Grains in Vegan Diets: No, They Won’t Make You Fat or Sick

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.

 

1.  Body mass index and the risk of obesity in coeliac disease treated with the gluten-free diet. Kabbani TA, Goldberg A, Kelly CP, et al. Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2012;35:723-9.
2.  Whole-grain wheat breakfast cereal has a prebiotic effect on the human gut microbiota: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Costabile A, Klinder A, Fava F, et al. Br J Nutr 2008;99:110-20.
3.  Bifidogenic effect of whole-grain wheat during a 12-week energy-restricted dietary intervention in postmenopausal women. Christensen EG, Licht TR, Kristensen M, Bahl MI. Eur J Clin Nutr 2013;67:1316-21.
4.  Effects of a gluten-free diet on gut microbiota and immune function in healthy adult human subjects. De Palma G, Nadal I, Collado MC, Sanz Y. Br J Nutr 2009;102:1154-60.
5.  Effects of dietary fat restriction on particle size of plasma lipoproteins in postmenopausal women. Kasim-Karakas SE, Lane E, Almario R, Mueller W, Walzem R. Metabolism 1997;46:431-6.
6.  Significance of small dense low-density lipoproteins and other risk factors in patients with various types of coronary heart disease. Koba S, Hirano T, Kondo T, et al. Am Heart J 2002;144:1026-35.
7.  Effects of hypocaloric dietary treatment enriched in oleic acid on LDL and HDL subclass distribution in mildly obese women. Zambon A, Sartore G, Passera D, et al. J Intern Med 1999;246:191-201.
8.  Effect of mediterranean diet with and without weight loss on apolipoprotein b100 metabolism in men with metabolic syndrome. Richard C, Couture P, Ooi EM, et al. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 2014;34:433-8.
9.  Opioid receptor ligands derived from food proteins. Teschemacher H. Curr Pharm Des 2003;9:1331-44.
10. Expansion of the gamma-gliadin gene family in Aegilops and Triticum. Goryunova SV, Salentijn EM, Chikida NN, et al. BMC Evol Biol 2012;12:215.
11.  Are ancient durum wheats less toxic to celiac patients? A study of alpha-gliadin from Graziella Ra and Kamut. Colomba MS, Gregorini A. ScientificWorldJournal 2012;2012:837416.
12. Lysine fortification reduces anxiety and lessens stress in family members in economically weak communities in Northwest Syria. Smriga M, Ghosh S, Mouneimne Y, Pellett PL, Scrimshaw NS. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2004;101:8285-8

32 Responses to Grains in Vegan Diets: No, They Won’t Make You Fat or Sick

  1. Phil Weinstein February 26, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    Excellent article! As an inspired follower, and imperfect practitioner of a nutritarian eating style — described by Joel Fuhrman — I appreciate many important points made in this article. While Dr. Fuhrman says that we don’t have to eat grains AT ALL (being at the lower-nutrient density end of the seed family — as mentioned in the final paragraph of this article) water-cooked whole wheat berries (wheat seeds) are at the higher end of all unrefined (whole) water-cooked grains — even more nutritious than quinoa. Unrefined whole water-cooked grains can certainly be a component of an ideal nutritarian diet. And a small daily serving, e.g. 100 calories, of a _baked_ truly-whole grain food is OK too, in the nutritarian world — which puts unrefined plant foods at the _center_ of the diet.

    It’s OK to not be nutritarian; I’m just saying. But what passes as “moderation” in the western food world is anything but. “Be careful with that ax, Eugene”.

    • Phil Weinstein February 26, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

      (My concluding comment about moderation was general. It wasn’t about the reference to moderation at the end of Ginny’s article. Ginny’s was a very reasonable use of that idea).

