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Ask Tufts Experts July 2013 Issue

Q: More and more, I am reading that wheat really is not so healthy for us and helps to pack on pounds. Is this true? What should I eat instead?

Answer :  A Nicola McKeown, PhD, director of Tufts’ Nutritional Epidemiology Program, responds: “There is a great deal of ‘testimonial’ evidence on what’s known in the vernacular as ‘wheat belly,’ but there is a lack of scientific evidence to support the claims that eating wheat is an independent risk factor for greater abdominal adiposity or weight gain.

“It is important to differentiate between ‘whole-grain wheat’ (synonymous with ‘whole wheat,’ containing the outer bran layer, the inner germ and the starchy endosperm present in their original amounts) versus ‘refined-grain wheat’ (or ‘refined wheat’), in which the outer bran layer is removed during the milling process and the inner germ is discarded. The refining process—of any grain product—results in a less-nutritious version of the original product. What is true about losing nutrients in the refining process of whole wheat to refined wheat is equivalent in the refining processes of other whole grains—for example, of (whole grain) brown rice to white rice. In addition, many refined-grain products, such as cookies, cakes and doughnuts, have added sugars and fats that contribute more calories to your diet! This means that if you are eating a large number of refined-wheat/refined-grain foods, in eliminating these foods from your diet, you will, of course, lose weight. Replacing those high-sugar refined grain products with fiber-rich whole grains is what I would recommend, rather than eliminating wheat from the diet altogether.

“It is true that many popular weight-loss diets target the grains food group, emphasizing eliminating these foods completely from your diet. If you cut out grains, you’ll lose weight mostly because you are cutting out calories associated with an energy-rich food group. This is a short-term, effective weight-loss strategy. The long-term sustainability of this approach, however, is questionable, as any one-time ‘low-carb’ dieter will attest.

“Our research using data from the Framingham Heart Study refutes the claim that ‘wheat packs on the pounds.’ We have found that adults who consume three servings of whole grains per day (including whole wheat, rice, oatmeal, etc.) have lower visceral adipose tissue, which positively impacts health. Our data also show that replacing refined grains with whole grains is likely to translate into greater health benefits. Also, most observational data suggest that eating whole grains as a part of a healthy diet leads to less weight gain over time.

“Rather than getting all your whole-grain intake from wheat, I would choose a variety of whole grains, including brown rice, oats, quinoa, popcorn and so on.”  

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