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Jeff Duntemann’s Metadiet Picobook, Part 4

Hypothesis: Wheat sensitivity makes you gain weight.

Experiment: Go gluten-free.

(Quick note: This is a series. If you haven’t been reading it from the beginning, please go back and do so.)

Wheat is a weird business. Furthermore, the current emotional furor about GMO foods has muddied the water horribly. When people think “GMO,” they imagine legions of scientists in blinding white labs teasing DNA strands out of organisms and inserting artificial genes with nanogrippers. Or scanning-tunnelling electron microscopes. Or black magic. People forget that homo sap has been doing GMO for ten or fifteen thousand years. Selective breeding and hybridization (not the same thing) have turned wolves into dogs, grass into corn, and (different) grass into wheat. Nanotechnology not required.

The mud in the water comes from a widespread impression that if a food plant is “natural” (i.e., untouched by high tech) it’s completely safe to eat. GMO is fine as long as you leave the DNA intact.

Alas, hybridization does not leave the DNA intact. This is new knowledge for me, and a lot of what I know comes from an excellent 2011 book called Wheat Belly by William Davis . The publisher appears to have wanted a diet book, but what they got was heavy on the science. Some of that science is disturbing, to say the least:

Analyses of proteins expressed by a wheat hybrid compared to its two parent strains have demonstrated that, while approximately 95 percent of the proteins expressed in the offspring are the same, 5 percent are unique, found in neither parent. Wheat gluten proteins, in particular, undergo considerable structural change with hybridization. In one hybridization experiment, fourteen new gluten proteins were identified in the offspring that were not present in either parent plant. Moreover, when compared to century-old strains of wheat, modern strains of Triticum aestivum express a higher quantity of genes for gluten proteins that are associated with celiac disease. [pp 25-26; author’s emphasis]

To make a long and unnerving story short, 10,000 years of meddling have made wheat’s genome very odd. Accelerated hybridization in the last 100 years has accelerated its oddification in tandem. Now we’re finding that more and more people just can’t digest the stuff well. A small but growing cohort (celiac sufferers) can’t digest it at all.

I don’t have this problem myself. However, a number of close friends do. In addition to digestive difficulties, wheat sensitivity makes people put on weight, particular around the waistline. Two of my friends have cut back on wheat gluten and by doing so have lost a great deal of weight. They also feel a lot better.

It’s a difficult experiment to make, more difficult than cutting back on sugar. Sugar is in a lot of things. But a lot of other things are wheat and little else. The bulk of the grain carbs we eat are wheat, and the cheaper the wheat, the more likely it is to be a modern hybrid. Gluten-free baked goods and pasta exist, but they’re not common and they’re relatively expensive.

Worse, there are no generally accepted lab tests for non-celiac wheat sensitivity. The only thing you can do is cut out wheat and see what happens. Again, Carol and I don’t have the problem, but we’re aware of the issue, and we try to buy imported pasta that isn’t as likely to be hybridized to the extent that mass-market pasta is. I’m trying to move my carb intake (reduced as it’s become) to corn and potatoes. This is bitchy because I’m sensitive to corn bran. But it does give me an excuse to stick with potato chips.

It’s not obvious to everybody, but beer is a wheat product, and going wheat-free means going beer-free. There are gluten-free beers. I don’t drink beer and don’t know if they’re any good. If you just want the buzz, red wine is better. If you’re really attached to beer, you may have to do some hunting.

I’ve been asked an excellent question: How do I know if weight loss experienced after going gluten-free is due to gluten exclusion and not simply reduced carbs? Answer: I don’t know. It is true that wheat’s ubiquity makes it hard to go gluten-free without cutting carbs drastically, and that makes single-factor experiments tricky. I guess you could boost your consumption of other starches in compensation, but starches are still carbs and do affect insulin regulation. My suggestion: Hold your non-wheat carbs steady and try gluten-free for a month. If you lose weight, keep at it. Weight loss is good even if you’re not sure precisely how it happens, and this is one instance where controlled experiments may not be possible.

So. Sugar and wheat are the first things to go after in your metadiet experiment. Next: The Magic Ingredient. (I may need to post an Odd Lots first.)


