsanto doesn't even produce or breed wheat anymore Pioneer in fact does and breeding in wheat is different than to Corn or Soys and it just speeds up natural selection but then that's a science term you might not understand
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Cathy
I love the paragraph in which Case states that she worries about Celiacs "jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon" and getting false negatives on their tests! There's absolutely no logic in this paragraph. So, people with celiac symptoms should stay on gluten so they can be appropriately diagnosed just to have the doctor tell them to quit eating gluten? That's really grasping at straws. Plus, their symptoms won't be "exacerbated" by quitting gluten, they will be eliminated.
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Lee Weathersbee
My doctor, who is a cardiologist and treating me for a-fib, diabetis, high blood pressure, high triglirides and high chlosterol told me to stop eating white flour products. This was 6 months before Dr Davis came out with his book Wheat Belly. I got his book, read it and basicly stopped eating all wheat products as he suggest to do. Today I weigh 225 lbs. down from 290 lbs., which is a good weight for my height at 6' 6". I have been doing this for 2 years and am no longer on any meds except metformin, for diabetis and prodaxa for a-fib. All my aches and pains have disappeared. My A1C has been around 6 down from 8 when I started eating right. If you have the problems like me, give the no wheat diet a try and make up your own mind if it works or not. It did for me and I will be 70 on my next birthdayand feel great.
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RUK
Interesting story and feedback. I haven't given much thought to gluten free this or that; evidently I can tolerate wheat just fine.

For those who are helped by eliminating grain, who can argue with your success? It's a wonderful thing!

A more serious question is whether Dr Davis' conclusions about wheat being more or less toxic can be scientifically verified. UBC was looking at food and health some years ago.
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Carol
"If eating 2 slices of whole wheat bread can raise the blood sugar more then a snickers candy bar as was witnessed on the Dr Oz show there is something wrong with suggesting people with diabetes eat wheat in their meals! He is not off base. Learn more before you take sides."

Umm...a banana has a higher GI than a snickers bar. I'm sure there is a reason Dr. Oz used a snickers bar in this example...sensationalism and drama drive ratings!!
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Dan Moffett
I've lost 160 pounds along with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and a heart condition thanks to putting wheat and sweeteners out of my diet. Thanks for the book Dr. Davis.
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Ali Said
Grain is not for human consumption.
Meat is not for human consumption
Vegetables are carbon intensive
Fish are disappearing...

Meanwhile life expectancy is the highest ever in developed world mankind, French enjoy a steady diet of meat, veggies, bread and fish have seen the proportion of 100y old + grow significantly over the past 50 years...

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Ailu
@Carol: That's right - that's why many diabetics limit bananas in their diet. However, they did not know that about wheat.
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Andy
Interesting comments below this article. "Carbohydrates are simply not required in any quantity for human health or survival." Carbohydrates are found in fruit, vegetables, and gluten free grains. Grains are, indeed, GM. But, so are fruits (seedless watermelon), and vegetables. What are you eating to survive? Making any drastic change in your diet will, indeed, make you lose weight. Focusing on healthier foods is always a good thing. There's just no complete research that shows it's simply the avoidance of Gluten that makes the difference. Then again, research can be skewed to fit one's hypothesis. Either way, if it works for you, then go for it. Just realize that if you truly compare you diet before to what you are eating now. You are probably eating more vegetables, fruits, lean proteins then you did in the past.
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elisssabeth
I am offended by the so-called doctors who knocked rice flour...according to the Livestrong nutrition website, "Rice flour is a nutritional alternative to all-purpose flour. Although it contains 548 calories per cup -- more than wheat flour -- most of these calories come from complex carbohydrates, such as starch and fiber. Rice flour is slightly higher in fiber than all-purpose flour, with 3.8 g per cup compared to 3.4 g. Rice flour is also higher in numerous vitamins and minerals than all-purpose flour."
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stuart
Sorry Ms. Case, but a diet high in healthy fats lowers triglycerides and raises HDL's. It is common knowledge that a fraction of the tris are responsible for heart disease and these are made because of high blood glucose. So please come out of the dark ages and read the book. Maybe you could check a few of the 285 sources referred too. We have and they were more than convincing. The reign of "healthy whole grains" is over.
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