I’ve been getting asked this question a lot lately, especially from people who have seen a friend, co-worker or celebrity suddenly slim down after banishing wheat. The bottom line is: it’s complicated, but understanding the nuances can help you decide whether eliminating wheat is worthwhile, and why you may, or may not, see weight loss results. Here are four things to know:
Wheat-free diet isn’t the same as gluten-free
The latter has exploded in popularity, mainly because Celiac disease and gluten intolerance seem to be on the rise. Gluten is a type of protein naturally found in wheat and other grains, including rye and barley. In people who have Celiac disease even small amounts of gluten trigger the immune system to damage or destroy villi, the tiny, fingerlike outgrowths that line the small intestine. Healthy villi absorb nutrients through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream, so when they’re damaged, chronic malnutrition occurs, with symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, and weight loss. In people who test negative for Celiac disease but are gluten intolerant consuming this protein can still cause unwanted side effects, such as flu-like feelings, diarrhea, gas, acid reflux, fatigue and weight loss.
When people who have Celiac disease or gluten intolerance eliminate gluten from their diets some may lose weight and some may gain. Weight loss usually comes from eliminating dense refined grains, like bagels, pasta and baked goods, especially if they’re replaced with more veggies and healthy gluten-free whole-grains like quinoa and wild rice. But weight gain can also occur when people load up on processed high-carb foods like crackers, chips and sweets made from gluten-free grains. In other words, a gluten-free diet doesn’t guarantee weight loss–the overall quality and balance of your diet is still key.
Most Americans are eating fattening versions of wheat
Apart from gluten some people believe that wheat itself is fattening. However, the latest stats show that over 90% of Americans fall short of the minimum recommended three daily whole-grain servings, and our intakes of refined grains have soared over the past three decades. That means most Americans are eating refined, processed wheat, which results in a completely different reaction in the body compared to organic 100% whole wheat (organic grains can’t be genetically modified).
Not all wheat is created equal
Whole-grains, like whole wheat, contain the entire grain kernel, which has three distinct parts - the bran (outer skin), the germ (the inner part that sprouts into a new plant), and the endosperm (the germ’s food supply). Refined grains, on the other hand (like white flour), have been processed, which removes both the bran and the germ. This processing gives grains a finer texture, and prolongs the shelf life, but it also removes the fiber, many nutrients, and makes it more compact.
Eating more whole-grains, including whole wheat, has been linked to lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and even obesity. This is probably because the bran and germ result in a slower rate of digestion, so instead of a lot of carbohydrate rushing into the bloodstream all at once, the cells receive a steadier supply of fuel over a longer period of time. That kind of time-released delivery better regulates blood sugar and insulin levels, and means the carbohydrate is more likely to get burned off, rather than getting socked away in fat cells.
The fiber in whole-grain wheat also impacts how your body reacts. Fiber is filling, so you may feel fuller more quickly and therefore eat less. In addition, research has shown that for every gram of fiber we eat, we eliminate about seven calories. And a study in Brazilian dieters found that over a 6-month period, each additional gram of fiber resulted in an extra quarter pound of weight loss.
This comparison illustrates the differences:
1 cup cooked, 100% whole-wheat organic pasta provides 37 grams carb, 6 in the form of fiber.
1 cup cooked refined wheat pasta has 43 grams carb, 2.5 in the form of fiber.
So what all of this boils down to is that if you don’t want to eat wheat or you can’t because of its gluten content that’s OK, but wheat isn’t inherently fattening. Whether you eat wheat or not the real key to optimal health and weight control is ditching refined, processed grains and sticking with reasonable portions of 100% whole-grains.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.