Obesity in America: Is There a Gluten Connection?

A new book claims wheat is a primary driver of America’s recent rise in obesity. And going gluten-free is growing in popularity among people seeking to lose weight or just feel better. We spoke with Dr. P. Stephen Baenziger, a wheat breeder and geneticist with the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska, about the growing concern American consumers have with wheat consumption.

In reviewing the reasons behind our obesity rate increase, the U.S. Department of Agriculture performed an analysis of our calorie sources and how they have changed over the last 40 years. It shows the number of calories available per person in 2008 was 23 percent higher than consumed in 1970.

One of the shifts in calorie consumption in recent years involves wheat, barley and rye – all containing gluten, which cannot be digested by those with celiac disease (CD) or who are gluten sensitive. In the U.S. less than 1 percent of the population has CD and only 6 percent are thought to have gluten sensitivity.

A new book titled Wheat Belly, authored by a preventative cardiologist, claims wheat is a primary driver of the modern day rise in obesity. The contention is that because of genetic tinkering, modern wheat is really a ‘super carbohydrate.’ What are your thoughts?

Dr. Baenziger:

“I believe that ‘wheat belly’ and obesity is more likely due to overeating and physical inactivity than to wheat. Among the major cereal grains, wheat actually is relatively higher in protein (therefore lower in carbohydrate) than many other cereals (e.g. rice and corn). The higher protein content in wheat is because you need protein to make bread. If protein gets too low, you cannot make a loaf of bread.”

There seems to be growing concern about wheat. Specifically, more people are moving toward a gluten-free diet as a way to eat healthier. What are your thoughts on this?

Dr. Baenziger:

“A lot of people have suggested that modern wheat breeding has made people more sensitive to the Celiacs disease. But I can give you a sample of wheat that is 100 years old and it will still have the problem. For some reason, it is assumed that modern technology has hurt the healthful qualities of food and that is not the case.”

Most farmers today are planting genetically modified corn and soybeans but this is not the case with wheat. Why is that?

Dr. Baenziger:

“Genetically modified wheat exists in the laboratory but it is not commercial and has never been sold. There are tremendous needs that could be met through transgenic approaches with wheat. One company developed a gene that is resistant to fusarium head blight, which causes tremendous grain yield losses, but they’ve never been able to use it. With such a gene we could reduce a mycotoxin in the food supply called vomitoxin. So, not only would it be of value to protect the crop but it would be a valuable food safety tool.

“The reason it is not commercially available is because of trade issues. Since 45% of the U.S. wheat crop is exported it would be economically damaging for other countries to reject our wheat because of genetic modification issues.”

Image: “Banana Zucchini Squiggle Loaf” by Meal Makeover Moms is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.