Are You a Wheat-aholic?

by William Davis, M.D. Health Professional

Here's an experiment: Eliminate any food made with or containing wheat for the next four weeks and see what happens.

This means no bread, pasta, crackers, cookies, breads, chips, pancakes, waffles, breading on chicken, rolls, bagels, cakes, breakfast cereal. It doesn't matter if it's whole grain, whole wheat, or white. All wheat products.

My prediction: You will lose weight-5, 10, 15 lbs is not uncommon. Most people experience a surge in energy, increased alertness, disappearance of the afternoon energy "slump." Have blood levels checked and most will see drops in blood sugar, rise in HDL, drop in triglycerides. In addition, tests like c-reactive protein that measure hidden inflammation will plummet. Anyone with diabetes will experience improved sugar control. Blood pressure drops.

(The experiment works only if you do not otherwise engage in an unhealthy diet. So, this doesn't mean eliminate wheat but indulge in daily Snickers, soft drinks, and cupcakes. The remainder of your diet should stay with healthy choices; see below.)

Is this "official"?

It is not official.

The USDA Food Pyramid recommends that American adults get at least 6-8 "ounce-equivalents" of grains per day; each ounce-equivalent consists of 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or
½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked cereal. In other words, up to 6 slices of whole grain bread, or 6 cups of Shredded Wheat cereal, or 3 cups of whole wheat pasta would all fit comfortably into the USDA Food Pyramid recommendations. The American Heart Association (AHA) provides similar advice, suggesting that 50-60% of daily calories come from grains, which should be mostly whole grains.

In 2007, these "official" recommendations have come to be accepted as gospel.

Hogwash I say this advice is patent, unadulterated nonsense of the sort that is causing rampant heart disease, diabetes, and obesity in the U.S. In my view, adhering to such advice will not reduce heart disease, but will reduce good HDL, raise triglycerides, increase the dreaded small LDL, raise blood sugar, increase blood pressure, and make you fat.

Yes, it's contradictory to everything you've been told about cholesterol and heart-healthy diets. Eliminate saturated fats, include plenty of whole grain foods in your diet, all part of a heart-healthy nutrition program. In my view, it's about as good as saying that a pack of Marlboros a day keep the doctor away.

"Fiber" has been the politically and socially acceptable buzzword for "carbohydrate." But along with fiber comes ingredients that act just like sugar.

Interestingly, eliminate wheat but maintain an otherwise healthy diet, and fiber intake goes up. Dr. Loren Cordain of Paleo Diet fame has very clearly demonstrated this phenomenon. Rather than coming from wheat, fiber comes from nuts, vegetables, and fruits.

As an example, let me tell you about Leslie, a patient I saw in my office just last week.With a heart scan score of 1222, Leslie could be in deep trouble in short order. Heart scans measure the amount of atherosclerotic plaque in the heart's coronary arteries. A score like Leslie's is high, high enough to pose a risk for heart attack as great as 25% per year (unless effective preventive action is taken).

At 64, Leslie had gained nearly 40 lbs since she'd given up many activities caring for a husband who'd developed health problems. A tall woman at 5 ft 9 inches, she held her 202 lbs well, but her cholesterol patterns were a disaster:

LDL cholesterol of 248 mg/dl

HDL 38 mg/dl

Triglycerides 241 mg/dl

Moreover, blood sugar was in the pre-diabetic range at 112 mg/dl, C-reactive protein (a measure of hidden inflammation) was high at 3.0 mg/l, blood pressure somewhat high at 140/84.

Most importantly, 90% of Leslie's LDL particles were small, the variety much more likely to cause heart disease, a pattern that is magnified 30-70% by indulging in wheat products. (In fact, small LDL particles are the number one cause of heart attack in the U.S.! More in a future post.)

Leslie's diet was dominated by processed wheat products: whole wheat bread, pretzels for snacks, whole wheat pasta. Leslie admitted that she loved these products and couldn't seem to get enough of them.

Leslie was a helpless "wheat-aholic."

Leslie was skeptical, worried that she would be hungry all the time and would have virtually nothing left to eat. Instead, when she returned to the office three months later, she reported that choosing healthy foods was easy, the insatiable and uncontrollable hunger pangs she used to suffer were gone, and she felt great, finding more energy than she'd had in years.

She also lost 30 lbs.

Leslie's cholesterol patterns also reflected the weight loss and elimination of wheat products: she dropped LDL cholesterol by over 100, HDL skyrocketed over 20 mg, small LDL shrunk dramatically, blood sugar and blood pressure plummeted back into normal ranges.

I see results like Leslie's several times every week. For those of us with patterns like Leslie's, or just obesity that accumulates in the abdomen, going wheat-free is among the most powerful single strategies I know of-contrary to the USDA Food Pyramid and AHA recommendations.

In reality, I do not believe that all fibers and carbohydrates are bad. Flaxseed, ground and used as a cereal or added to other dishes, can be a healthy food, since very little or none is metabolized to sugar. Oat bran is another great choice. However, in my experience, whole wheat foods are an enormously evil factor in diet.

That's not what the Heart Association says!

None of this jives with the American Heart Association Total Lifestyle Changes or the USDA food pyramid.

In my experience practicing cardiology for the past 15 years, a small quantity of whole grains may be good for children, slender people, and the extremely physically active. But not for the majority of Americans.

In 2007, the big problem area in diet for most Americans is processed carbohydrates. What carbohydrate dominates? Yes, wheat. It isn't unusual for someone to be eating wheat products five times a day: shredded wheat cereal for breakfast, pretzels for a snack, a low-fat turkey breast sandwich on whole grain bread for lunch, crackers for a snack, whole wheat pasta and green salad for dinner. Sounds healthy, doesn't it? Except it makes you fat and precipitates all the factors that cause this rampant scourge in our country: heart disease.

If you need convincing, try your own experiment. Eliminate-not reduce, but eliminate- wheat products from your diet, whether or not the fancy label on the package says it's healthy, high in fiber, a "healthy low-fat snack", "heart healthy," etc. I find elimination of wheat surprisingly easier than just cutting back. I believe this is because wheat is powerfully addictive. It's very similar to telling an alcoholic that a drink now and then is okay-it just doesn't work. They need to be alcohol-free. Most of us need to be wheat-free.

You won't be hungry if you replace the lost calories with plenty of raw almonds, walnuts, pecans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds; use healthy olive oil, canola oil and flaxseed oil liberally (though not for frying); add ground flaxseed and oat bran to yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.; and more lean proteins like lean beef, chicken, turkey, fish, and eggs.

If it doesn't work for you, perhaps you're among the small minority for whom wheat products are okay. But if you lose 20 lbs, feel better, and witness across-the-board improvements in cholesterol patterns and blood sugar-well, then, your experiment succeeded.


Read more articles by Dr. William Davis, which cover topics including the role of Vitamin D in maintaining heart health and how to reverse coronary heart disease.

William Davis, M.D.
Meet Our Writer
William Davis, M.D.

William R. Davis is a Milwaukee-based American cardiologist and author. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Heart Health and High Cholesterol.