Why wheat makes you fat

How is it that a blueberry muffin or onion bagel can trigger weight gain? Why do people who exercise, soccer Moms, and other everyday people who cut their fat and eat more “healthy whole grains” get fatter and fatter? And why weight gain specifically in the abdomen, the deep visceral fat that I call a “wheat belly”?

There are several fairly straightforward ways that wheat in all its varied forms–whole wheat bread, white bread, multigrain bread, sprouted bread, sourdough bread, pasta, noodles, bagels, ciabatta, pizza, etc. etc.–lead to substantial weight gain:

High glucose and high insulin–This effect is not unique to wheat, but shared with other high-glycemic index foods (yes: whole wheat has a very high-glycemic index) like cornstarch and rice starch (yes, the stuff used to make gluten-free foods). The high-glycemic index means high blood glucose triggers high blood insulin. This occurs in 90- to 120-minute cycles. The high insulin that inevitably accompanies high blood sugar, over time and occurring repeatedly, induces insulin resistance in the tissues of the body. Insulin resistance causes fat accumulation, specifically in abdominal visceral fat, as well as diabetes and pre-diabetes. The more visceral fat you accumulate, the worse insulin resistance becomes; thus the vicious cycle ensues.

Cycles of satiety and hunger–The 90- to 120-minute glucose/insulin cycle is concluded with a precipitous drop in blood sugar. This is the foggy, irritable, hungry hypoglycemia that occurs 2 hours after your breakfast cereal or English muffin. The hypoglyemia is remedied with another dose of carbohydrate, starting the cycle over again . . . and again, and again, and again.

Gliadin proteins–The gliadin proteins unique to wheat, now increased in quantity and altered in amino acid structure from their non-genetically-altered predecessors, act as appetite stimulants. This is because gliadins are degraded to exorphins, morphine-like polypeptides that enter the brain. Exorphins can be blocked by opiate-blocking drugs like naltrexone. A drug company has filed an application with the FDA for a weight loss indication for naltrexone based on their clinical studies demonstrating 22 pounds weight loss after 6 months treatment. Overweight people given an opiate blocker reduce calorie intake 400 calories per day. But why? There’s only one food that yields substantial quantities of opiate-like compounds in the bloodstream and brain: wheat gliadin.

Leptin resistance–Though the data are preliminary, the lectin in wheat, wheat germ agglutinin, has the potential to block the leptin receptor. Leptin resistance is increasingly looking like a fundamental reason why people struggle to lose weight. This might explain why eliminating, say, 500 calories of wheat consumption per day yields 3500 calories of weight loss.

And, as in many things wheat, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Despite all we know about this re-engineered thing called wheat, eliminating it yields health benefits, including weight loss, that seem to be larger than what you’d predict with knowledge of all its nasty little individual pieces.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Sheri Denlinger

    I have ordered your book. I’m trying to find suitable substitutes for bread (and pastries,and cereal and pasta; all the things I REALLY CRAVE!) and so I can see right away why people loose weight by cutting out wheat. This will be one more trial (of many) for me to live and eat better. I have already lost 3 pounds in just 2 days but I don’t know how long I can keep doing this.

    • Debbie B in MD

      That is a great start, Sheri!! You can keep it up. As you see more and more results an dfeel better and better you will no longer be hooked on wheat, but on feeling great!!! Best of luck!

    • Iris

      The cravings will disappear if you stay strictly away from wheat. For good substitutes while you are learning a new way to eat, there are a lot of great recipes using nut flour and coconut flour on the internet. One web site that I like a lot just listed a grouping of coconut flour recipes http://www.elanaspantry.com/tag/coconut-flour . Her cracker and Paleo bread recipes are great. I don’t eat desserts ever so can’t speak to those recipes. She does use agave sometimes which I omit having lost my sweet tooth some time back and I use butter where ever oil/shortening are called for. I make the bread in small loaf pans or muffin tins as I think the “bread” holds up better in those forms. The crackers are awesome – best wheat free cracker I’ve found in all the years I’ve been baking gluten free/wheat free. Cooking with Coconut by Bruce Fife is packed with great recipes. Don’t be put off by the price of coconut flour because a little goes a LONG way. It just drinks up liquid and grows and grows! Best of luck and hang in there! It will be so worth it to you!

