Popular diet books are blaming wheat (or gluten, which is the major protein in wheat) for the epidemic of obesity. First it was low-fat, then low-carb, and now gluten-free diets are being promoted as the “magic bullet” for weight loss.
Wheat has been blamed for obesity because there has been an increase in wheat flour products concomitant with the rise in obesity over the past 40 years. However, it is clear that one food alone cannot explain or be responsible for the rise in obesity. There has been a huge upsurge in processed foods and sugary drinks, progressively increasing portion sizes, and increasing inactivity. All of the blame can’t be placed on a single type of grain. Refined wheat flour is the base of many low-nutrient processed foods. However, a gluten-free diet can be just as high in calories and low in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals as the standard American diet, and, therefore, just as weight gain-promoting.1 There is no evidence that specifically implicates gluten in weight gain, or that removing gluten from the diet would accelerate weight loss. Despite the popularity of the gluten-free diet trend, no studies have ever been published showing that removing gluten helps to reduce body weight.
In order to lose weight, you need to eat more micronutrient-rich foods and remove highly processed foods from the equation; and that does mean white flour and sugar. An enhanced nutrient-to-calorie ratio is the key: eat more high-nutrient food and less low-nutrient food, and you will take in fewer calories, but feel more satiated. If you were to follow a gluten-free diet based on replacing gluten-containing processed foods like pasta, bread, and baked goods with vegetables, beans, intact whole grains and fruit, which are high in nutrients and low in calories (and happen to be gluten-free), you would most likely lose weight, but not because you cut out wheat or gluten. Gluten-free pasta, bread, and cookies will not help you lose weight; these foods are calorie-dense, have added sugars and oils, and are low in nutrients. Currently, gluten-free processed foods are perceived to be healthier, but in most cases they are still junk foods, just like their low-fat and low-carb predecessors.
Weight gain is not the only health problem that wheat (or gluten) has been blamed for. There are claims that wheat raises blood glucose more than sugar, that gluten is addictive and causes uncontrollable overeating, and even that wheat and other grains cause Alzheimer’s disease.
*Image of “gluten-free” via Shutterstock