I love listening to talk radio, and my ears perked up recently when I heard the CBC radio show ‘q’ hosted by Jian Ghomeshi when the topic was: The Great Wheat Debate: Are Wheat Free Diets Beneficial or Just Another Fad Diet?
I have summarized the debate for my readers and added my ‘two cents’ at the bottom.
Debater for the PRO (Wheat Free Diets Are Beneficial) was Dr. William Davis, cardiologist and author of Wheat Belly and The Wheat Belly Cookbook.
Debater for the CON (Wheat Free is Just Another Fad Diet ) was Dr. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health, Law and Policy, University of Calgary and author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness.
Statements by the PRO side (Dr. William Davis)
Wheat Free Diets Treat:
This is not a diet – its about changes to wheat from the agri-business. Wheat that we now eat is not the same plant that our parents and grandparents ate
This is not just about gluten.
The gliadin protein from 2013 wheat is very different from wheat of 1960. There is a quadrupling in celiac disease in this time. Wheat is now an opiate – and is responsible for an intake of an additional 400 calories per day of junk food via appetite stimulating effects for carbohydrates.
Modern strains of wheat are ‘frakenwheat’. While he can’t prove his claims, there is a ‘cause and effect’ relationship. He states that people in the short term on gluten free diets loose weight but once they add foods made from potato, corn, tapioca and rice starch they gain weight. He advocates avoiding these ‘gluten free foods’.
There is a ‘fundamental flaw’ in nutrition research – replacing something bad (refined grains) with something ‘less bad’ (whole grains) is mistakenly interpreted to mean there is a health benefit.
The wheat free movement is so successful because people are getting results and are contacting him everyday to report them.
Once his clients remove wheat they lose their sweet desire and have a ‘hankering for spinach’. He calls this ‘large-scale anecdote’ and agrees that they need better long term data.
Many physicians are recommending this diet to their patients. Long term studies take a lot of time and money and we have to rely on what we have right now – he’s not willing to wait 20 years to satisfy critics of his diet.
Bottom line: Try wheat free for 4 weeks and see how great you will feel.
Statements by the CON side (Dr. Timothy Caulfield):
This is just another diet trend, there is no evidence. There is nothing magical about wheat, if there were it would pop out in the data and we’ve got lots of data. There is no evidence that wheat is responsible for obesity, and no evidence that removing wheat is a good long-term weight loss strategy.
There have been many diet trends over the years and good research tells us that diets do not perform well. This is just another diet.
Obesity is multifactorial problem. People on gluten free diets are largely on wheat free diets. New England Journal of Medicine study examined what foods were correlated with weight gain. The results were: pop (soda) and chips increased weight gain and whole grains and yogurt reduced weight.
Relying on testimonial is NOT research. All diet trends work in the short term because of increased awareness by dieters – these are great things, but it doesn’t mean that wheat is responsible for the improved health- wheat could be proxy for junk food. This works for many diets.
Data shows that Mediterranean diet is good for cardiovascular disease, weight loss and cancer. This diet includes whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean proteins. Need evidence as to why we need to change from recommending Mediterranean diet. Obesity is due to over consumption of calories, not wheat consumption.
Be skeptical of all diet trends especially if they focus on only 1 diet factor. Anecdote and testimonials are not good evidence. Follow a balanced nutritional diet and activity. Ignore the gimmicks.
Bottom line: Eat real food, get rid of crap.
My 2 Cents
As a registered dietitian for over 20 years, I have seen many clients. For 7 of those years, I saw many clients for weight loss in my private practice. Including several that were on gluten free diets when they came to me, or recommended by me.
I also personally know people who are on gluten free diets and my observations are not the same as Dr. Davis’. My clients still had the same struggles with weight loss. The weight didn’t magically come off (they may have been eating corn, rice and other gluten free starches, which Dr. Davis shuns). This plus the long and varied list of conditions that can be cured by the wheat free diet make me a skeptic too. The term ‘over-promise’ comes to mind. I have read many a diet book over the years and they all come with great fanfare and excitement, but then peter out over time when they can’t be maintained.
Consider the Cost-Benefit
This is my process when any client wants to try a diet or a supplement. The benefit in this case according to Dr. Davis is freedom from many diseases including weight loss. This is pretty compelling.
The cost of the wheat free diet that I can see are inconvenience, social isolation, less insoluble fibre (I know there are other sources of fibre but wheat is highest in insoluble fibre), missing important phytonutrients, vitamin E and other possible beneficial nutrients if wheat is not properly replaced by other whole grains.
What Would I Recommend?
I don’t prescribe the wheat free diet. If someone really wanted to try it, I would make sure they replaced wheat in the diet with other healthy grains like quinoa, millet, oats, brown rice, teff and others. I would make sure it wasn’t just a ‘low carb’ diet in disguise and that meals and snacks are still balanced.
I would recommend vigilance with record keeping. Do this before you start the diet so you know how much dandruff, stomach pain, body fat, ulcerative colitis etc. you are experiencing. Continue the record keeping during the diet so you can have a real means to evaluate the effectiveness and not just rely on memory to decide if your symptoms are improving.
If it’s not working, then get off it, as I don’t think avoiding foods which have been demonstrated to have beneficial health properties is in your best interest, even if celebrities are doing it.
My Bottom Line: Eat your plants! This includes a variety of whole grains (yes, even wheat).
Here is a link to recording: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Q/Full+Episodes/ID/2385814132/