'Wheat Belly' Author on Why Going Grain-Free Is the Key to Weight Loss
According to ‘Wheat Belly’ author William Davis, MD, everyone can benefit from ditching grains. (GIF: Yahoo Health/iStock/Getty)
These days, gluten is at the center of many people’s dietary dartboards — with too few actually understanding what the stuff is or why they’re giving it up. (For the record, gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye). In addition, the rising popularity of diets such as Paleo, Bulletproof, and even Atkins has more of us turning our backs on grains and reorienting our eating habits to emphasize higher protein and healthy fat sources.
One of the voices at the forefront of this grain-and-wheat-free movement is William Davis, MD, a board-certified cardiologist and best-selling author of the Wheat Belly series of books. His latest, Wheat Belly: 10 Day Grain Detox, is a primer on his eating philosophy, updated with new research and replete with recipes and meal plans. It aims to give readers a taste of the benefits of forsaking grains in just 10 days — promises that range from weight loss, to improved cardiovascular health, to salvation from autoimmune diseases (a class of disorders including multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel diseases, and Type 1 diabetes, advancing to unprecedented rates in Western society).
Now, with the review of the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans currently underway, there is more scrutiny surrounding what we’re being told to eat (low-fat instead of full-fat foods, with an emphasis on whole grains). The pushback from consumers and experts such as Davis and investigative journalist Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, is fueled by the fact that recent estimates indicate that nearly half of all US adults are diabetic or prediabetic.
Yahoo Health talked with Davis about the science behind his recommendations to ditch grains altogether:
YAHOO HEALTH: Usually cardiologists tell us to eat more whole grains. Why do you think removing wheat and grains from our diets is the healthier move?
WILLIAM DAVIS: Because [some cardiologists] drank the Kool-Aid called “healthy whole grains.” Let me explain: Studies demonstrated that if you replace something bad (white flour products) with something less bad (whole grains) and there is an apparent health benefit — and there is: less weight gain, less heart disease, less Type 2 diabetes, less colorectal cancer — then the conclusion drawn is that a lot of whole grains must therefore be good.
But that is fundamentally flawed logic. The next question should have been: What is the effect of complete elimination of all grains, white and whole? The answers will not be found in those same epidemiological studies, but this question has been addressed in many clinical studies that demonstrate weight loss (not less weight gain), reversal or dramatic improvement of Type 2 diabetes in most instances, reversal of autoimmune conditions, and other benefits.
Further, much of the conventional, favorable view of whole grains is based on cholesterol testing — a crude and outdated form of testing that should have been eliminated decades ago. There is a modern, more detailed, more sophisticated means of assessing the metabolic causes of cardiovascular disease called “advanced lipoprotein analysis.” These methods break the particles in the bloodstream down by size, quantity, and other characteristics — a far more accurate method of assessing the character and number of the lipoprotein particles that cause heart disease. If you perform such analyses, you will quickly learn (and clinical studies have demonstrated) that fat intake has virtually nothing to do with causing cardiovascular risk (except for hydrogenated fats) and that grains and sugars are incredibly powerful causes.
Sadly, many of my colleagues’ interest in preventing heart disease ends with the statin drugs hawked by pharmaceutical companies who fund and publish their own studies. [Most] primary care doctors and cardiologists do not deliver information that empowers the individual.
Related: 5 Reasons to Skip White Bread For Good
Incidentally, all the strategies I promote through the Wheat Belly message, such as wheat and grain elimination, vitamin D supplementation, recovery of ideal thyroid status, fish oil supplementation, etc., all came from my efforts to provide people with more effective solutions for heart disease. I have not witnessed a single heart attack in years among the thousands of people who follow these practices, many of them high-risk for heart disease.
In your book, you call the glycemic index “misleading fiction.” Can you explain the problem?
There’s actually nothing wrong with the idea of tracking blood sugar rises over 90 minutes after consuming a food, i.e., a glycemic index (GI). The problem is with how the categories of high-, medium-, and low-glycemic index are broken down. The cutoff for low-GI is so absurdly high that it makes little difference; low-GI foods cause diabetes and weight gain, but just a little less than medium- or high-GI foods.
A better way to look at how to choose foods: zero-GI foods, or single-digit GI foods, at the worst. Even better: count net carbs (net carbs = total carbs minus fiber) and you will know with absolute confidence whether blood sugar will rise or not from ingesting a food. I advocate that, at least at the start, nobody exceeds 15 grams of net carbs per meal.
You advocate the removal of all grains, but single out wheat as being the most offensive. Why?
When people say they eat plenty of “healthy whole grains,” they typically do not mean eating lots of amaranth. They nearly always mean they eat plenty of wheat products, and then perhaps some corn, oats, and rice, too. Wheat is, by far, the most dominant of grains in the diet. (As much corn is grown as wheat, but much of the corn is fed to livestock to fatten them up.)
Wheat is also the most offensive of all grains, especially since geneticists and agribusiness began altering the wheat plant. Products made from the high-yield semi-dwarf strains of wheat created in the 1960s and 1970s underwent changes that amplified their adverse health potential. Such semi-dwarf strains are now grown on 99 percent of wheat farms. Foods made from modern wheat exert more negative health effects than other grains, such as appetite stimulation, joint pain and inflammation, skin rashes, autoimmune diseases, high blood sugar and diabetes, and gastrointestinal disruption such as acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome.
Have any of your views changed since Wheat Belly was published in 2011?
