The Atlantic posted a neat article last week about a doctor who believes wheat is behind the nation’s weight gain epidemic.
The reason I found this so interesting is that in one sense I agree with him but in another sense I disagree with him profoundly. Refined wheat (white flour) is, I believe, a major driving force behind our nation’s increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity.
Refined wheat is everywhere. Everywhere I dine, they put white bread on the table. At diners and any fast food joints, they serve it as a bun, as the bread in a sandwich or wrap, or as a side dish. There’s no escaping it; all we can do if we don’t want to consume it is cook for ourselves or leave it on our plates when it’s forced upon us outside of our homes.
While I believe refined sugar, refined rice and refined pasta (which also is typically made from refined wheat) are also major culprits behind our obesity epidemic, it’s the white bread, made with refined wheat, that’s so insidious in our culture and that (unlike sugar) slips so easily into our diets because we don’t typically identify it as being unhealthy.
But the doctor profiled in the Atlantic piece, Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist from Milwaukee, WI, believes that all wheat is bad, whether refined or whole grain.
And this I’m not sure I agree with. Dr. Davis tells some vivid stories. Today’s grain fields are 2 1/2 feet shorter than they traditionally were because we’ve bread them for ease of harvesting and maximization of yield. (I empathize with this concern because similar changes in the nature of the food animals we raise are wreaking havoc on our diets.) His patients drop pounds quickly when they eliminate grains from their diets. (This indeed strongly suggests that what they cut from their diets was unhealthy for them.) Certain compounds found in whole grains have potentially been linked to appetite stimulation. (This certainly sounds as though it could cause obesity.)
But none of this sounds like conclusive evidence against whole grains. In fact, the only real empirical evidence Dr. Davis brings to the table is that his patients have been losing weight. And their weight loss has followed cutting all grains from their diets, and not merely either whole or refined grains. So there’s no suggestion here that he’s actually demonstrated that any of his patients have lost weight because of the whole grains they may have cut from their diets.
And the big reason I’m skeptical is that I’ve played around with all these diets myself. Before I started looking into diet issues, I ate refined carbohydrates (and everything else) without reserve. I was young, active and slender enough, and I didn’t worry too much about it. But playing around with different diets cut pounds significantly. I lost 20 pounds on Atkins (cutting virtually all carbohydrates from my diet) and gained them back when I stopped. Then I cut only refined carbohydrates (notably keeping the whole grains) and I lost the 20 pounds again, and have kept them all off.
The only difference between my two diets is that one included whole grains and the other didn’t. But my weight was exactly the same on each one. And, since I’ve gone vegan, whole grains make up a good portion of my daily calorie intake; sometimes the vast majority. (I eat a good amount of whole grain pasta and sugar-free whole grain cereal.) When I eat more whole grains, I don’t gain weight. When I eat less, I don’t lose weight.
Of course I’ve run my diet experiments on only one person–me–and so they’re hardly scientifically conclusive. But they do have one thing going for them that Dr. Davis’s experiments don’t seem to–they actually test whether it’s the whole grains themselves that cause me to gain weight, or whether it’s just grains, or wheat, in general. And if refined wheat is part of the equation, then it’s tough to tell from his experiments whether refined wheat doesn’t cause 100% of the problem and that whole wheat is harmless.
So we don’t know for sure. And certainly, if cutting all wheat from your diet causes you to lose weight (and weight is a correlating factor for diabetes and heart disease) then there’s little harm in cutting all wheat from your diet; you’re probably better off doing it than not. But being overbroad in these recommendations (i.e., cutting all wheat rather than just refined wheat) makes a diet far more difficult to maintain, and forces people to eat things that aren’t necessarily better for them, in order to keep themselves fed.
And many other foods may be worse than whole grains.
Enough for now–I’m off to eat a bowl of whole gain cereal.
Update: I’ve updated this post with some new thoughts. Check it out here.