      • Jondy

        Thanks for the explanation on coconut flour and the price. I’ve been concerned with the price of these alternative “flours” and had decided to just give bread stuff altogether – but this was encouraging.

    • Pattye

      Hi Sheri, Like the good Doctor said you will get hooked on how well you feel after even a week or a few more days. Why not make a solid commitment to yourself to do this for one solid month, I will almost guarantee that you will never want to go back to feeling like you used to. It is SO much more than about losing weight, honestly. Once you do read the book, read it again, and you will be sickened by what wheat (and possibly other gluten grains) can do to the human body and then the stakes will become much higher to put that piece of bread, pasta or pie in your mouth.

    • Julie

      The cravings will go away. Keep strong, then one day you will walk past the bakery counter and not even look and be surprised. There are some foods I will miss, like the traditional English Rich fruit Christmas cake, but I think I have already found a replacement for that. But bread, pastries etc just don’t grab me any more and I’m only on week two. I no longer prowl the kitchen 2 hours after eating a big meal and just grab anything, preferably a chunk of bread with something on, just because I’m addicted to wheat.
      When I realised what it was that made me behave in such a way, I was both relieved and shamed. Relieved that I had found what was happening to me and ashamed that I was a junkie. I have broken that habit, going by hearsay its not as bad as a heroin addiction, but its still not nice.

      if you want a yummy ‘fix’ do the Doctors Mocha choc muffins, they really do give you a satisfying mouth feel and a hint of naughtiness.

      Most of us here do understand exactly what you are going through as most of us are recent converts and only went through the same a few days or weeks ago. Keep it up, don’t give in, not even a little bit, the equivalent of half a teaspoon of flour gave me back all my symptoms, IBS, water retention, tiredness, irritability and put on 3lb overnight, its not worth it for a slice of bread.

      Don’t give in to your addiction, it will become much easier soon.

      Julie

    • Libby

      Sheri,
      What worked for my husband and I was to NOT try to find wheat substitutions for the first month. The more we dwelt on what we ‘couldn’t’ have, the harder it was to focus on what we could eat. We just put all breads, pastas, baked goods out of our heads for 30 days. We knew we could return to them after that. Mission accomplished, we are no longer slaves to the cravings. Now we occasionally make almond flour biscuits and I plan to try the crackers. We have also used coconut flour to good effect. We make things like chicken Alfredo with mushrooms, we just skip the pasta. Same with all the dishes we have always loved. Mini pizzas using portobello mushrooms instead of a dough crust, amazing! But I wouldn’t have believed it until I tried it. My husband’s blood sugars are no longer in diabetic range (and we’ve only been doing this for about 2 1/2 months), something the drugs he was prescribed couldn’t do. No doubt, one must reshape one’s approach to food. But it is so worth it. I don’t miss all those things I used to think I couldn’t live without (pizza), even though I have some fond memories of them.

      • MaryBeth

        Would love your recipe for the portebello pizza. Do you just put everything on top of mushroom and bake?
        I miss the crust of pizza, but I think anything stuffed in mushrooms are yummy

    • Linda

      3 pounds in 2 days???? Awesome!

      You must be one of those lucky ones to begin losing so easily and quickly. Don’t throw in the towel, the benefits far outweigh the cravings.
      I also didn’t even try to replace the flour/sugar type items. I simply learn a new way of eating and have stuck to it for over three years, keeping my daily carb intake at less then 20 a day. When I try to increase, the skinny jeans get tight, so, back to my 20 or less level. Works for me.
      When you and your husband are ready to try cooking with new and different products, as stated above, there are many sites to explore. My favorite is this site:
      http://www.genaw.com/lowcarb/index.html
      She dropped 50 pounds and has kept it off, through all of the ups and downs of life.
      Good luck!

