Pizza Face: How wheat can ruin an otherwise perfectly fine teenager

Who doesn’t have fond memories of teenage years? Youth, the promise of a bright future, blossoming interest in the opposite sex. But we all know that it was not all a bed of roses, either: Struggles with mom and dad, uncertainty about peers, anxiety over your future.

So what does wheat have to do with it? Well, it makes the everyday struggles of the teenager . . . much worse.

Take, for instance:

Acne–So common, it’s the hallmark of the teenage years. Wheat triggers insulin which, in turn, triggers sebum production and acne formation.
Overweight–Teenagers are highly sensitive to their appearance. Being an overweight teen is a terribly painful situation to be in. If you think overweight adults are often ignored or mistreated, think what it’s like for an overweight teen. High blood sugar, high blood insulin . . . growth of visceral fat.
Sleepiness–Teenagers need a lot of sleep. 10 hours a night is not at all uncommon. More often, teenagers get by with less. Try paying attention to the teacher lecturing on quadratic equations in algebra class after 7-8 hours of sleep and a breakfast of Cookie Crisps cereal. The inevitable low blood sugar that follows the sugar high brings overwhelming sleepiness. Throw in the mind effects of gliadin and gluten, and you’ve got teens head down in their polynomials.
Man breasts–The overweight teenage male with the large tummy of a wheat belly also develops large breasts, the result of excessive estrogen emitting from the visceral fat of the abdomen, as well as the increased secretion of prolactin. Could it get any worse for the appearance-sensitive teen?
Emotionality–We all know about the wide mood swings of the teen years, from elation to despair within minutes, often far out of proportion to reality. What food impacts on mood more than wheat?

Ironically, it’s the wheat foods that are the coolest for teens: pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers, cookies and donuts. Go figure: Teenagers doing something that isn’t good for them?

Unfortunately, it’s also the teens who are least likely to heed our advice about the dangers of wheat. Think there’s a way to make eggs and coconut oil cool?

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Katie

    It’s cool for those teens that enjoy being unique, as wheatlessness isn’ going to be very common. Promote being different! Had I known of these things when I was a teen, I would’ve been on this bandwagon!

  2. Jenna

    If I had known that my eating triggered any of those symptoms (which continued to plague me through my 20’s and most of my 30’s, until I cut out gluten!) You can bet that I would have hopped on the grain free bandwagon and doodled “Bread Sucks” on my binder faster than the average teen mood swing.

  3. Our son 16 has been grain free for a year now. It was a journey undertaken to eliminate acne and has been a journey of ups and downs, disheartening at times as we nearly have his acne under control and then an outbreak occurs. It has been a learning journey though as there have been times when we think he has been grain free and then we discover, we misread a label. Presently he is the best in three years!!!
    At first it was hard for him emotionally and I had to be the impetus and had the whole family totally grain free to support him, as he saw the benefits, the impetus was handed to him.
    Truthfully it was expensive to have the whole family eat grain free (the way we did it) but now I’m inspired to readjust and become grain free again.

    • Eliza

      But the grain-free will mean, at least in the long run, LESS expense–on medicines, psychologists, weight loss costs, and so on. Economics in One Lesson (by Hazlitt) teaches that one must look at the big picture, over the long term. When you do, Wheat Free is the best for health as well as the most economical.

      • A few years back, I used to shudder at the costs of some of the acne “treatments” my son was using. And they were, at best, minimally effective.

    • Kevin

      To cure acne theres a lot more to it than just cutting out wheat, A LOT MORE! What helped me was the “acne cured program” you can google it. An ex acne sufferer put it together and it works.
      Cutting wheat is part of the program, but you don’t have to cut all grains. I like this wheat belly book, very informative.

