Wheat-free weight loss diets, such as Dr. William Davis' Wheat Belly, have struck a chord with dieters. Many people assert that cutting out wheat and its derivatives has allowed them to lose weight after years of unsuccessful diet attempts. But is dropping wheat from your diet truly a weight loss panacea? If it is, why is this so? Research suggests the relationship between wheat, weight, and health is far more complex than you might imagine.
Wheat and Weight Loss
Can cutting out wheat lead to weight loss? It depends on who you ask. Many nutrition experts recommend following a diet rich in whole grains, including wheat, to maintain health and lose weight. Others suggest wheat may be one of a complex number of culprits linked to obesity and an inability to lose weight.
Pro-Wheat/Weight Loss Research
Much pro-wheat research is actually pro-whole grain research, as it is very difficult to find studies that isolate wheat as a factor in obesity, weight gain or loss, or disease.
One 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition compared consumption of whole grains - including whole wheat - with a diet containing refined grains. The diet, which was also calorie-restricted, resulted in greater weight loss in the whole grains group than in the refined grains group, suggesting consuming whole wheat in conjunction with a calorie reduction was a good weight loss plan. The diet also improved health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease. However, the study did not compare eating whole wheat to avoiding wheat altogether.
For every pro-wheat (whole grain) study, it appears you can find another study with contradictory results. A number of studies indicate that wheat and whole grain consumption may lead to negative health outcomes including obesity, inflammation, and increased cardiovascular risk factors.
For example, one 2013 study published in the journal PLoS One looked at aspects of wheat consumption that promoted diabetes and obesity. In this study, researchers from Denmark evaluated gliadin, which is a protein in wheat that is particularly difficult to digest. Mice fed gliadin gained 20 percent more weight within 100 days than mice not fed the substance. The study's results indicate that consuming gliadin may lead to autoimmune conditions that adversely affect human health and is a possible contributory factor in the development of type 2 diabetes. Keep in mind, though, that this study was not performed on humans and isolated only one compound found in wheat, not the entirety of wheat.
Possible Mechanisms of Weight Loss
Now you understand the inherent weaknesses in the data both for and against wheat elimination as a mechanism of weight loss, you can begin to explore the possible reasons why, in certain people, eliminating wheat from the diet may lead to better weight control.
Carbs and Glycemic Index
Proponents of low-carbohydrate and low-glycemic index diets suggest elimination of wheat and other high-carbohydrate or high-glycemic index whole grains can help control blood glucose, leading to weight loss. Low-carb diets have been extensively studied in recent years and found to be effective for promoting weight loss. Other studies suggest low-glycemic diets are effective for controlling weight and lowering blood glucose, although not as effective as low-carb diets.
Wheat, regardless of whether it is whole-grain or processed, is high in carbohydrates. One ounce (about 1/4 cup) of whole wheat flour has 20g of carbohydrates. Likewise, wheat (regardless of whether it is refined white flour or whole wheat) has a high glycemic index (GI), ranging from a GI above 50 up to a GI of 100 for a piece of white bread. This means wheat consumption has a dramatic impact on blood glucose which in some people, may prevent weight loss. Therefore, eliminating wheat as part of a low-glycemic or low-carb diet may, indeed, help you lose weight.
Sample Low-Carb, Wheat Free Menu
By their nature, many low-carb plans are also wheat-free and gluten-free. In general, low-carb diets allow between 20g and 50g of carbohydrates per day depending on the plan and the phase you are in. Choose from a variety of low-carb plans, such as:
- The Atkins Diet, which in its first phase allows meats, full-fat dairy, fats, and green veggies and gradually allows consumption of other low-carb foods like nuts, seeds, berries, and starchy vegetables.
- Ketogenic diets, which are low in carbohydrates and high in fat, naturally eliminating higher carb foods like wheat.
- Paleo, primal, or ancestral style diets, which eliminate all grains, processed foods, and cereals.
This sample menu eliminates wheat and keeps carbs low.
- 3 slices bacon
- 2 eggs fried in one tablespoon coconut oil
- 1/2 cup sliced jicama
- 1/4 cup homemade guacamole made from avocado, lime juice, sea salt, red onions, and garlic
- 2 cups salad greens
- 1/4 cup cherry tomatoes
- 6 ounces cooked turkey breast
- 2 tablespoons bleu cheese salad dressing
- 1 ounce cheddar cheese
- 1 ounce almonds
- 6 ounces grilled prime rib
- 2 cups steamed broccoli with one tablespoon butter
- 1 hard-boiled egg
Sample Low-Glycemic, Wheat-Free Menu
The trick with a low-glycemic diet is to eat foods that have slower burning carbohydrates. When you eat starchy foods, for instance, you will choose something that burns much more slowly due to its low glycemic index, such as quinoa instead of white rice. This sample menu helps keep your blood sugar in check throughout the day and eliminates wheat. The sample menu is naturally gluten-free.
