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,” that is inflammatory, worsens insulin resistance and blood sugars, disrupts hormones like testosterone and estrogens, and is associated with greater risk for heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s?
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.–-lead to substantial weight gain, with other grains sharing some of these effects. As I often have to point out, it is NOT just a matter of avoiding “gluten,” but an entire menu of effects that include:
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 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 a couple 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. (This is why the solution for hypoglycemia is not carbs and sugar, but not allowing the rise in blood sugar in the first place, discussed here.)
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. (This is among the reasons why the prescription weight loss drug, Contrave, works–yes, Big Pharma found yet another way to monetize grain consumption and absurd conventional dietary advice.) 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. (The casein protein of dairy also yields an opiate, casomorphin, but it is too weak to yield much effect in most people.)
Leptin resistance–Though the data are preliminary, the lectin in wheat, wheat germ agglutinin, has the potential to block the leptin receptor, an effect amplified by gliadin-derived peptides. 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. (Those of you who have been engaged in the Wheat Belly lifestyle and have plateaued in weight but wish to lose more, see the Wheat Belly Blog and Undoctored Blog discussions about the oxytocin-raising effects of L. reuteri and the yogurt we ferment with it; this is an effective way–after wheat/grain elimination–to reverse leptin resistance.)
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. Follow the Wheat Belly conversations, such as those on the Wheat Belly Facebook page, and just marvel at all the people who lose substantial quantities of weight without cutting calories, without reducing fat, without extreme exercise, often no exercise at all.