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.