Why athletes are overweight

Jogging mile after mile, swimming hour after hour, elliptical machine for 90 minutes, Zumba 5 days a week . . . I see these hard-working athletes and serious exercisers struggling to lose weight, or to stop continual weight gain. They blame themselves for eating too much, or pass it off as the inevitable result of aging or menopause, or–incredibly–not exercising enough.

No, it’s the wheat. It’s the few-amino-acid-different form of gliadin protein that serves as a powerful stimulant of appetite, increasing your calorie intake 400 calories per day. So it sets you up for a continual battle against appetite, desire for more food (especially carbohydrates), and the weight gain that results. Throw in the mental “fog,” low energy, and joint pain that comes from the other components of wheat, such as lectins (wheat germ agglutinin) and gluten, and you have the recipe for an overweight, unhealthy person, struggling to get through the day, sapped of energy, blaming herself.

Cherie, a lifelong athlete, tells her story of new wheat-free life after years of struggle:

One year ago, on the eve of my 40th birthday, I decided it was time to get in better shape. I”ve been an athlete all my life, a long-distance runner for 20 years, triathlete, dancer, tennis player. I”ve also experimented with my diet for about 20 years: vegetarian, vegan, high protein, etc. But last year, I felt like something had to change. I started by using the “Abs Diet” book to make some changes in the amount of protein I was eating. I had been feeling nauseous between meals and felt I had to eat constantly. I began to eat yogurt smoothies, lots of nuts, spinach salads, etc. All things I had eaten before, but not as regularly. I also started adding light weights to my exercises, in addition to the dancing I was doing each week. Hmmmmm…not much happened. Though I didn”t own a scale at the time, but I didn”t really feel any different.

Jump to September 2011 when I started working with my chiropractor to alleviate some nerve issues in my arms. He looked at my most recent blood work and said he thought I needed to make some changes to my diet. He noticed my Triglycerides were high, my TSH was high (hypothyroid), my bloodsugars were low. We did a blood panel to test for wheat-sensitivity, and sure enough, I showed reaction to the Gliadin IgA on every part of the test. I also showed a sensitivity to corn, potatoes, rice, and sesame. Wow!!

He recommended that I do a three-week diet change that excluded all gluten, corn, rice, potatoes, dairy, soy. After this, we would start adding foods back and see what reactions I had. Well, after the first three weeks, I had lost 10 pounds and was feeling really great! Then, I came across the “Wheat Belly” book, which affirmed what I had been doing and also helped me understand what went wrong with wheat!!

I have continued to eat wheat-free and have now lost 21 pounds!! I started out at 5”8? 155lbs. I was in good shape, so I didn”t look like I was carrying extra weight. But, the pounds have dropped off, EFFORTLESSLY! I am exercising at my usual rate, but simply by changing WHAT I ate (not how much), I am at 134lbs! And, I didn”t even start this “diet” to lose weight! I started it to see if we could get my thyroid and blood sugars back in normal range.

I don”t feel the nausea any more, I feel super ENERGIZED and I feel FIT! I have not really added much back to the original three-week diet, just eating meats, vegetables and fruit (and dark chocolate on occasion). I love that I don”t drink coffee anymore! And, I am telling everyone who will listen about “Wheat Belly.” People get defensive sometimes, when I am really hoping to encourage them. But, if one or two people start making changes, those changes will influence others, too!

Thank you for writing THE most important book on diet in the 21st century!

Thanks for telling your instructive story, Cherie. I hope other frustrated athletes learn from it.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Scott

    Amen! I went from 5k to half marathon last year, cross trained for my first triathlons, lifted weights, ate ”healthy,” but didn”t lose a single pound. Immediately after attending your lecture at Domincan High last month, I gave up wheat and BOOM! I am down over 10 lbs. I saw my MD a couple weeks ago and mentioned he knew Dr Davis. Not only was he supportive of my decision, he was very interested in seeing my progress.

  2. Lori Christ

    I”m one of those overweight athletes.

    I”ve done over 30 marathons, my next one is in two weeks. On New Years Eve, I participated in a 24 hour running event, I completed 50.4 miles. In April, I”m doing another 50 mile event.

    I love my shiny medals but I hate my finish line photos. I”ve been about 25 lbs overweight for the last couple years. I”m a 54 year old female, I used the “my hormones are wacky” excuse for awhile but I knew that”s not my problem.

    I”ve read Wheat Belly twice. I”m an avid reader of this site and have watched all of Dr Davis”s videos.

    I know that the pre-workout muffins and the post-workout bagels need to go.

    I was going to switch to wheat-free after my 50 mile race in April. Thanks to today”s post, I”m jumping in now.

    Dr Davis, I”ll follow up after my race. Thank you for your wheat free crusade. If it wasn”t for Wheat Belly, I would have never considered ditching my carbo loading pasta dinners.

    I”ll be back in April with a progress report.

