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.
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.”