• Bupa. Your health is our focus
06 November 2012 12:17 | By Tom Fontaine, contributor, MSN Him

How to beat your wheat belly

According to a new book, the biggest threat to a man’s weight isn’t fat or sugar – it’s wheat.

How to beat your wheat belly (© Rex Features)

Forget everything you think you know about ‘healthy’ whole-grains, because your outlook may be about to change, thanks to a book by a US cardiologist.

Whole-grains are indeed better for you than refined white flour, but only in the way Marlboro Lights are healthier than fully loaded cigarettes, argues Dr William Davis in  his book entitled Wheat Belly. The good doctor claims that it’s not chowing down burgers and ice-cream that piles on the pounds, it’s eating wheat, something we’re all doing far too much of these days.

And Dr Davis isn't alone; a growing number of health experts are arguing that wheat could be responsible for a host of conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, acne, acid reflux, man boobs (shudder) and, of course, wheat belly.

Personal trainer Gavin Walsh (gavinwalsh.co.uk) says: "It used to be all about the beer belly, but it turns out we were wrong – it’s wheat belly that is the real issue nowadays. Men (and women) eat far too many products containing wheat and gluten. There are other products containing gluten, but wheat heavily dominates and is more of a problem than say rye or barley, and it’s high time we changed our habits.”

A field of wheat (© Rex Features)

Going against the grain

Part of the problem with wheat today is that it's not wheat as our grandmothers knew it. It's become what Dr Davis calls an "incredibly destructive genetic monster." Walsh explains: "Over the last 50 years wheat has had a huge facelift and unfortunately it hasn't turned out well - think Michael Jackson. The agricultural scientists have created a modern wheat in a bid to cut costs, increase production and make it more resilient to the environment. Unfortunately this has devalued the nutritional content and encouraged fat storage.

"Meanwhile, we were advised by the health boffins that fat was bad, and we should eat healthy whole-grains instead. This was a big mistake made half a century ago. Unfortunately, cutting out fat hasn't had the desired impact. We are more overweight than ever before and diseases such as cancer and heart disease are more prominent."

Another part of the problem is that wheat is everywhere in our diets. Everywhere - and in places you wouldn't expect. Nutrition consultant Claire Harper (thenutritionguide.co.uk) says: "White bread, pasta, couscous, cakes, biscuits, pancakes, croissants, pastry, muffins, sauces (as a thickener), salad dressings, batter, soups, soy sauce, sausages… the list goes on."

The average British male doesn't exactly help his cause, either. Walsh adds: "The problem is that wheat dominates many a man's diet. For example, cereal or toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and pasta or pizza for dinner. It's no wonder that many men are struggling to lose weight and become healthy again."

A bowl of pasta (© Rex Features)

Rocketing blood sugar

It’s important to note that Dr Davis, and other experts who have spoken out against wheat, aren’t aiming their advice at those of us who suffer from the intestinal condition coeliac disease, which affects about 1% of the population – they believe wheat is doing bad things to all of us.

Walsh says: “Wheat has an nasty habit of bumping up blood sugar and causing the fat storage hormone, insulin, to sweep up the excess and store it as plain old belly fat. Unfortunately, wheat gluten contains an evil protein that causes our intestines to allow food substances to pass into the bloodstream that shouldn’t be there. This causes inflammatory issues and abnormal metabolic signals. So much so, that by consuming too much wheat can lead the body to produce an excess of the female hormone oestrogen, leading to the dreaded moobs. Wheat belly and moobs – not a good combination!

“Most people don’t know that two slices of wholemeal bread increases blood sugar more than two tablespoons of pure sugar. Yet we’re encouraged by many health bodies to eat more ‘healthy grains’ that contain wheat.”

Harper agrees, adding that white flour is a particular danger. “We eat far too much wheat and there are two main problems with it,” she says. “White flour has the bran and natural fibre removed, so there is nothing to slow down the release of its energy into the bloodstream. This causes a big spike in insulin. Ongoing blood sugar disruption can also cause cortisol to be elevated, which particularly encourages fat to be stored around the middle. Don’t forget that wheat is also in beer.

“The other thing is that wheat can be poorly digested, causing fermentation, bloating, gas and discomfort in the abdomen. We can become intolerant to the proteins in wheat, usually from eating too much of them, having a weakened immune system or having poor gut flora.”

Dried spaghetti lying on a table (© Associated Press)

Belly-shrinking alternatives

The simple answer to all these problems? Cut wheat out of your diet, or at least reduce your intake drastically. If you’re not convinced, or think you can’t survive without those whole-grains, try it for a week and see what happens. Our experts say you’ll be amazed at the difference.

“When I was growing up I used to eat bread, pasta and rice like it was going out of fashion,” says Walsh. “Although I was very active and physically fit I wasn’t healthy due to the overload of starchy carbs and, more specifically, wheat. If I had a late night or didn’t eat at set meal times my immune system would plummet. I’d be sneezing, tired and generally look a mess. It wasn’t until I cut out wheat that my health and energy began to improve massively.

In my experience, by simply avoiding wheat products you can lose 20, 30 or even 40 pounds in just a few months without changing anything else in your diet. If weight loss is your goal then I recommend cutting out wheat for four weeks to see what difference it makes. Even if your goal isn’t weight loss I recommend cutting out wheat to see how your health and energy improves. What have you got to lose?”

As well as giving up wheat for a while, Harper also stresses the need to restore balance in your belly. She says: “Try cutting out all wheat and taking a probiotic to improve the balance of good bacteria in the gut. This could have a very positive effect on the ‘pregnant belly’ look.

“Reducing all grains is a good idea if you want to lose the tummy and moobs, but you could also try alternative whole-grains such as rye, millet or spelt. And fill up instead on vegetables, seeds and nuts for your carbohydrates. Protein and foods high in healthy fats (fish, avocadoes, olives), are great for sustained energy that won’t make you fat!”

So if you think you’ve tried everything to lose weight, without success, think again. Booze, sugar, saturated fat and now – wheat. There’s a new bad boy to add to the list.

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