  1. William Meyer says:

    My initial dietary distress was relieved a couple of years ago by my elimination of dairy products. However, over time, I would have periods of difficulty, and no obvious reason for them. Slowly it dawned on me that wheat might also be an issue. I tried a week off wheat, and noticed an improvement, though it was less obvious than had been the case with dairy.

    A local chiropractor who is also a board certified nutritionist contends that 100% of adults manifest some degree of sensitivity to dairy, and 75% to wheat. He also says it is not always just about gluten.

    My system is quite emphatic in letting me know something offends it. Apart from simple discomfort and gas, there is another unmistakable symptom which I need describe graphically. Suffice it to say that there is bright blood in the stool.

    It is still not clear to me whether the problem I have with dairy is from lactose; my mother’s body chemistry verged in bizarre, and I inherited some of that. I have found some dairy products which do not seem to antagonize severely. I anticipate that it may be similar with wheat. However, my immediate problem is that life without wheat is less easily managed than without dairy.

    No sandwiches, no breaded anything, a narrow range of cereal products (for me, it’s simple, I love oatmeal), and for the most part, I expect to go over pretty much to Atkins. Meat or fish and veggies.

    Getting old is no fun!

  2. Rick H says:

    A very interesting healthful eating blog is my brother’s site at here. Great information, no advertising or ‘product-pushing’, just information on how to change your eating habits to a more healthy pattern.

    Very well-written, and worth the time to read the posts.

    (I have no link to that site, other than it is from my older brother.)


    1. In general, nicely done, but one thing it does not do is admit that all human beings are different, and what works for some may not work for all. That’s the point of my series here: You have to determine, by experiment, what works for you in terms of weight loss. “Healthy eating” is a hard thing to define even without that caveat. (Just as the term “balanced diet” is completely meaningless.) I don’t think there is any generally applicable advice on healthy eating. We’re too different, the human body is too complex, and the science has been horribly politicized in too many areas. (See Ancel Keys, whom I consider the greatest scientific fraud who ever lived.)

  3. Rich Rostrom says:

    beer is a wheat product

    Say what????

    Weissbiers are made with wheat, but ordinary beers are made with barley. (Or millet, or rice. I’ve seen some beers with rye.)

    There may be gluten from these other grains, but there’s no wheat present.

    German beer (other than weissbier) has to be made with barley malt, hops, yeast, and nothing else.

    Elsewhere, brewers use various adjuncts, but in thirty-odd years of brewing, I’ve never seen wheat used except in weissbier.

    OTOH, I’ve seen “gluten-free” vodka. Which is silly.

    1. Well. I was wrong. I stand corrected. Then again, like sports and opera, beer is not something I’ve ever paid much attention to, and the last time I drank any significant quantity of it was 1973.

  4. Mary N. says:

    Back in the 1980’s I got a book “Dr. Mandell’s 5-day Allergy Relief System”. I was trying to figure out why I was always tired even though I was getting plenty of exercise and sleep. I bicycled to work almost every day and the hills never got any easier. The system is 5 days of fasting (nothing but water) to clear toxins from the body. After the fast you start eating, one food at a time, a new test food every 4 hours, stopping the meal after 20 minutes. Then you watch for symptoms. For example, one test might be 1 or 2 plain baked or boiled potatoes. I ended up measuring blood pressure and pulse since fatigue is difficult to quantify.

    There were no obvious problems until I got to corn when my pulse rocketed up over 100 BPM from my normal resting pulse around 55. And it stayed elevated over 3 hours. My recovery from a 10 mile bike ride was far faster than that.

    That was when high carb diets were all the rage. I responded to these results by eliminating corn, and diversifying the source of my carbohydrates.

    A few years later I tested again, and discovered the new grains were also problem, though none were as bad as corn.

    When I tried the Zone Diet (Barry Sears – 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat) the fatigue disappeared. I stopped yawning all morning and dropped into a deep sleep at night.

    Yes, experimentation can help find the cause of a problem. My problem is not a gluten allergy – but it must be some subatance common across most grains, and especially high in corn.

    BTW wheat, corn and potatoes are not the only carbs. Try oats, quinoa, amaranth, barley, rice, millet, sweet potatoes and dried beans.

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