  4. dtnmommy

    I think we underestimate teenagers. If someone had sat me down and explained the whole wheat/grains v. insulin issue to me at 15, I would have cut them all out the next day. Seriously. Reading things like Wheat Belly and Good Calories, Bad Calories in my mid-30’s was like a revelation, and rid me of an emotional burden I had carried for decades. My body can’t handle certain foods, and if I don’t eat them, I won’t be fat. I can’t imagine how different the last 20 years would have been if someone had told me to cut out grains and dairy as a teenager. Maybe I wouldn’t have been overweight, maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard to get pregnant, maybe I wouldn’t have spent so many years thinking something must be wrong with me if I eat “healthy” food and exercise and still gain weight. Well, at least I was right on the last one–my body can’t handle grains and dairy, so something is “wrong” with me. ;)

    So many teens are eating wheat bread, low-fat yogurt and high-fiber cereal and wondering why they’re still gaining weight. And then they go to the doctor to ask for help, and the doctor thinks if they’re still overweight then they must be lying about what they’re eating. I spent so much time and effort trying to eat healthy–grains, low-fat, just like the food pyramid said, and would sit in the doctors office an cry when he said my weight and cholesterol numbers just weren’t possible unless I was eating junk food and fatty stuff, so I should just clean up my diet like a good girl and the weight would come off. Well, I did eventually clean up my diet, but I’m betting that doctor would look at the way I eat now and think I’m lucky I haven’t dropped dead of a heart attack.

    Dr. Davis, I do have a question for you–after learning how to eat this way, I would very much like to counsel others in how to transition to this type of diet and thrive. (I’m actually full Paleo, I cannot eat dairy, it turns out). I’ve lost nearly 40 lbs., down to the thinnest I’ve been since my early teens. Having gone to traditional nutritionists who gave me the typical food-pyramid nonsense, what kind of training would you recommend for someone interested in this? Is there a nutritional educational program out there that teaches this way of eating, or am I better off doing it on my own by plowing through all the info on Paleo/Primal/gluten-free I can find and go from there? My focus would be more on the how-tos than the whys–what to eat, how to plan for meals, etc., but I’d like to learn more about the whole concept. (I’m also in the process of getting my Crossfit trainer certification, but that’s a whole different subject! Although, for other grain-freers, it’s a wonderfully supportive community for this way of eating. They really get it. Our Christmas party this week will be the only one I’ll go to that is entirely Paleo and I can eat whatever I want.)

    Thanks for all you do!

    • Hi, dtn–

      Yeah, I’m guilty of generalizing. I believe there are teens out there who, given the right message and rationale, would indeed follow this advice. So don’t give up on them. I harp on my own kids, all of them teens, and they all know about these issues. But they still have occasional indulgences. I worry that, more than anything else, it impacts on their school performance, since wheat causes such problems with inattention, difficulty with focus and concentration. All we can do is keep reminding them. This is NOT a passing fad. It is a very real phenomenon, as you know.

      I don’t know of any formal educational program that embraces these sorts of concepts. Sad to say, but all formal education in nutrition I have ever seen would make you barf, it is so filled with all the teaching that you and I reject. The incorporation of these concepts will take decades to work their way into formal education. So I think that we’re on our own.

      For a semi-academic review of all this, take a look at Jeff Volek’s and Stephen Phinney’s The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living. It’s a good review of the literature.

  5. Anne

    I was still in my late teens when I discovered Atkins, after testing a starvation (low fat, low calorie) diet. I started off as an acne free, thin teen who could down entire pizza’s and boxes of cereal. it didn’t last. And I agree with those acne treatments. Helped a little, at first. but instead of spots you end up with a horrible, red, raw face with a BUNCH of spots. NOT cheap either.

    I ate by the original book, and kept within the induction phase as I liked it. Acne vanished, but then I was also accidentally gluten free too, as I cooked from whole ingredients and of course wheat is carby and thus out. Trust me, thin and having clear skin was cooler then ANY pizza, pop tart, or corn dog. And being able to focus, have such additional energy and generally feel great made it easy to pass up crap “foods”. I honestly think it’s easier to sway teens then say an older adult with 30-40 plus years of positive memories of wheat foods ingrained in their minds. “but we can’t have Christmas dinner without grandma’s bread pudding”. If you’ve been eating “special” since 19, you make your own traditions.

