What is it about flour, i.e., the starch, bran, and germ of seeds of grass plants, such as modern Triticum species of wheat, that makes them extravagantly fattening? The weight gain effect of modern wheat is so powerful that I call it the perfect obesogen, a food that is perfectly crafted to cause obesity.
As a society, we have conducted a massive and inadvertent experiment. Based on the flawed logic that emerged from “white flour is bad, whole grains are good” epidemiological observations (or what I would label “white flour is bad, whole grains are less bad” observations), the American diet, thanks to the pronouncements of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, has become a grain-based diet. We have grain-based breakfast cereals, toast, and bagels for breakfast; sandwiches or wraps for lunch; pasta and rolls for dinner; pretzels and cookies for snacks. The result: Obesity and type 2 diabetes on a scale never before seen on this planet. Not just a situation that is incrementally worse, but the worst ever. We now need larger wheelchairs, larger airline seats, dress sizes that were previously unimaginable.
And let’s be absolutely clear: In the language of agribusiness, modern wheat is NOT “genetically modified,” i.e., gene-splicing techniques were not used to introduced genetic changes. No, modern wheat is the product of methods that pre-date genetic modification (GM). But earlier methods were not more benign; it included methods that were worse, such as chemical mutagenesis that don’t introduce just one or two genetic alterations like GM methods, but dozens. Yet the product of these extensive genetic changes have been sold on supermarket shelves since the 1980s. (I am no defender of awful GM products, but GM is actually an improvement over older methods.)
Yes, there are other factors at work, also, such as overconsumption of sugar, endocrine disruption from exposure to industrial chemicals, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. But none of these were thrust on us, even encouraged, by national dietary advice.
So what is it about the seeds of grasses, especially that of the most dominant and harmful grain of all, modern wheat, that has played such a big role in contributing to 40+ inch waists, size XXL dresses, and a booming bottom line for diabetes drug manufacturers? While I’ve articulated many of these concepts in the Wheat Belly books, it bears repeating, as the grain lobby and Big Food continue to flood media with their ads, including paid spokespeople to plug their products, all proclaiming the health benefits of “healthy whole grains.”
- Gliadin protein-derived opioid peptides are powerful appetite stimulants–Injected into rats, for instance, they promptly gain substantial weight. These are the factors that are responsible for 24-hour-per-day food obsessions in people with bulimia and binge eating disorder. Those of us without these conditions “only” have appetite stimulation, an effect that makes us hungry all the time, even when our stomachs are full or an hour or two after a full meal. Gliadin-derived opioids increase calorie consumption by 400-800 calories per day on average, though many people consume 1500 or more calories per day. And the increased calorie intake is typically from junk carbs such as donuts and pastry. The addictive properties of gliadin-derived opioids are also responsible for the opiate withdrawal syndrome that results when you stop consuming grains: nausea, headache, fatigue, and depression that lasts about a week.
- Both gliadin-derived peptides and wheat germ agglutinin (the indigestible lectin protein of wheat, rye, barley, and rice) block the leptin receptor that induces satiety. This effect leads to leptin resistance that underlies weight gain and obesity. People who are leptin resistant have ineffective satiety signals: they don’t know when to stop eating and thereby eat more and more.
- Modern grains have been enriched in the amylopectin A complex carbohydrate that, due to its unique structure, raises blood sugar higher than table sugar. High blood sugar or hyperglycemia is followed by low blood sugar or hypoglycemia 90-120 minutes later due to release of insulin. Each grain indulgence is therefore accompanied by a feeling of mental fog, irritability, and hunger in 90-120 minute cycles. This is the reason that conventional dietitians offer the silly and harmful advice to “consume many small meals every 2 hours throughout the day.” The hunger created by this effect is powerful, as it is a physiological response to maintain normal blood sugar. People who are prone to type 2 diabetes are especially susceptible to this effect.
- Grains generate insulin resistance–Repeated rises in blood sugar are accompanied by repeated rises in insulin that leads to insulin resistance in the liver and muscle. The small quantity of wheat germ agglutinin that enters the bloodstream also adds to the effect. Insulin resistance means that there are high blood levels of insulin that cause fat storage, especially fat surrounding abdominal organs—inflammatory visceral fat. This further aggravates insulin resistance, increases insulin levels even more, while also contributing to body-wide inflammation.
It helps to remind ourselves that wheat and related grains are the seeds of grasses added only recently to the human diet after millions of years of not consuming them. Our bodies are therefore unable to digest many grain proteins explaining why, for instance, gliadin yields peptide fragments rather than single amino acids and why wheat germ agglutinin is completely impervious to human digestion.
Rather than getting at the root of the problem—grain consumption—doctors and the pharmaceutical industry try to “treat” every aspect of distorted grain-provoked physiology. They administer drugs like naltexone (Contrave) that block opiates for weight loss. A drug to block leptin, JD5037, is in development for weight loss. And, of course, the drug industry is having a heyday releasing new drugs to reduce blood sugar in diabetics. Big Food adds gasoline to the fire by including wheat and related grains in virtually every processed food from licorice, to instant soup mixes, to salad dressings, to frozen dinners because wheat/grain consumption = hunger and more food sales.
The solution is therefore painfully simple: Eat no wheat or grains and thereby be freed from gliadin-derived opioid peptide appetite stimulation, leptin blockade, hyper/hypoglycemia, and insulin resistance. You will no longer be incessantly hungry and eat only what you require for sustenance without applying restraint or willpower. You won’t get your money’s worth at the all-you-can-eat-buffet, but you will be freed from the weight gain and health problems associated with consuming “healthy whole grains.”