    • Roxie

      not sure if this helps but I dropped wheat and dairy from my diet and replaced wheat with white rice. I eat rice all the time. I only eat a few biscuits with tea/coffee but that’s it with the wheat. I am able to lose about 200gms per week (very slow weight loss, but it’s still weight loss)

      I fill my plates (breakfast, lunch, dinner) with:
      rice (1 cup) + tsp butter
      steamed vegetables – greens + boiled pumpkin and sweet potatoes (totalling about 1 cup),
      beef, chicken or 2 eggs – either of which cooked in about 1-2 tsp butter.
      I drink green tea with each meal.
      I drink h20 about 1.5 ltrs
      and I have a few coffees or black teas with level tsp sugar, a biscuit or two, or a slice of rye bread
      Plus 3-4 pieces of fruit

      As I said, I lose about 200 gr weight per week.

  2. Greensleeves

    Sheri – it takes 14 days to break your wheat addiction. That’s all. You can do it! Almond flour, flax meal, and coconut flour can be nice replacements in pancakes, waffles & muffins later. But these should be regarded as treats, not daily foods! Good luck.

  3. Claire Clark

    Good Luck Sheri, you will really see the difference :) If you look around at low carb recipe sites and books you will find lots of ideas.

  4. Lynda NZ

    While searching for details of your book (which I have read) on Amazon.com I found this one – “Prevent and Revert Heart Disease” by Caldwell B Esselstyn, Jr, MD. This book is on the same list as “Wheat Belly” and I read what he recommends to cure heart disease forever. Total vegan diet basically with lots of grains!!! NO WONDER I GET CONFUSED. Here are two books, both written by doctors – one saying don’t eat grains, the other saying eat all you can. I am firmly in the don’t eat wheat camp but this really makes it hard when trying to explain to anyone why they are not good for you.

    This other book “Prevent and Revert Heart Disease” goes even further and he bans ALL oils, even avacados. Of course I was wary when I see that the author of “The China Study” wrote the forward.

    Can you explain how two such totally differing opinions can exist?

    • Hi, Lynda–

      This is an entire discussion by itself. This notion is wrong at many levels, though it can work for some genetic types (e.g., apo E4).

      I followed a similar diet as that advocated by Dr. Esselstyn and became diabetic 20 years ago, all while I was jogging 5 miles a day. (I was a neighbor of Dr. Esselstyn.) I am no longer diabetic, not even close, but eat plenty of fats and oils, but no grains.

      There are many discussions on this topic in my other blog, The Heart Scan Blog.

      • Lynda NZ

        Thanks for the reply. It just makes me so mad when I read about the type of “diet” he is advocating for life. I am so very glad that you have written Wheat Belly.

  5. Joanna

    Dr. Davis, I hope you’ve read the response to the critique of your book on the Fat Head blog. (http://www.fathead-movie.com/) It’s hilarious. I especially like this bit :

    I was hoping the grain lobby wouldn’t find out about our cult. For those of you who haven’t been recruited yet, we have a secret handshake that requires a lot of flexibility in the fingers — that keeps out the grain-lobby infiltrators who are suffering from wheat-induced arthritis. At our meetings, Dr. Davis sacrifices a goat and then we all spend hours enjoying ritual dancing around a bonfire on our pain-free legs. Sometimes we even dance naked. It’s not a sexual thing, you understand … we just like showing off our rash-free skins.

    You’ll have to post the date and place for the next meeting !

    • Linda

      Yes, be sure and read it, Tom is a comedic genius! I was in stitches this AM while enjoying my first cup of joe with my heavy cream, of course!

    • Lynda NZ

      Agreed!! I do feel you need to join forces with him in some way. You will be force to be reckoned with :)

  6. liz

    what about breads made from “sprouted grains” that are organic and low glycemic? are these also bad?

    • Hi, Liz–

      You will find that, no matter what you do to it–sprout it, ferment it (sourdough), whack it with a hammer–it’s still, underneath it all, still wheat. The same proteins and carbohydrates are still present. You may have altered the quantity a bit, but it’s still at its root wheat.