Yes. It has become clear that all grains, from emmer wheat to sorghum to rice, have substantial adverse effects in humans. After all, grains are the seeds of grasses — the seeds of plants that humans never consumed for the first 2.5 million years of walking this planet, added to the human dietary experience only 10,000 years ago — less than half of 1 percent of our time on this planet.
Going “gluten-free” is not the simple path to better health. Why not?
Foods that are naturally gluten-free are fine, such as an avocado or ribeye steak. The problem comes when food manufacturers get into the act and try to recreate the taste and texture of wheat/gluten but use cornstarch, rice flour, tapioca starch, and potato starch. Very few foods raise blood sugar higher than wheat products. Which do? Cornstarch, rice flour, tapioca starch, and potato starch. It’s almost as if it’s a cruel joke.
It’s because of this blood-sugar-raising effect that gluten-free processed foods can cause weight gain, diabetes, inflammation, and unhealthy changes in bowel flora, and accelerate the diseases of high blood sugar (via the process of glycation, or glucose-modification of body proteins) such as cataracts, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Not good.
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Worse, people who need to be gluten-free (such as those with celiac disease), are advised to consume gluten-free foods. Because cornstarch is among the most common ingredients in gluten-free foods, but can be contaminated with the corn protein zein that resembles the gluten protein of wheat, gluten-free foods made with cornstarch can re-activate celiac disease.
How can a newbie hope to feel in the 10 days following grain removal?
Since you are stopping the intake of opiates that come from the partial digestion of the gliadin protein of wheat and related proteins in other grains, for about 40 percent of people there is an unpleasant withdrawal syndrome to endure: nausea, headache, fatigue, and depression that lasts five to seven days. But once you are through it, you feel wonderful, typically better than you have in decades.
Many changes appear during the first several days: weight loss, often five pounds during the first week, starts within 48 hours for most; the symptoms of acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome symptoms recede or disappear for the majority within five days; joint pain in the fingers, wrists, and elbows are typically gone within five days; facial edema, bags around the eyes, and swollen legs are usually receding by days five through seven; appetite drops dramatically during the first week (provided you are taking in sufficient fats and oils). Emotional effects, such as depression and anxiety, commonly recede within the first week, also. Seborrheic skin rashes and facial redness typically recede during the first week, and are often gone by the end of the first 10 days of the detox.
In short: There is no body part or organ that is not affected by wheat and grains, and there is no body part that does not show improvement with their removal.
Why is weight loss such a common benefit of dropping the wheat?
I call modern wheat the “perfect obesogen”: a food crafted to make you fat. There are several reasons for this:
The gliadin-protein-derived opiates stimulate appetite — and the effect can be dramatic, even responsible for food obsessions.
Gliadin-derived peptides and wheat germ agglutinin (another protein in wheat and grains) block the satiety hormone leptin that tells you that you’ve eaten enough.
The amylopectin A carbohydrate of wheat and grains — which is responsible for rises in blood sugar that exceed that of table sugar — trigger insulin that causes fat deposition and blocks fat mobilization. That, in turn, leads to blood sugar lows perceived as jitteriness, fogginess, and hunger two hours after eating.
To make matters worse, many food manufacturers include wheat in nearly every processed food on the shelf, from licorice to taco seasoning. It is effective at stimulating appetite — you want more, you buy more. Put all these effects together and a lifestyle of eating plenty of “healthy whole grains” is an assured way to gain weight. But, once you come to recognize this, you are now empowered in an extraordinary way to regain control over appetite and weight.
Do you make specific recommendations for athletes? (People who lift weights, for example, are often told to consume carbohydrates post-workout for recovery).
Yes. My recommendation is: Eat no grains whatsoever, just like all humans. Athletes are every bit as human as the rest of us, and still prone to conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and dementia. The risk for some diseases is indeed reduced by exercise, but they are not impervious.
Carb-loading, for instance, is a very destructive and unnecessary practice that can accelerate the development of cataracts, arthritis, and dementia through the high blood sugars generated by such practices.
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However, there is something that every long-distance or serious athlete needs to understand: Even after the initial week-long wheat/grain withdrawal and detoxification process is over, serious athletes require another six weeks to experience improved performance. During this obligatory six-week period, the body is ramping up its capacity to obtain fuel from fat, rather than the carb-energy stored in the liver as glycogen, and performance will be reduced. But once this period is over, performance returns and can even exceed that prior to grain elimination. Athletes following this lifestyle need to hydrate and replace electrolytes during long-distance efforts, but reliance on sugar drinks, bananas, and other sugar/carb sources drops dramatically, many not needing them at all.
Where does fiber come into play? By eliminating grains, aren’t we eliminating fiber?
Yes, but the bulk of fiber in grains is cellulose — wood fiber. There is no intrinsic human need for wood fiber, despite the push for everyone to eat high-fiber cereals and the like. This is from a misinterpretation of the clinical studies of fiber. (The benefits of fiber come from the fiber in vegetables, fruits, and nuts, not from grains.)
However, the grain-free lose approximately 3 to 4 grams of arabinoxylan, amylose, and beta glucan — prebiotic fibers that nourish bowel flora. For this reason, I advocate obtaining healthy prebiotic fibers from alternative sources, such as a raw potato (zero carbs when raw), inulin powder added to smoothies, and small servings of legumes such as chickpeas and hummus. By doing so, you can further improve metabolic, gastrointestinal, and mental health.
For more from Davis, check out Yahoo Health contributor Max Lugavere’s interview with him in the video below:
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