    Eating “well” was cool when I was in HS. We had kids who only bought organic, or where vegan, veggie, etc. those diets may not be the most healthful, but it shows that kids are exploring the options out there.

    • Hi, Anne–

      Yes, if we have kids who no longer look back with fond memories of all the baked wheat goods . . . well, giving them up becomes that much easier.

      This mess will require decades to unravel for those of us who have come to view wheat as our friend.

  6. a different Heidi

    I have a very health and exercise focused teen. He gave up refined sugar on his own a couple of years ago trying to remedy his acne and enjoyed tremendous improvement. Since seeing mom and dad go gluten free a few months ago, he has pinched our copy of Wheat Belly and is seeing increased physical performance as well as mental clarity. He decided to experiment after 30 days to see if it REALLY made a difference and ate a 12 inch sub last week. He was miserable and is now truly convinced wheat is poison! It does my heart good to know he cares about himself enough to begin preserving his health at this age!

    • That’s great, Heidi!

      I know that my life would have been quite different had I learned this lesson at your son’s age. I believe your son will enjoy improved intellectual performance, better emotional stability, and healthier skin!

  7. VK

    Hi Dr Davis,

    Thanks for your informative blog. Now I lost more than 50 pounds about a year ago by simply following calories in vs calories out though I cut out refined wheat and a lot of sugars. What I’m struggling with is the last few pounds and have been for a year. I have a smidgen of fat around my periumbilical region that simply refuses to go. I did get tested for cortisol a few months back and I did find it elevated. Could this be the reason? Also why is it that I can’t get rid of the last 5-7 pounds while the previous 50+ were so easy to get rid off??

    Many thanks for your blog and I’m slowly cutting back on the wheat and sugars (though I do tend to indulge on desserts at parties!)

    • Yes, VK, cortisol can indeed be among the culprits.

      The key with cortisol is to document the circadian pattern with salivary testing (4 samples). You may need to talk to your doctor (hopefully a functional medicine doc or naturopath) who can then counsel you on how to readjust your circadian pattern. Also, note that emotional stress can have substantial effects on cortisol and its circadian fluctuations.

  8. Benboom

    VK, have you read “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes? It’s a slimmed down version of “Good Calories, Bad Calories” with a bit of extra information at the end. In those final chapters he says something like “You may never be able to get rid of that last amount of fat, and that is a reality that some will have to face.” I know what you refer to as I lost all the weight I wanted to except for the last final few pounds which are all around my waist, specifically over my stomach. I can’t get them to disappear, period. Nonetheless, I have lost weight, I look and feel a ton better, and I’m trying not to obsess over the glarp that’s still there. :-)

    Some of the engineered fat lab mice actually lose muscle mass before they lose all their fat and if you starve them to death (ugh) they starve and die while they still have body fat. I assume that is what he is getting at. There may be a genetic component involved, or perhaps our decades of wheat eating has damaged our systems, or perhaps there’s something else that I’m not aware of (that last one is a certainty!) but I don’t think that everybody can expect to lose every single bit of extra, as nice as it would be if it were possible. Maybe Dr. Davis has some ideas on this…

    • Oh, boy, Benboom. You are wandering into some pretty dicey nutritional issues here, like the effects of exogenous glycation/lipoxidation products that can modify insulin responses.

      Perhaps this is something we can handle in a blog post down the road.

  9. Mike

    Two questions: (1) Is cassava flour on your “no” list? (2) Someone told me that inulin is a cousin to HFCS. Should we avoid it, since it is contained in the new version of Stevia.

    • Hi, Mike-

      Yes, cassava, or tapioca, sends your blood sugar (and small LDL particles) sky high, even worse than wheat. It is the perfect example of a junk carbohydrate, despite its use as a “gluten-free” flour in many products.

