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
Tessa
The assertion that cutting out gluten makes you lose weight is not necessarily true in my experience. About two years ago I was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity and slowly cut out all obvious forms of gluten (bread, pasta, crackers, etc.) and then moved to cutting out items contaminated with gluten. Although I feel amazing (after also finding out I had a yeast problem in my stomach as well) but sadly I did not lose any weight. Not even a pound. So I do agree that going gluten free has improved my health- it has not lead to any weight loss. To put it in perspective, I didn't really have any weight to lose (I am an avid runner) Cutting out gluten isn't a miracle quick fix to weight loss.
5
4
Rating: +1
stephen ottridge
I went wheat free about 2 1/2 months ago. I was diagnosed diabetic and started looking for ways to reduce carbs. This led me to Wheat Belly and since removing wheat I have dropped about 24 lbs from my peak weight and feel much better. I get my carbs from rice, potatoes, rye and corn, plus of course carbs from fruit and veg. Industry is in a funk about the trend. George Weston's bread sales are declining at over 5% quarter over quarter.
5
7
Rating: -2
brittany eidsness
As a Nutritionist who has been advocating this diet for some time i can speak to the results. I've worked with many people that experience success both physically, and mentally by removing grains - specifically gluten containing grains. Most people report reduced cravings, better appetite control, increased energy and weight loss - among many other responses.

Science often reports years behind experience...so if it works for you, go for it!

If you are looking to be part of a grain-free community, or want some help with recipes etc. Check out my facebook page at www.facebook.com/wildlives
4
6
Rating: -2
Wildcamus
The whole gluten-free, anti-wheat bandwagon has had me shaking my head for a while. It's not the gluten that is causing all the weight gain, lethargy, and fatigue; it's the sugar. And guess what, the vast majority of the population consumes very large amounts of highly processed and denatured wheat products in the form of breads, pasta and crackers that your body is turning into sugar very quickly, which then turns into fat. This is not an opinion, but fact. It's how starches are metabolised by the body. Also the glycemic index, which is how fast the body turns a food into sugar (blood sugar) is very high for all processed starchy foods, not just wheat. Bread and crackers made from wheat will have a much higher glycemic index than say a wheat berry salad. As for myself, I have to avoid any highly processed starchy grain product, not just wheat, to avoid major GI problems and general ill-feeling. I have no problem with eating wheat or spelt berries and make salads with them from time to time. I had the blood test to test for gluten intolerance (it's a range) and it came back with no intolerance. If people are experiencing improved health and weight loss from eliminating wheat from their diet, as one would expect, the science dictates it's from the dramatic decrease in sugar consumption that has resulted from eliminating wheat, the primary grain and source of carbohydrates in the Western diet, not the gluten. But then I guess Davis can't sell a book on that.
2
10
Rating: -8
Wildcamus
@gypsy1969

Case does not contradict herself. I suspect it must be a reading comprehension deficit on your part.
7
9
Rating: -2
Wildcamus
@Kate Cook

Case's essential point is that it is not the gluten that is causing poor health and weight gain. Any dietician or nutritionist such as Case would recommend reducing your carbohydrate intake including wheat, which is far too high in the Western diet. Since wheat forms the bulk of our diet especially in a vegan diet any elimination of it or other grains would require replacing it with other foods such as more seeds, nuts, legumes and vegetables, all super -rich in fibre. Fibre reduces LDL.
5
6
Rating: -1
Sam
All I know is I feel better since I decided to totally avoid wheat. I am reular frthe first time in years, my guts no longer hurt, and my joint pain is much less than before. 60 yr old white male.
4
3
Rating: +1
Tana
It's a simple challenge. Eliminate wheat and see how you feel. I did and I feel so much better. And so does the husband as he can feel the difference too. I don't get the blood sugar crashes. The constant joint ache I used to have is GONE. I have way less tolerance for sweet stuff and am amazed anyone can eat that crap. Don't get me wrong, changing habits is hard and it helps if you enjoy cooking and creating new things. But who'd have thought my family would "jones" for my cauliflower rice or a spaghetti squash casserole? Mine does!
5
7
Rating: -2
David Price
I never had serious ailments to start, but I find advantages with wheat-free eating. Better digestion and less ravenous hunger despite a lot of exercise. For treats ice cream and chocolate are still around.
6
4
Rating: +2
LivingInWisconsin
I've never read Wheat Belly. I had LPR reflux and had been treated for the past 5 years by an ENT who prescribed Protonix. In July 2012, I went wheat and gluten free. I stopped taking Protonix on the third day of being wheat and gluten free and haven't had a need to take it since. Some are skeptical. Others think its crazy. I'm living proof that my stomach acid has been reduced to a point I no longer need medication. Beyond the reflux, my joint pain has gone away, I can hear out of my once plugged ears. Daily migrains are gone. I no longer snore at night. Call me crazy if you want...I call myself smarter and healthier.
4
8
Rating: -4
Pamela
Shelley Case has a valid point that many of those who go off wheat and gluten for non-celiac reasons are simply swapping refined foods for more healthy options. As Dr. Davis points out in his book, however, our forebears didn't have our weight problems in the 1950s, and they certainly ate bread, cereal, cookies, etc. Granted that is only one variable, but wheat and gluten have become additives like any other. We rely on those products because they're convenient.
3
3
Rating: 0
Erika
After abdominal surgery I started experiencing excruciating pain in the scar area. I have endometriosis so cells there cause inflammation, which is exacerbated by wheat. Often the pain was so bad I couldn't stand for more than 2 minutes. This happened one day a month for a year and a half until I suspected wheat. Dr Davis doesn't mention endometriosis in the book, and I haven't read it, but my father's account inspired me. Sure enough, I have ZERO PAIN since eliminating wheat 8 months ago. I don't cheat, ever, for any reason because it's not worth it. I don't have to suffer anymore. I can't remember if I lost weight, but that heavy feeling in my belly is gone and I don't get cravings like I used to. (Also mostly eliminated sugar 4 years ago.) It's so easy to try it out, cynics ought to just give it a month and see the results for themselves. Clearly, everyone here who tried it is happier for it!
2
3
Rating: -1
Carla
I am indifferent to whether people believe Case or Davis. What ou choose to put into your body in your business. However, with this popularity of gluten free, many more people go around claiming to be "allergic" to gluten. This diminishes the seriousness of those who have a REAL condition, such as an allergy to wheat protein or Celiac disease. Those who have a real medical condition are not taken seriously by the food service industry because every 3rd person has an "allergy". This can put lives in danger. Prefer not to eat wheat or gluten, that's fine. It's a lifestyle choice, not a disease. Vegans are not allergic to meat. People's lives are affected.
5
4
Rating: +1
Arena Ford
I went off wheat for a week and lost ten pounds, eating nuts, fruits, vegetables, fish and chicken. My hands were slim again without inflammation. When I started eating wheat again, the next day, some of the weight was regained, my stomach started aching, indigestion ensued and worst of all, my left hand wouldn't move and was not only painful and swollen as though I'd been poisoned.
3
4
Rating: -1
Elizabeth
"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, why are you so worried about a person not yet diagnosed if they go gluten free? You worry that they will suffer the cramps and bloating and pain? They aren't suffering anymore if they are already going gluten free!!!
2
3
Rating: -1

Pages

Add new comment
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.