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.
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.”
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:19pm
"Gluten is not, per se, the enemy that causes you to gain weight."
If Dr. Davies lacks scientific proof to say that gluten causes weight gain ... then she lacks scientific proof to affirm that it doesn't. Her points are weaker than his, because at least people do lose weight when they go off grains. Whereas losing weight while still on grains requires small portions, deprivation, and lots of exercise.
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:25pm
I read the book THE WHEAT BELLY, and was so disgusted by what is currently in the "wheat" that Monsanto built, that I stopped eating wheat. Genetically Modified wheat is now so far removed from the healthy grain of our grandparents--there is minimal, if any, nutritional value left. Did I stop eating wheat to lose weight? Nope--I did it because I didn't want such a GM item as part of my food pyramid. Did I lose weight? Yes. But all the while I was still eating chocolate, and almonds, and corn chips with salsa....not exactly a "Weight loss diet." Read the book...it makes alot of sense.
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:37pm
How dumb is that..it is like saying there is no benefit to reducing sugar unless you are a diabetic. Well, perhaps that is also her (Cases) thinking? She is focusing on one aspect..gluten free. Giving up wheat and all grains has a lot to do with gluten but a lot more to do with unecessary carbohydrates abd blood sugar spikes. Man (nor most mammals) are not meant to consume grains at all and carbohydrates are simply not required in any quantity for human health or survival. and BTW Dr Davis did not make make up the glycemic index himself.
Personally I do not need to have a doctor tell me that something does not agree with me. I have my own body and mind to do that. Thank you very much-but no thanks. Why wouod I trust an industry based on greed and profit with man's health and wellbeing the least of its concerns.
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:45pm
Notice the opposing study cited was published in Cereal Foods World...I wonder who paid for it? I do not need research, I only need to look in the mirror, feel how I feel now, and see my latest lipid profile. 55lbs gone. Is it all in my imagination?
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:46pm
We are going to see the same push back as Big Tobacco did in the past, but this growing movement will not be stopped. As people are informed, they will, albeit reluctantly, realize that grains are not meant for human consumption. Whether they change their diet will ultimately be up to them. As for me, I'm on board all the way!! Thank you, Dr. Davis for your informative book.
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:46pm
Not all who make the change to gluten free are doing it for weight loss, for some of us it is reclaiming our bodies from sore joints, exhaustion, various autoimmune diseases and in my case, a non celiac very sensitive to wheat. I followed various dietician's plans to the letter. Low fat, heart healthy, etc. I ate organic, whole foods, no processed anything and gained weight despite exercising and "eating right" (and this included no cookies, thank you very much). I was suffering high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sore joints and a bone weary exhaustion that would find me dropping off to sleep very suddenly. I am nearing the one year mark of gluten free living and all of the aforementioned complaints have been long gone. I have energy again, I am off medications and the only thing I have done different was to remove wheat from my diet and replace it with high fiber, high protein, low carb alternatives
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:48pm
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.
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:50pm
Always sad to see nutritionists who are still upset about something that actually works only because it doesn't match what they were taught. Have they never heard of Gary Taubes? Why is it impossible to believe that the FDA might advising us to eat the wrong foods? I feel good being wheat-free, but I feel even better when I'm grain-free. The desire for sugar disappears, and nothing else has ever produced that effect. Bring on the saturated fat! (Worst line ever: "Take the 't' off diet and it means die" - what the hell?!)
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:56pm
I just want to say that we already followed the eat wheat thing & the nation got fat...really, really fat!! I did the Wheat Belly diet also & felt better, looked better, had more energy too. I just want to say that being wheat free doesnt mean eat all the saturated fat you want in its place! Wheat & saturated fat are the enemy in my book...I know this to be true for myself from first hand experience.
Jan 14, 2013 at 2:59pm
Oh my. Julie Jones lives 3 houses from me!