With the exception of some raw foods vegans, almost all of the vegans I know eat grains. If any of the fear mongering around these foods has any basis, it’s a wonder we’re all still alive and that many of us are thriving.
At the center of the anti-grain campaign is Dr. William Davis, author of the mega-bestseller Wheat Belly. Davis doesn’t like carbs in general and specifically doesn’t like grains. But what he really doesn’t like is wheat. Weight gain, heart disease, acne, and that fuzzy-brained feeling you get after lunch? He says they can all be cured by dumping wheat from your diet.
Davis cites lots of research to build his case—but in the longstanding tradition of bestsellerdom, he uses that research selectively and misinterprets some of it, all while greatly oversimplifying the science of nutrition.
To be sure, there are people who need to avoid wheat. Those with wheat allergy—relatively uncommon, but serious enough for the small number of people who have it—can’t eat foods made with wheat. People with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that affects about one percent of the population, need to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
In addition, around 5 percent of the population may be gluten sensitive (also called non-celiac gluten intolerance) and may suffer symptoms like headaches and stomach upsets when they consume too much gluten.
But what about the rest of us—the 95 percent or so of the population that doesn’t suffer from these conditions. Do we really run the risk of disease when we eat wheat?
Davis says yes. He says it’s making us fat and he notes that BMI has increased as wheat consumption has increased. But this is an ecological correlation, a type of finding that carries very little weight in evidence-based nutrition. Because ecological studies don’t consider all of the many factors that might impact a relationship, they often make simplistic and incorrect conclusions.
For example, at the same time that wheat intake has increased, so has intake of fast foods and sweetened beverages. So has overall calorie intake. Many other things about our diets and lifestyles have changed, too, over the decades. The world is complex and so is obesity. Tying obesity to one single food or even one particular class of foods—like grains—ignores that complexity.
Davis insists, though, that it’s got to be the wheat because people with celiac disease lose weight when they drop gluten from their diet. But, research shows that the exact opposite is often true. Many people with celiac disease gain weight when they stop eating gluten.(1) Removing gluten from the diet promotes intestinal healing in people with this disease and this often results in improved nutrient and calorie absorption.
But yes, you might lose weight simply by removing wheat from your diet. In the short term, at least, dietary monotony—simply making your diet so restrictive that the number of foods you can eat dwindles—can help with weight loss. And for those whose main dietary sources of wheat have been white bread, Saltine crackers, Froot Loops, pretzels and Oreo cookies, losing the wheat means losing a whole lot of junk food. This has nothing to do with the health effects of whole wheat products.
In fact, forgoing wheat and gluten may not be so great for your intestines. Gluten-free diets are often too low in fiber. And the resistant starches in wheat (this is starch that is poorly digested) can promote healthy bacteria in the intestines (2,3). This may lower risk for colon cancer and other chronic diseases. In contrast, gluten-free diets have been associated with reduced levels of beneficial intestinal bacteria. (4)
In some cases, Davis makes claims that sort of brush up against the truth. Like when he says that eating wheat and other carb-rich foods causes production of small, dense LDL-cholesterol particles—the kind that can more easily infiltrate the arteries. It’s true that very high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets can result in these types of damaging LDL particles.(5-7)
This is one reason to avoid diets that are too low in fat. Simply replacing some of the grains in your meals with nuts, seeds, and small amounts of vegetable fats can prevent formation of these harmful particles. That’s not the same as eating a low-carb diet. For example, eating a Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve LDL particle size. (8) A Mediterranean diet typically includes bread, pasta and beans and, while it contains generous amounts of fat, it’s not low in carbohydrate.
Likewise, there is some truth to the claim that grains are acid-forming foods. But if that means that they will dissolve your bones as Davis claims, then why wouldn’t he warn readers away from other acid-forming foods like dairy and meat? More importantly, though, he should know that the relationship between acid-forming foods and bone loss hasn’t held up to scrutiny.
What’s really bad, according to Davis, isn’t so much wheat itself but modern wheat. He says that genetic modification of wheat has produced new proteins like gliadin that binds to opiate receptors in the brain and stimulates the appetite.
When gliadin isn’t completely digested, it results in a protein fraction called gliadorphin that produces opiate-like effects in laboratory animals. It’s not likely that this has much relevance to humans. For one thing, it’s not likely that gliadorphin can even be absorbed by humans because of the size of this protein. Nor is there any evidence that humans experience withdrawal effects from wheat or any other food component (except caffeine). If we did, we might also be addicted to spinach and rice which also contain these types of protein fragments.(9) And gliadin is not some new-fangled GMO protein since it’s found in even ancient wheat. (10,11)
Finally, if eating too much wheat and lots of carbs in general makes you feel foggy-brained or anxious or depressed as Davis claims, it’s more likely that something is missing from your diet. Diets that get most of their calories from grains might be too low in the essential amino acid lysine. In people with marginal food intakes who eat mostly wheat, adding lysine to the diet was associated with improved mental health. (12) We vegans get plenty of lysine just by including a few servings of legumes in our diet every day.
Grains may not have the robust nutrient profiles or disease-fighting reputations of other plant foods. But whole grains contribute lots of fiber and are a good source of minerals in vegan diets. They are also hearty and appealing. I eat them moderately but I eat them every day. And until the actual research shows me I shouldn’t, I don’t see any reason to stop.