  2. Jenni February 26, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    Thank you for this! Finally someone educated wrote a truly informational post on this topic. I recently went back to eating a vegan diet after attempting paleo, and my heart just wasn’t in it. I’ve been an on-and-off vegan for years, and I’m finally realizing that I keep going back to veganism for a reason…it just feels right for me, and I have so much more passion about my food when I eat this way. With that said, I highly appreciate grains as a part of my vegan diet. I love Ezekiel bread, quinoa, brown rice, etc. and experience no problems with these grains. It irks me when people read statistics and automatically take them for a solid truth without looking at any surrounding information. Of course people are going to lose weight when they cut out wheat–that cuts out A LOT of conventional foods that cause weight gain. Anyway, thank you again for the informative post. I’m going to share it with my friend who’s been wondering a lot about gluten lately. You worded everything perfectly.

    Love your blog in general, by the way. I’m Jenni. :)

  3. Ava Adams February 26, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    Wheat does impact me negatively for sure, gluten in general. My digestive system functions much better without it. In regards to the article, I find it interesting that this author accuses the other author (of the book “Wheat Belly”) of picking and choosing with their science but does exactly the same thing themselves. For example, saying people who don’t eat wheat may not get enough fiber, that may be true, but there is TONS of fiber in many vegetables and in seeds like Chia, so wheat is totally unnecessary to fulfill that dietary requirement. Resistant starches in wheat can promote healthy bacteria, but many foods can promote healthy bacteria. Again, another instance where wheat is not necessary. IMO if people want to eat wheat and have no problems with it that is totally fine, but many people have wheat and gluten allergies and intolerances and it damages their digestion, so to say that is not true and wheat is good for everyone or even most people, I strongly disagree with.

    • Ginny Messina February 28, 2014 at 8:22 am #

      Actually, Ava, I didn’t say at all that wheat is necessary in the diet. Just that for the vast majority of people, it’s safe. And the research does suggest that people who omit gluten from their diet often end up with lower fiber intakes. That doesn’t mean at all that people *can’t* get enough fiber on a gluten-free or wheat-free diet. And I suspect that most vegans who go gluten-free do in fact get plenty of fiber. But the type of wheat-free diet that Davis is recommended could in fact place people at risk for low fiber intake.

      • Ava Adams February 28, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

        I never wrote that you said wheat is necessary, I said wheat is not necessary. I was using those examples before that statement “wheat is not necessary” as a way you were picking and choosing your science in favor of your own argument- which is exactly what you were accusing Davis of doing. As for “for the vast majority of people, it’s safe”, I am not convinced of that personally. I put wheat in the same category as lactose- most people’s bodies have an intolerance to it that they are unaware of and it causes some health problems because they continue to ingest it on a routine basis. Best avoided for most but perfectly fine for some.

        • Kyle Key March 5, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

          “I put wheat in the same category as lactose- most people’s bodies have an intolerance to it that they are unaware of and it causes some health problems because they continue to ingest it on a routine basis.”

          And there’s no scientific consensus to support that.

  4. robin February 27, 2014 at 4:33 am #

    Thank you so much for supplying some reasoned facts to this latest “food demonization.” It seems that people are looking for something to blame, rather than adopt balanced, plant-based diets.
    I just wrote a book on gluten-free cooking, but I still think most of this anti-wheat hysteria is nonsense.

  5. Jane Sirignano February 27, 2014 at 7:20 am #

    Great article. We need info for this for teaching nutrition and cooking classes. Thanks.

  6. Dan February 27, 2014 at 7:28 am #

    I greatly enjoyed this post, Ginny. I think that wheat belly author has a commercial agenda dominated by dogmatism. I used to drink the kool-aid myself when it came to low-carbism.

    Actually though, high carb diets, with slow-release complex carbohydrates, can be the basis for a quite healthy diet. The important thing is to pick unprocessed or minimally processed carbs. I eat a very high-fibre wrap daily – most of the carbs are in the form of fibre. I also eat a tablespoon of raw wheat bran and another tablespoon of wheat germ every day (I don’t want to miss out on all that fibre and minerals).