  3. John L.

    I found out that when I reduced my carb intake to 50 grams per day and gave up the wheat, cereals, Ezekial bread, Cliff Bars and Hammer Gel, etc. to fuel my rides and runs that I could acutally use my stored fat as my primary fuel. My endurance suffered for a few weeks as adapting to burning fat as a primary fuel took a while as carbs are always preferentially burned. My belly is also flatter. Post ride I eat good carbs like low GI vegetables, fruits, fats and protein. If you follow the advice the Gatorade Sports Institute and similar organzations that promote sugary sport drinks it will put a lot of bad calories in you belly.

  4. D.P.

    I am a long-distance runner training for my 4th marathon—only this time, I”m doing it gluten free. I am relatively low carb 80% of the time, except right before a long run. A cup of rice, a banana, and a sweet potato in the couple of days prior to my long runs on Saturday seems to do the trick. After reading Wheat Belly, I eliminated all wheat for 21 days and when I added it back, it became clear that wheat was the root of my frequent stomach problems. As a runner, I was all about pasta, bagels, bread, etc., and I had a lot of stomach issues. My body seems to be tolerant of other grains like corn and rice, however.
    I still need fuel during the long runs, but I”ve given up sports drink. I”ve been eating Kind Fruit and Nut bars (just for ease of carrying) about half way through my long runs (13 miles right now).
    I”m still indulging in gluten-free steel cut oats or oat bran about 3 or 4 mornings a week. It”s kind of a comfort food, but I think my carbs likely stay under 100-150 grams a day. I follow a lot of the principles on Mark”s Daily Apple, except I do include limited amounts of dairy and oatmeal. Mark allows endurance athletes a little leeway when it comes to rice, potatoes (even white in moderation), and fruit consumption. So far, so good. It will be interesting to see how my 16 and 18 milers go.

  5. AllisonK

    Dr. Davis, I found out about this blood test for food sensitivities. (bet a large portion of the population will show wheat sensitivity). Wondering what you know about these tests and how accurate it is?

  6. Michael

    Dr Davis please explain the connection between IBS and a no-wheat lifestyle. My wife has IBS and will not give up wheat until she learns about that connection. Please help us.

    • Hi, Michael–

      This question is discussed in detail in the Wheat Belly book.

      There is no question that many people with IBS, in actuality, have wheat-intolerance. In fact, I believe this is true for the majority of IBS sufferers. I used to be one of them.

  7. matt

    Hello, Dr. Davis. I am curious about the link between wheat, amylopectin-a, and heart attack. During one day of the week, I go off my diet and eat carbohydrate-rich foods, and I”m wondering if I would be at greater risk of heart attack the day after all that indulgence. And if so, to what extent might it be increased, in relative terms of course. Would strenuous exercise the day after carbo-loading, so to speak, be dangerous?

    thanks for all the research,

    • Hi, Matt–

      No, you are at increased risk for heart the disease the WEEK after a day of carbohydrate indulgence.

      This is because overconsumption of carbohydrates triggers small LDL formation, the #1 cause for heart disease in the U.S. today.

  8. John

    Dr. Davis – what do you recommend for filling foods for vegetarians? We eat cheese, but no meat/fish. Are things like rice pasta not acceptable?

    • You might consider investing the few dollars in a blood glucose meter, John.

      Ideally, check a blood sugar immediately prior to a meal and 1-hour after finishing. Aim for NO CHANGE. You can then test foods like rice pasta to asses whether you have triggered undesirable phenomena.

  9. AM


    I too am one of those overweight athletes. I have enjoyed the wheat-free diet for a few weeks now and I am also almost sugar-free. But there is one thing I have problems with: my recovery drink. I train about 10 hours a week, mostly cardio. What should I eat/drink after an exercise that would help me recover faster but not elevate my blood sugar too much?



  10. Dr. Davis:

    I am a long distance mountain bike racer. I am now wheat-free and loving it. However, I don’t know what to eat on a long ride of 5-10 hours. It has to be easy to carry and very convenient. Do you have any suggetions?

  11. MARY

    Please Please Help this fit 57 yr,old yoga teacher to lower cholesterol and find alternatives to rice/corn/soy/wheat sprouted bread., ect. I ‘m always hungry!
    I have been meat, egg, and wheat free for years. That said, I make most of my own food and have been eating corn tortillas as a bread substitute. The more I learn about being truly wheat free the less I have to choose from. I occasionally eat sprouted bread, but now I see that as a bad choice too!
    Please consider the vegetarians out here, we need better advice and alternatives.
    Thanks so much.

  12. Amy

    Hello! I am a big fan of your book and I was wondering about the relationship with this diet and heavy participation in sprinting/powerlifting since the primary fuel for these quick bursts of activity is glucose. Should the consumption of oats, quinoa, and rice that are supposed to be taken in limited quantities play a larger role in this type of athlete’s diet, or would sweet potatoes, bananas, and other fruits and veggies be able to fill this role? Thanks!

    • Dr. Davis

      I am not a fan of carb-loading prior to events, nor after, since it exerts deleterious health effects regardless of the exercise. This is true of all those carbohydrate sources.

      I do believe they are helpful and benign in all those forms, however, in the midst of extraordinary prolonged efforts, e.g., mile 8+ of a long run, mile 25+ of a long bike ride.

  13. Looking at the profile of the people who share their experience both in the post and in the comments: Does the age play any role in how we tolerate/respond to wheat?