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MythBusting Gluten Free Diets

February 19, 2014

There's been an influx of wheat-related books and gluten-free movements that have swept the health/nutrition communities lately. With books like Wheat Belly, Grain Brain and a slew of Paleo books, it seems like wheat is on the chopping block from several avenues.

So what claims are made about wheat? Are they substantiated?

1. Modern Wheat is the Problem - It's true that wheat is a relatively new plant. But it also has an extremely flexible genome AKA you can put it in many different environments and it will adapt. Modern wheat's genome is 5x the size of the human genome. This is the reason why wheat is so successful at feeding the world - it can adapt to many climates. However, claims made in Wheat Belly state that ‘modern wheat is tainted by selective breeding and genetic modification, creating gliadin, the protein that causes individuals with Celiacs disease to have a reaction’. This is not true however - ancient species of wheat contain gliadin as well, and individuals with gluten sensitivity or Celiacs should avoid these. There is no data to suggest that changes in wheat's genome have a detrimental effect on health. With the many varieties that have been developed by planting wheat in different environments, saying ‘modern wheat' or 'ancient wheat' is far too broad to account for the genomic changes that occur from region to region.

2. The Glycemic Index of Wheat is Very High due to Amylopectin - Amylose and amylopectin are the two major types of starch found in plant foods that get broken down into individual glucose molecules so that your body can absorb them and use them for energy. The Glycemic index (GI) measures how 50g of a specific food affect your blood sugar levels after consumption. Besides the fact that the GI is not a measure of health, and is drastically affected by other foods included in a meal and preparation methods, there is nothing too special about wheat's amylose to amylopectin ratio. Davis, the author of Wheat Belly, sensationalizes the issue saying that ‘whole wheat has a higher Glycemic Index than sugar.’ If it were true, it would not be very surprising, as wheat is long chains of just glucose, and sugar is half glucose, half fructose. Contrary to what a non-scientist might think, sugar does not have a high glycemic index to begin with, so comparing wheat to it does not make any scientific sense. In reality, whole wheat does have a slightly lower GI than the internationally accepted values for white bread, potatoes, rice and sugar. Davis mis-cites the recognized GI of sugar, which is 67, compared to whole wheat's 65.9. And as soon as you slap some almond butter on that whole wheat bread, the Glycemic Index will decrease further. The glycemic index is also not a great parameter of the glycemic response of the food - the better scientists use glycemic load to more accurately represent a food's effect on blood sugar. If you use the glycemic load, whole wheat doesn't look so bad though - can't write a book about that, though.

3. Gluten has opioid-like effects on the brain - When your body breaks down gluten, the gliadin protein residues are incompletely digested to a seven amino acid long chain called gliadorphins. However, your gut absorbs only single, double, or triple chain amino acids. There is no known transporter for these protein residues, and can therefore not be absorbed and travel to the brain to elicit any drug-like effects. Davis relies on studies in rats that were injected with gliadorphins - no intestinal absorption necessary. There is no data to substantiate the claims that wheat causes an addictive-like effect, withdrawal symptoms, or over-eating. Again, the author either doesn't know about peptide absorption in the gut (though a doctor should), or they are trying to paint a picture that isn't entirely truthful. If you lose weight by cutting out wheat, it’s because you’re cutting out calories - many individuals who cut out wheat tend to replace it with lower calorie, more fiber/protein dense foods that make you feel more full than wheat did.

4. A lot of people are likely gluten sensitive - Yes, there is data backing up gluten sensitivity, and its role in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). This is estimated to occur in about 5-10% of the population. However, these individuals have varied symptoms, and it has been proposed that other food components, besides gluten and found in many other foods, are the real issue. These other components are known as FODMAPs- easily fermentable carbohydrates that cause some individuals intestinal distress. Low FODMAPs diets have gained a lot of popularity and have good research supporting them- enough that Australia has an official low-FODMAPs label. Wheat is high in FODMAPs, and reducing your consumption may be ideal - but lowering your consumption of FODMAPs from all sources may be necessary, and just going wheat-free may not adequately resolve your symptoms. Seek out the advice of your doctor or gastroenterologist, and the help of a qualified Registered Dietitian.

The issue at hand here is that diet books are not scientific. Sure they may be based on scientific articles, but the other half of science is called peer review. Peer review is, as it sounds, when your scientific peers read your research/review, and ensure that your methodology was correct, and that the conclusions you draw make sense. Unfortunately, diet books aren’t peer-reviewed. And that’ s because they’re usually not trying to represent all of the literature that’s there - they want to sell new copies, and to do that, you have to say something that’s not been said before. It’s about money, not science-based health recommendations. The Slice Plan: An Integrative Approach to a Healthy Lifestyle and a Better You (, however, has been peer reviewed and contains scientific-based information for optimizing your nutritional status. Although this book is not designed for those with concerns like IBS, you can always consult with the team at The Sage by clicking here:, however, has been peer reviewed and contains scientific-based information for optimizing your nutritional status.

Happy Eating!

Kevin Klatt, Nutritionist + Assistant Site Manager for:

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