Chia smoothie made from:
- One cup unsweetened, plain coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons chia seeds
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 packet stevia
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter
- Carrot sticks from two carrots
- 1/4 cup hummus
Quinoa chopped salad made from:
- 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, cooled
- 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 3 green onions
- 4 ounces cooked chicken, cubed
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/2 apple, sliced
- 2 tablespoons almond butter
- 4 ounces grilled salmon
- 1 cup roasted asparagus
- 1/2 cup lentils cooked with garlic and tomato sauce
- 1/2 cup plain, unsweetened yogurt
- 1/4 cup sliced strawberries
Another reason eliminating wheat may result in weight loss is calorie reduction. For years, health experts have suggested reducing caloric intake can lead to weight loss. The idea is a simple thermodynamic equation - that calories in minus calories out equals either net weight loss or weight gain. Eliminating wheat and replacing it with lower-calorie foods like vegetables can help reduce the amount of calories you eat. For example, one cup of whole wheat pasta has 174 calories. By contrast, one cup of zucchini cut into pasta noodles has about 20 calories. This simple replacement and similar food swaps can help you reduce your caloric intake, which may lead to weight loss.
The problem with this idea, however, is the body is a complex biological mechanism and not a simple thermodynamic machine. While reducing calories can help many lose weight, underlying biological conditions like hypothyroidism, glucose intolerance, or celiac disease may throw a wrench into this process, causing your body to hold on to weight regardless of the reduction in calories. Likewise, for many people on a reduced-calorie diet, the eating plan becomes difficult to sustain because they are hungry, which triggers them to eat more food. This may halt or reverse weight loss.
Therefore, while calorie reduction is definitely beneficial to many people and eliminating wheat from the diet can help you to reduce calories, this type of diet may be especially difficult or even unsustainable for certain segments of the population.
Sample Low-Calorie Wheat-Free Menu
Lowering calories can help many people lose weight. Aim to reduce your intake by 500 to 750 calories per day to lose 1 to 1.5 pounds weekly. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute suggests women eat 1,200 to 1,500 calories and men consume 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day to lose weight.
When choosing foods for wheat-free weight loss menus, focus on foods naturally lower in calories, rich in protein, or high in fiber. The sample wheat- and gluten-free weight loss menu below contains a total of 1,244 calories. This menu is also gluten-free.
- 3/4 cup of gluten-free oatmeal
- 1/2 cup of strawberries
- 2 small scrambled eggs
- 1 cup of soy milk
- 1 ounce of pistachios
- 2 ounces of grilled chicken breast
- 1 small sweet potato
- 1 teaspoon of butter
- 1 cup of cooked asparagus
- 1 cup of plain nonfat Greek yogurt
- One small apple
- 2 ounces of grilled salmon
- 3/4 cup of cooked quinoa
- 1 cup of cooked zucchini
One of the most pervasive arguments you see for eliminating wheat from the diet for weight loss and better health is the presence of gluten in all wheat products. Gluten-free diets call for more than the elimination of wheat, however. Gluten is present in many foods, including barley, rye, and some oats, as well as in many processed foods and condiments like mustard and soy sauce.
It's true gluten can be an issue in certain segments of the population. For example, people with celiac disease have an autoimmune response to even trace amounts of gluten (some are sensitive to as few as 20 parts per million). Consumption of gluten leads to intestinal damage in people with celiac disease, which in turn causes nutrient malabsorption. Symptoms of untreated celiac disease can include unexplained weight gain or weight loss, as well as the inability to gain or lose weight. Therefore, in individuals with celiac disease, eliminating wheat and all other gluten grains from the diet may, indeed, lead to weight loss.
Another subset of the population may have a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), which is a sensitivity to gluten found in a variety of foods. Functional medicine specialist Chris Kresser notes that in some people with NCGS, also known as gluten intolerance, weight gain or inability to lose weight may be a symptom of this condition. If this is the case, then elimination of wheat as part of an overall gluten elimination program may result in weight loss. However, it is important to note NCGS remains a controversial topic with contradictory study results.
Therefore, while the elimination of gluten in foods may, indeed, lead to weight loss in certain sensitive populations, if you are eating highly processed foods as replacements for their gluten-containing counterparts, chances are it is unlikely much weight loss will occur. The above menu plans for low-calorie, low-carb, and low-glycemic index are all gluten-free.
Another argument you see against wheat consumption is its effect on the gut microbiome, which is the balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in your intestines. Studies indicate the proper balance of bacteria in your microbiome can affect whether you are obese or thin. However, even here expert opinions vary on whether wheat harms or helps gut bacteria, with some suggesting whole wheat is beneficial to the microbiome and others suggesting it is harmful. As with other cases, these differences may be due to poorly understood or incomplete data, or it may vary with individual biology. Therefore, it's difficult to determine whether wheat elimination can help you lose weight by affecting the balance of bacteria in your gut.
As you can see, eliminating wheat from your diet may or may not cause weight loss, depending on a number of factors including your general health, individual body chemistry, food sensitivities, and others. However, you can still try eliminating wheat from your diet by eating wheat-free foods and see how it affects you. However, to lose weight when eliminating wheat from your diet, you need to do more than just cut out the wheat or gluten. You also need to make the elimination of wheat part of a sustainable weight loss eating plan.
Wheat-Free Weight Loss?
If the idea of whether going wheat-free can help you lose weight remains clear as mud, there's a reason for that. The subject of wheat and weight loss is highly complex and is affected by numerous biological factors.
For some people, eliminating wheat may, indeed, help them lose weight, especially if they have an underlying condition that renders them sensitive to wheat or any of its components. On the other hand, for others, eliminating wheat may come as part of an overall weight loss strategy that requires you take other actions, as well, such as eliminating calories or carbohydrates. Because your body and its chemistry is unique, you may need to engage in a process of trial and error to determine whether going wheat-free is right for you, and how it may or may not contribute to your weight loss.