Last month I tried out a wheat-free week. I haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease (an immune disorder in which eating gluten damages the small intestine and prevents the absorption of nutrients) or a wheat allergy. And I haven’t joined the “gluten is the devil” bandwagon in vogue thanks to bestsellers like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, and followers of the Paleo diet. Instead, my experiment was to see if wheat was responsible for the abdominal bloating that has transformed from a monthly visitor to my body’s uninvited permanent houseguest. Additionally, I have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and while I’m managing it better these days with the help of green smoothies and probiotics, I wanted to see if cutting out wheat further improved things.
If you’re curious what going against the “grain” might do for you, here are some findings from my wheat-free week:
Wheat-free week finding #1: What the heck do I eat?
First let me say, grains are my fave food group, so this isn’t a challenge I ever wanted to do. Whether it’s a plate of pappardelle, a baguette, a bagel, croutons, crackers or couscous, I love the grain in all its versatile glory. So the first day or two going wheat-free, I found it a pain to analyze everything I put in my mouth. The toughest grain fixes to give up? Weekend breakfast sandwiches, croutons on salads and my go-to before-dinner snack: hummus on crackers.
But while it took some getting used to, I discovered that hummus worked on raw broccoli and bell peppers, and it was possible to live a week without any baguette. Shocking, I know…
Wheat-free week finding #2: Wheat’s in EVERYTHING
A few days into wheat-less-ness, I was feeling quite proud of my willpower, when I was felled by a can of soup. I finished my guilty-pleasure lunch of chicken corn chowder and then noticed one of its ingredients was wheat flour. Does wheat flour really need to be in soup?
Other hiding places for gluten include most commercial salad dressings, soy sauce, deli meats, some prescriptions drugs, oh yes, and lip balm and lipstick.
Why didn’t I just head to the grocery gluten-free aisle? The foods there may be gluten free but they’re not always guilt free. Many are made by replacing wheat with other starches that increase blood sugar and thus can lead to weight gain.
Wheat-free week finding #3: My aching head
Dr. William Davis, the Milwaukee-based preventive cardiologist who wrote Wheat Belly, is evangelical about the dangers of the grain, including its addictive properties. Dr. Davis cites research that wheat affects the brain in a similar way as opiate drugs. As a result, going off wheat can create withdrawal symptoms, including fatigue, irritability, brain fog, depression and headache. I experienced a dull headache on and off for a few days but luckily none of the other withdrawal woes.
Wheat-free week finding #4: Fewer crazed cravings
I spent the first couple of wheat-free days dreaming about carbs, but as the week went on my appetite lessened. While I’m usually a fairly controlled eater, I find when I eat a bit of baguette, I want five slices more, and when I open a crouton bag, I end up eating handfuls. In Wheat Belly, Dr. Davis sheds light on this behavior, explaining that wheat is a powerful appetite stimulant. I discovered that without the wheat trigger, I wasn’t driven to eat as mindlessly.
Wheat-free week finding #5: Less bloat (hallelujah!)
By week’s end my stomach was flatter and I had lost two pounds. Pretty impressive for a week in which I didn’t count calories or pay much attention to portion size. The constipation from my IBS also lessened, which showed me how wheat may play a role in the bloating.
While you could argue that it makes sense with restricted food choices, fewer calories are eaten and therefore weight is lost. But Dr. Davis argues that something else is also at play. In Wheat Belly he details that due to cross-breeding, hybridization and other agricultural science, modern wheat has become a very different grain than what our ancestors consumed. Most alarming among the differences, according to Dr. Davis, is that today’s wheat creates extremes of blood sugar and insulin that cause fat to accumulate in the visceral organs. This mid-section fat is linked to increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and breast cancer.
While much of conventional medicine claims gluten is an issue only for celiac sufferers, Dr. Davis believes otherwise. After putting thousands of patients on wheat-free diets and drawing on many clinical studies, he believes the grain can contribute to diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, acid reflux, dementia, osteoporosis, cancer and many other conditions.
As for me, I was feeling so good at the end of seven days that I extended it to two days more. While my experiment wasn’t perfect (damn you, chicken chowder…) and a week isn’t long enough to fully test the results of going gluten-free, I experienced enough of a difference to see the powerful effect wheat has on my body.
Having gone back to the grain, the bloating has returned. So I will likely try another wheat-free week or even month. But a whole life without another baguette? For me, that’s difficult to swallow.