Is Grain the Cause of Obesity?

Why are so many people eliminating grains from their diet? Is that safe?

Posted May 19, 2014

If you could cut out one food group and be healthier, thinner and feel great, would you make the change? Probably. But at what cost? We love to villainize certain foods and blame them for the nation’s health problems. After all, cutting out one particular food (as difficult as that may be) is a whole lot easier than following general recommendations to make more substantive changes to your lifestyle.

Let Them Eat … Gluten?

As a nation, we’ve villainized lots of foods over the years: fat, sugar and carbs, to name a few. Now the day of reckoning has come for gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. In a recent survey, about one-third of Americans said they were trying to cut back on or avoid gluten in their diet, the highest number reported to date. A couple years ago, the gluten-free fad earned second place on Time magazine’s list of top food trends.

Leading the charge against gluten are a number of popular authors who attack wheat with arguments that are convincing, but may be devoid of scientific support.

They tell us grain is at the root of America’s obesity epidemic. They say that grain causes dementia and cognitive impairment. Many are willing to listen in hopes that eliminating a particular food group will be the solution to their weight woes. But the evidence doesn’t back up these claims, and for most people, eliminating whole grains from the diet is more of a threat to good health than an effective lifestyle strategy.

There is an exception. For the one in 133 Americans who have celiac disease, or those with other gluten intolerance, gluten is indeed worthy of avoidance. It triggers an autoimmune reaction in the digestive system, raising a number of medical concerns. But given the trendiness of gluten-free diets, it’s clearly not just those with celiac disease who are trying to avoid gluten. Many consumers are steering clear of gluten because they believe it’ll help them lose weight or feel better.

What’s So Great About Grain?

For most of us (celiac sufferers excluded), whole grains are not the “bad guys” they’ve been made out to be. In fact, they are an important source of vitamins, minerals and fiber, whereas many gluten-free products are made with refined grains that have been stripped of valuable nutrients.

There’s nothing about grain that is inherently bad. What we do to it is a different story. In much the same way that “Big Food” injects sugar into foods widely perceived as healthy (like yogurt), food manufacturers grind, flake and otherwise process whole grains, removing fiber and nutrients. An unfortunate result is that many Americans think refined, processed carbs like bagels, muffins and pasta make up the bulk of the grain family.

Indeed, processed carbs – even some of those marketed as “whole grain” – are likely contributing to the epidemic obesity. Many products labeled "multi-grain" and "whole grain" are made with refined grains that often contain added sugar and salt, cause a blood sugar spike that makes consumers feel hungry faster, and can contribute to the risk of overeating and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Fiber-rich, micronutrient-dense whole grains, by contrast, are an important part of a balanced, nutritious diet. As pointed out by Dr. David Katz, Director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, throughout history whole grains have been a dietary staple for many populations known for their health, vitality and longevity. Moreover, studies have shown that whole grains can help reverse coronary heart disease, lower blood pressure and guard against diabetes.

As evidence that whole grain does not contribute to the obesity epidemic, consider these facts: 1) Total wheat consumption has remained consistent in the U.S., but the obesity rate continues to rise, and 2) Countries with higher per capita wheat consumption than us aren’t facing an obesity epidemic. Whereas type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease (described as “type 3 diabetes”) share similar roots – overconsumption of foods that interfere with insulin production – whole grains help control insulin levels and have a lower glycemic index.

Choose Grains, but Choose Wisely

When enjoyed in moderation, whole grains are a nutritious, satisfying component of a balanced diet. But how do you know when you’re getting the real thing versus a cheap, refined knock-off?

Beware of products that claim to be “made with” whole grains without offering percentages (products can be labeled “whole grain” if they have at least 51 percent whole-grain ingredients by weight). The “whole grain stamp” is no guarantee of nutritional quality, in part because it ignores potentially problematic ingredients like sugar.

Instead, the American Heart Association recommends looking for products that have a ratio of 10:1 or less of total carbohydrate to fiber. You can figure this out by dividing the total carbs listed on the nutrition label by the total fiber. This approach separates out products with too much added sugar, though you’ll still need to check if the manufacturer simply added fiber post-processing. When in doubt, choose products that are always whole grain, such as plain oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa.

If you have chronic indigestion or other symptoms of gluten sensitivity, get tested for celiac disease. A number of people self-diagnose as gluten-intolerant believing it will help them lose weight or avoid health problems, but highly restrictive diets are unnecessary (and unhealthy) for many.

We like simple solutions to complex issues, but eliminating entire food groups isn’t the path to good health or long-term weight management. So what is? Once again, I return to the answers we all know and love to hate: a nutritious diet with sensible portions and regular exercise. Not easy, nor trendy – but tried and true.