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Wheat Belly Diet: Is Wheat Dangerous?

What do you think about the "Wheat Belly Diet"? I have to lose some weight and friends are urging me to join them and give this diet a try. I'm skeptical.

Answer (Published 2/19/2013)

The bestselling book, Wheat Belly Diet, written by cardiologist William Davis, M.D., makes some extraordinary claims about the dangers of wheat. Dr. Davis suggests that wheat is ubiquitous in our diets and is so addictive that it causes uncontrollable eating and produces withdrawal symptoms when you stop consuming it. He also contends that giving up wheat may cure type 2 diabetes, asthma, acid reflux, joint pain and insomnia.

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True, wheat is found in many different foods, not just bread, cereals, pasta and baked goods. But I don't buy his contention that wheat and the proliferation of products containing wheat are largely to blame for the obesity epidemic. The real driver is increased consumption of high-glycemic-load carbohydrates, mainly sugars and flours of all types, not just wheat. Many people today take in more calories (from all types of food, much of it low quality) than people in the recent past, and this excess hasn't been balanced by an increase in physical activity.

Dr. Davis also maintains that the wheat grown and used today is "the altered offspring of thousands of genetic manipulations" that doesn't even remotely resemble the wheat consumed by our ancestors. He blames changes in the gluten protein in modern wheat (from that found in wheat as recently as 1960) for the increased incidence of celiac disease and inflammatory diseases ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to inflammatory bowel disease. I have seen no evidence that substantiates these claims.

Dr. Davis blames wheat for "central obesity" – the visceral fat located deep in the abdomen and surrounding internal organs. An excess of this type of fat tissue is associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and premature death. If intra-abdominal fat could be reduced, the risks of the serious diseases with which it is associated are likely to decline. Losing weight – regardless of the diet you choose to achieve it – can reduce abdominal obesity. High fructose corn syrup, other sweeteners, and high-glycemic-load carbohydrates of all types (not just those containing wheat) are mainly responsible for this problem.

In many respects, Dr. Davis's program resembles other low-carbohydrate diets that emphasize fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, and vegetables (other than the starchy ones) and restrict most carbohydrates, including fruit. You don't get much fruit on the wheat belly diet, which means that you miss out on the many health protective phytocompounds fruits contain.

The correct part of this diet is Dr. Davis's emphasis on eating carbohydrates that rank low on the glycemic index, a ranking of carbohydrate foods on the basis of how rapidly they affect blood sugar. He also advises eliminating all fast food, processed snacks, and junk foods, with which I am in total agreement.

I have no doubt that you'll lose weight if you try the wheat belly diet and stick to it long enough. It is yet another take on the low-carbohydrate diet that has appeared in many forms over the years. If you are diabetic, have high blood pressure, arthritis or heart disease, the weight loss should improve your health. But bear in mind that it is the pounds you drop, not the elimination of wheat from your diet, that will make the difference.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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