      Inulin is not a cousin to high-fructose corn syrup and is actually quite useful for its “prebiotic” effects in modifying bowel flora. It is indigestible by humans.

  10. Alison

    The Ontario Government recently implemented a School Food and Beverage Policy that applies to all foods sold to students at school. The policy aims to increase healthy food options by reducing sodium, sugar and… fat.

    For obvious reasons, the policy is very much based on Canada’s Food Guide, which advocates for the consumption of grains. I work in communications for a school board and was on the team responsible for rolling out the policy. I had come across Wheat Belly after reading the article in Macleans a few months ago and started reading the book… my new knowledge and personal experience from eliminating wheat lead me to feel incredibly conflicted about the policy. Since carbohydrates aren’t limited under the policy, and since they’re cheap, when you go into a secondary school cafeteria, it’s challenging to find something that doesn’t contain high amounts of starch carbs. In fact, every time I’ve been at a school over the last few months the featured meal has been pasta.

    We’re teaching young people that these things should be a staple of their diet and we’re feeding them large amounts at the same time. The policy is meant to address the rising obesity rates among young people, but I think it will have the opposite effect, and that frightens me.

    I’d like to find a way to make this knowledge more mainstream. There’s a radio station in Windsor, On. that’s had Dr. Tony Martin on as a guest. He’s the author of a new book called Cereal Killers. I haven’t read it, but presume it’s along the same lines. Here’s a link to the radio station’s site:
    He was on the Lynn Martin show on Nov. 24.

    • Hi, Alison–

      Yes, all of us, kids included, have been given the wrong message. And we are paying the health price of this blunder.

      I’ll bet that, if wheat were removed entirely from schools and kids’ diets, we would witness an across-the-board improvement in school performance and behavior.

  11. Barbara

    Here’s another tip for acne sufferers. I’ve found for myself and also read supporting research that excess iodide can cause breakouts if not true acne. (This tip was originally passed on to me via a friend who learned it from his dermatologist more than 50 years ago.)

    I know that lately it seems that iodide deficiency is becoming more likely so one needs to take that into account. But if you use iodized salt and also eat a lot of processed or restaurant foods where the added salt is likely to be iodized you can easily get too much. Many years ago when I was sharing an apartment I suddenly started getting bad breakouts. It turned out that the milk my roommate was buying for us to share was iodide-fortified. The problem was definitely the iodide and not milk itself because when I started consuming the same amount of ordinary milk, my face cleared up quite quickly.

  12. Heather

    I am very fortunate. I stumbled upon Mark Sisson’s blog in August of this year and found myself unable to stop reading. I started the “Primal” lifestyle that day. Grains were the first thing to go. After a week of living this way, my 17 year-old son asked me what I was doing that was making such a difference in my mood and energy level. After explaining it to him, he immediately asked if he could try it too. Neither of us have looked back since. His acne is gone, his energy level is incredible, he lost 30 pounds that neither of us thought he had to lose, his muscle mass is increasing by leaps and bounds, and he is out performing all of the school athletes that he used to be jealous of.

    What is really funny is that he is taking a Health class and Culinary class for his senior year. I hear complaints every weekday about how “misguided” (edited version of what he really calls it) the information he gets in his health class is. He is continually arguing, in a respectful way, with his teacher. He answers the questions on tests the way he has to in order to get a good grade, but he knows that the information is wrong. He also complains about having to taste the baked goods in culinary class in order to get a good grade. On those days he always feels terrible in the evening. He needs no more proof that this way of life is healthy.

    I am so happy that he will never have to experience the health problems that I did before I discovered what poison wheat is. He gets to experience good heath from an early age!