    It is very difficult to be an ultra low-carb vegan – I feel one has to make a choice between veganism on the one hand and introducing some carbs back into your diet on the other hand. This doesn’t mean that I am eating 7 servings of high-glycemic fruit per day, or eating a baguette of white bread or oodles of white potatoes. One can be thoughtful and sensible about food choices based on our knowledge and understanding of nutritional health.

    • Ginny Messina February 28, 2014 at 8:32 am #

      Dan, I agree that it would be difficult to eat a very low carb vegan diet, since it would most likely result in a very high fat intake. But, I would also caution against very high-carb diets. Even with high-fiber foods, eating this way may raise triglycerides in some people and promote formation of the more dangerous types of LDL cholesterol That’s why it’s important to not let diets dip too low in fat. (I know you don’t believe me :)

      • Dan February 28, 2014 at 11:57 am #

        Ginny, I think we agree more than we disagree. With respect to fat, I think it’s possible to have very good health on a very low fat, plant-based diet (as has been seen in multiple jurisdictions around the world). Personally, I’ve not been able to do it, but that’s simply because I have not been creative enough and dedicated enough to seek a wide range of low fat food sources. If I was loading up my diet with brown rice, grains and other high-complexity carbs, I probably would be able to go very low fat.

        By the way, it remains controversial whether triglycerides are a causal risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Some scientists believe they are just a marker, not a reversible risk factor. Unfortunately, they are often accompanied by visceral adiposity, insulin resistance and high levels of atherogenic small dense LDL particles. The triglycerides per se are just the tip of the problem. Sacks’ studies suggest that people who eat a macrobiotic diet very high in dense, fibrous foods tend to have quite low LDL and triglyceride levels (however, such individuals do not eat wheat).

        Finally, many cultures have traditionally incorporated a grain-based staple as the centerpiece of their diets. Such cultures do not have our rampant problems with metabolic syndrome.

  7. Matt February 27, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    Outstanding, as always, Ginny!
    “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.”
    I think this is a vastly under-appreciated fact. Significant changes to your diet will often lead to significant changes to your health; it doesn’t mean what you cut out (or added) is necessarily “bad.”

  8. Brian S February 27, 2014 at 8:20 am #

    Great, informative article! I personally felt this to be the case on a higher level, but didn’t have the research to back it up. Thanks for providing that.

  9. Panda With Cookie February 27, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    Sing it!

  10. Andy February 27, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    Very good work….Thank you.

  11. M C February 28, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    “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.”

    What percentage of fat do you consider to be too low?

    • Ginny Messina February 28, 2014 at 11:10 am #

      I would advise against eating a diet that is less than 15% fat.

  12. Girl who reads March 3, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    Where is your evidence that only 5% of people are gluten sensitive? Everyone I know is having real trouble with gluten. Manufacturers even have ‘gluten free’ products in the stores. Changes in stores do not happen for 5% of the population. I know for me and those around me that suffer, it is a real problem and this article poo pooed a serious problem by dismissing a large part of the population.

  13. Will March 4, 2014 at 12:46 am #

    Hi Ginny,

    A lot of wheat-based foods (even 100% whole wheat) are processed into finely-ground flours, which might increase the glycemic index a lot. In your opinion, is flour something to be concerned about?

    Also, what is your opinion of the glycemic index in general? I haven’t read Wheat Belly, but I’ve heard that Dr. Davis thinks that the high glycemic index of modern wheat is partly to blame.

    • Ginny Messina March 12, 2014 at 11:14 am #

      I do think that the glycemic index can be important, although to me, that means eating *mostly* low-GI foods. It’s okay to have some that have a higher GI, especially if you are eating them with a little bit of fat and protein, since it’s really the meal mix that matters. But yes, flour has a higher GI than whole unground grains. I try to limit it in my diet for that reason, but I like bread and I do eat it.

  14. Dawn Ratcliffe March 5, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    Thanks so much for writing this article, Ginny! There are so many folks unknowingly promoting misinformed nutritional advice concerning wheat (and soy, low-fat vegan diets, etc.) and making veganism seem unattainable.

