Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wheat and bad science

Awhile ago I talked about a new trend in popular diets:  What elimination.  The idea is that wheat consumption causes all kinds of issues like metabolic syndrome and celiac disease as well as general malaise and lack of energy.  The most notable book in this movement is Wheat Belly, which blames much or most of Western society's health problems on wheat and the negative effects it has on human biology.  So should we all go about eliminating wheat from our diets?  Based on the 'evidence' Wheat Belly has to offer we certainly shouldn't.  The trouble with this book is that it isn't completely fictitious; it blends a lot of truth with some exaggeration and wishful thinking to create a narrative where people are the heroes and wheat is the villain.  Clever, simple narratives are great for stories but no so great for science.

The first sign I had that this was more a scam than real medicine is the use of testimonials.  You can generally be sure that if an argument relies on 'this guy did this thing and then something happened' without any identifying details or error bars that the argument is full of it.  Many pages of the book are devoted to descriptions of individuals who were supposedly very diet conscious and exercised constantly but were obese and who lost weight like magic when they stopped eating wheat.  Even if these are true (and we have no way of knowing) they leave out very important facts.  When these obese people cut out wheat were they only cutting out multigrain bread or were they cutting out starbucks treats, 6 donuts a day at the office, McDonalds burgers, etc.?  Whether or not you think that wheat is a supervillain you have to agree that much of the crap we eat is wheat based and if you just cut out the crap you will get thinner, wheat or no wheat.  Total wheat elimination is generally going to mean eating home cooked meals way more often and losing out on much or most junk food which is itself going to do good things.

The other big issue with Wheat Belly is oversimplification of complex issues.  Throughout the book the author tells us that the government has been telling us all to eat complex carbohydrates to remain healthy and get thin.  If you believe the narrative of the book then you must assume that everything that came out of government sources since the eighties has had only one message:  Eat more wheat.  Of course this is baloney because official Food Guides certainly talked a lot about eating vegetables (yes!), milk (unnecessary), and avoiding excess sugar, salt, and other additives (yes!) in addition to complex carbohydrates.  That message is a little bit too complicated though and doesn't support the story of wheat as supervillain and government as mindless minion so it isn't told.  Keep the message simple and the language emotional and you will convince more people than properly footnoted facts ever will.

The fact of the matter is that wheat is a major ingredient in all kinds of really crappy food substitutes.  Many of us eat way too much wheat as a result and are also unhealthy.  You don't need to cut out wheat entirely to improve your health, just stop eating garbage and substitute spinach instead.  Cutting out wheat will tend to correlate to improved health but correlation =/= causation.  Wheat Belly fails to understand this basic principle in spectacular fashion.


  1. I live what you are describing. Because I am unable to eat things like wheat, my entire diet has significantly less "garbage" like preservatives. But for someone who doesn't have my dietary restrictions cutting out wheat to cut out crap is akin to hitting a mosquito with a flamethrower.


  2. Your article is right on the money. How many fad diets have we seen since the obesity epidemic began to skyrocket? Find a catchy title, a new villain (though low-carb really isn't new) and you'll have a winner. I have some titles of my own that will guarantee better health and weight loss: Milk belly, cheese belly, butter belly, burger belly, soda belly, steak belly, candy belly. Which one sounds best for my new book? If someone (especially a person who eats too much of one of these foods) cuts it out of their diet completely, they will see positive results. Period.