  13. Jean-François

    Yes, I had a prolactin disorder when I was a teen, but it was kept undiagnosed until I was a young adult. Made me very overweight because of the phenomenon you describe, and also gave me some gynecomastia. My father kept saying that I ate too much and that I should go on a diet, not knowing what was really going on, and of course that the current dietary paradigm was wrong. I didn’t eat more junk food or wheat stuff than the next average teen. Eventually we sorted it out with a dopamine agonist, which I still take to this day. I went from morbidly obese to about average weight.

    I have gotten into Atkins recently, and your site of course, and found that shedding as much wheat, sweets and cereals as possible helps me to keep slimmer and more energetic, in spite of the dopamine agonist which tends to keep me energy-deprived and lethargic as a side effect. Since I had experimented the effects of exaggerated insulin production in my body to dramatic effects, it was easy for me to accept the same cause to effect when it came to my own nutrition.

    I wish I had known this when I was young and vulnerable in a Fredericton high school, but you can’t change the past, only the future.

    • Well said, Jean-Francois.

      We need to repeat stories like yours over and over again, so that teens and parents hear it and are spared similar struggles.

      Here’s to a bright wheat-free, normal prolactin future!

  14. rebekah

    My problem is how to come up with enough QUANTITY of filling and wheat free foods…….after telling them how wheat free has been good to me, I have three teenage boys who laughed at me when I suggested they go wheat free…….they are good eaters and will eat anything, but I have used pasta, rice, potatoes and casseroles to feed their insatiable appetites, i literally cannot figure out how to feed them wheat free to fill them up AND not spend a fortune a meal! are there any books out there like “a teens guide to wheat free??”

    • The closest I know of, Rebekah, that is available now is Sarah Frogoso’s Everyday Paleo cookbook.

      She is a mom with little kids, so provides many kid-friendly recipe.

      I see that this is something we should cultivate, as well, as recipes are developed.

  15. Danny

    Don’t buy it
    When I was 15 I was very active, playing sport outside and walking to school and I ate lot of pizze and pasta but was lean and had no acne. Nowadays I still exercise regularly, count calories and I eat pasta twice a day and pizza twice a week and I’m still healthy and lean around 10% body fat

    • Boundless

      > Don’t buy it

      Don’t buy what? The Wheat Belly message generally, or just the acne connection?
      And have you read the book?

      > … was lean and had no acne.

      Individual responses to wheat vary. Some kids don’t have a strong acne response, some do.

      Individual situations are anecdotal. Hundreds and thousands of them start to become a statistic.

      The WB book goes into more detail on this. For example, when isolated acne-free and gluten-free cultures start eating wheat, they start getting acne.

      > … and I’m still healthy and lean around 10% body fat.

      You’re betting your life on your diet choices. Challenge: ditch the grains. Switch to low carb paleo for a month, and get back to us. It’s harmless to try.

  16. Theresa

    Interestingly enough, after an attempt to lose weight, I cut out anything processed- thus making my diet gluten free. I only comsumed healthy fruits and veggies all day, fruit at breakfast, salad at lunch, steemed veggies for dinner ect. After being on accutane and other acne medications for years, I see cutting gluten out of my diet is the only thing that has worked. My skin is now finally clear. After doing research, I have seen there is a very stong link with gluten and acne, dont know why I did not try this before. I did not believe whole wheats were bad for you until I experienced it first hand. If you’re experiencing acne, you should give this a try. Although I did not have stomach pains associated with Celiac Disease (from gluten) I did have the acne symptom, apparently this is recognized as a ‘gluten sensitivity”.

  17. Rosemary

    I read this blog because it was labeled “Man Breasts” so I hunted for anything dealing with that topic on this blog but found nothing. My grandson age 17 won’t go swimming or be seen without a shirt because he has enlarged breasts. He is about 15-20 pounds over normal weight – certainly not too large for his height yet he has this problem. Has anyone out there experienced a decrease or resolution to this problem by going wheat free?