  15. Erika March 8, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

    I also had a question about the talk now about Carbohydrates all being considered a form of sugar (it turns into sugar/glucose in the body), where whole wheat bread is considered worse than a Snickers bar in terms of the glucose in the body it generates when digested.

    I do think it should be obvious to people that a piece of whole wheat bread is more nutritionally sound than a typical candy bar, but I do wonder about the issue of blood sugar spikes from eating say, a sandwich, or dipping bread in olive oil if you have a left over chunk of it.

    I’ve seen someone on tv (can’t remember who) that told people to consider all carbs a form of sugar. And now there is Perlmutter saying all grains, but especially wheat grains, can give you inflammation in the brain and cause dementia, ADD, and other issues.

    Personally, I love pasta and eating veggie sandwiches, and the occasional piece of cake for dessert. This doesn’t meant I eat them every day, but they are a part of my diet.

    • Ian March 9, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

      Don’t worry! The worry will likely do you way more harm than a lifetime of whole grain consumption ever could (even refined grains – yum – and sugar – yum, yum – and fat – yum, yum. yum -have a place in our lives).
      Mainstream nutritional advice from vegan or vegan-friendly qualified nutritionists (really qualified in real science and evidence-based nutrition, not a quack college) is, I think, by far the most reliable. I would trust Ginny here, or Jack Norris over Esselstyn, Campbell, Fuhrman et al (even though they are within the vegan camp) because their advice is both based on up to date research and is holistic in terms of focusing on nutrition in general for the body as a whole and are not caught up in a narrow view as many of the more visible diet gurus are, whether, vegan, veg*n, flexitarian, Atkins, Wheat-Belly, Paleo, etc, etc.. These are fad diets often promoted by people who, even if they are MDs have a narrow view, focused on the “one true thing” that they think they have discovered and which will remain true always. They also have books, dvds, paid appearances, tv shows, supplements, online courses etc, etc to sell. (I’m sure that Ginny wants her books to sell well, but I see no hucksterism around them). Also, nutritional science, like all science, is always changing. I find it heartening that Ginny and Jack will adjust their advice when new evidence appears, or qualify their advice if not enough is yet known, and do not rule out whole kinds of food based on dogma or fashion or marketing hype
      Michael Pollans advice (I know he is not well-liked by many vegans) is great but needs only one addition: ” Eat food, mostly plants. and not too much” AND: from a great diversity of sources!
      And please, enjoy your food!

  16. Herb Lieberman March 20, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    Ginny and all,

    Thanks for all of the input, suggestions and takes on the subject of wheat…I read Wheat Belly and thought, now how as a one practicing the Vegan way of eating eliminate wheat from my menu….Well after reading these posts and Ginny’s article on this issue I see where some common sense eating of whole grain wheat in moderation can not be harmful to me.

  17. Rhianna March 25, 2014 at 8:10 pm #

    No, grains won’t make you sick. Unless one’s gut is already sick, then the starches in grains are difficult to digest, and can be spread about the body by a leaky gut, wreaking havoc. And high fiber can be irritating to an already irritated gut.

    Grains gave me horrible pain, gas, constipation and bloating.

    I went on the GAPS diet and am now feeling much better. I can almost handle potatoes again. This diet cured me of my egg white intolerance, peanut intolerance, soy intolerance, dairy intolerance, and has cleared out my body, mind, and soul. Prior to GAPS I was growing increasingly intolerant to many other foods, beyond the list of common allergens, and feeling exhausted and sick.

    I hope to be able one day to make and eat homemade sourdough bread.

    If starches are giving people problems, the culprit may be the health of their guts. And they may need to give up grains and starches for a while until their guts heal. That may mean eating meat for a while. I find that meat is far more digestible for my system than grains at this point.

    Everyone is different with different nutritional requirements. It is unfortunate that many of us have guts damaged by diet, stress, parent’s health or lack of health, medications, vaccinations, pollution, you name it.

    Grains aren’t bad per se, just our responses to them.

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