  7. Brandon

    “…altered in amino acid structure…”

    Might want to fix that. Proteins have different structures and amino acid sequences, but each amino acid’s structure is what it is.

  8. Dr. Davis,

    Something occurred to me today while shopping at BJ’s. I was about to buy some anti-biotic free and hormone free beef when I thought, If the cow was fed grains, would that affect me negatively? What are your thoughts on this? Does the same hold true if you eat chickens that have been fed grains? I am really curious as to your answer.
    I am really enjoying this blog so much and the great info you provide. Thanks so much.

    Robin

    • Hi, Robin–

      You’re welcome!

      The deleterious effects of wheat consumption will not show through in the livestock/meat per se, though the fatty acid composition is altered, specifically greater omega-6/linoleic acid content. This is part of the reason for a return to grass-fed beef, for instance, not fed corn and other fattening grains.

      • Pattye

        Plus, if the cattle had been grain fed, they must be given anti-biotics because cattle cannot process grains in their intestines and they become ill, therefore all cattle that are grain fed are also given anti-biotics in that grain. Organic meats do not have anti-biotics given to the animal because they are grass fed. Much higher in Omega-3 EFA also.

  9. Hi Dr Davis, I got the chance to ask you a question during your interview with Sean Croxton the other day on grains effecting skin conditions which was very useful thank you, I was wondering what you opinion of rejuvelac is, the fermented wheat berry drink? Many thanks for your work and I look forward to your reply

    • HI, Leah–

      Sorry, no experience with rejuvelac.

      However, if it comes from wheat and related grains, I wouldn’t trust it. Every time someone has tried to somehow improve on wheat, it has backfired–without fail. At least some of the deleterious components–of which there are many, some I suspect not even yet identified–will more than likely survive the production/fermentation process.

  10. Stacy

    Is it possible that I am the only one gaining weight? 3 weeks, wheat free and have been a bit discouraged with my lack of progress. I do feel better a bit better but was looking to shed some pounds as well. Maybe too many carbs. anyone else have the same trouble??

  11. complex carbs equal problems. avoid them and all is well. ps avoid all vegetable oils. only olive, palm and coconut oils good.

    • Hi, Melissa–

      I’d regard cornmeal more as a carbohydrate, i.e., something that triggers high blood sugar, small LDL, some degree of visceral fat accumulation, etc., since it lacks many of the other negative aspects of grains like lectins and wheat glutens.

  12. sonia

    Hi Dr Davis,

    I’m wondering about fibre. Okay, so, my understanding of the glycemic index was that the more fibre something had then the lower it’s blood sugar effect would essentially be. So, carrots, while high on the GI have a lot of fibre and so a) you’re unlikely to eat the amount of carrots required to spike to blood sugar levels that high and b) they contain a lot of fibre and so it slows the rise of blood sugar.

    Also, I’m wondering if you could give a DIY check your blood sugar response tutorial. I’m not a diabetic (and don’t wish to become one) so I’ve never had a doctor etc tell me when I’m meant to check it or anything.. do you do it straight after eating or give it some time??

    Thanks,

    Sonia

    • marilyn

      i am diabetic and to get a true reading of blood sugars is to test 2 hours after eating because thats when it peaks but is also good to do a first test on rising in the morning to see that the fasting levels are good too.

    • Boundless

      It’s an interesting analysis (from an admittedly vegan point of view), that re-casts what some historical data supposedly said.

      The original raw data might have allowed an analysis of outcomes for carbs vs. fats and animal proteins, but it apparently wasn’t looked at then, or now. And the cultural and unreliability noise levels would still confound confidence in conclusions.

  13. marilyn

    this sounds dumb but brown rice is a grain but not wheat so is it ok to eat this a couple of days a week?

    • Dr. Davis

      Because you are diabetic, Marilyn, a condition I call “fatal carbohydrate intolerance,” I would avoid all carbs like I would avoid arsenic.

      Just try to find a healthcare practitioner to work with you–very difficult–who can help you get off your drugs and not be needlessly exposed to hypoglycemia.