    I thought it was the hormones in the store label milk that was causing the problem because his older sister had this same problem in her youth from age 5 or 6 and up. Is this hereditary or is this their body’s reaction to wheat? Please address this problem and give testimony of success cases that have resolved this issue if there are any. I would so appreciate it. I would like to know for sure before I approach him on this subject because he eats the normal teen fare of pizza, rolls, bread, pasta and burgers. He loves food! I don’t know if he’ll try this restricted diet just to try it without proof or testimonials that it has helped others. Please respond,

    Thanks a bunch Dr. Davis and anyone else who has experience with this problem ! ! ! ! ! !

  18. Sam D- Lou. KY

    Mr. Davis,
    Im a 16 year old boy in very good physical condition (I don’t mean to toot my own horn), I swim and play Lacrosse for my High school. I don’t have a “wheat belly” , but what really attracted me to this site was the testimonies of people saying that their skin cleared up. I used to have very bad acne and i went though one cycle of Acutain (6 months) and it has clear up a lot but i noticed that i still have to smear my face with numerous creams just to keep from breaking out or to keep from being extremely dry. I was wondering, based on my situation, would this “diet” would be right for me or maybe some extent of it. And if it is, what other alternatives could eat to keep my energy level up for sports?

    Thank you,

    • Dr. Davis

      Hi, Sam–

      Yes, this is a very doable, though admittedly somewhat inconvenient, approach to reduce acne.

      But, besides wheat, there is dairy and carbohydrates if your goal is to minimize acne. There is an entire section devoted to just this question in the Wheat Belly book.

      It all relates to minimizing the triggering of insulin. For purposes of carbohydrates during long-duration training, think bananas and other fruit.

  19. Joan

    I went on the Ideal Protein diet late February 2012 and lost 42 lbs. I started on their maintenance program in July and after a month switched to low carb. I went grain free in early September after reading about the low carb, high fat, moderate protein way of eating, and I found and read the ‘Wheat Belly’ book in late September. In late October a woman who works in our building, who I hadn’t seen in about 6 weeks, asked me if I’d had a face lift. I said “No.” and she then asked if I’d had botox or Restylane injections. I said I hadn’t and she was surprised and said that my skin looked so good. The pharmacy tech who regularly checks me out when I pick up my script asked me what I was doing, that my skin looked so much better. My son-in-law said I look 10 years younger since losing 40 lbs and going grain free. The only change I made was my diet and I believe it’s from giving up the wheat and other grains and eating more real food. My eczema is better this year and I live in a very dry and extremely cold climate. I’m truly enjoying this way of eating and rarely miss those junk carb “foods”. I don’t have the mid afternoon slump and I have great energy at age 58. I take hour long high intensity Zumba classes and can keep up with the 20 yr olds. When my husband and I are at our house in Las Vegas we regularly enjoy 4-5 mile brisk walks. Thank you Dr. Davis!

    • Dr. Davis

      Ah, wonderful, Joan!

      I would like to use your great comments as a blog post about the anti-aging effects of wheat elimination. Thank you for posting!

  20. Never went through acne in my teenage years as I grew up in the Philippines where rice & veggies are the main carb staples. Then I had a big bout of it after turning 30, and this after living around 5 years in Australia (my family and I migrated in 2002). All I got from doctors was that it was hormonal and it did go away when I accidentally got pregnant a few months later – could have also been due to the fact that I eat more rice when I’m pregnant as that’s usually what I crave for.
    Then early last year, got some ‘allergies’ from a holiday which I attributed more to an overdose of sugar but my solution was to cleanse by eliminating sugar and yeast from my diet, which of course logically included most wheat products. After a couple of weeks, all clear.
    Now I’m able to make the connection via What Belly because I’m trying to lose weight again (for the umpteenth time with my last baby now nearly 6). I’m on my second day and I’m looking forward to letting everyone know in 30 days how much I’ve lost and how much better I feel.
    The best thing is I can still keep my beloved rice in moderation and know I’m doing the right thing by my body and overall health.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!