Dr. Onikia Brown admits to wincing whenever she hears a nutrition or health professional calling for the elimination of a major facet of the diet.
Cardiologist and author Williams Davis' call to eliminate wheat entirely from the diet has proven to be no exception.
Brown, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutrition, diet and health specialist and Auburn University assistant professor of nutrition and food science, has always regarded such calls with a measure of skepticism.
She says the key to healthy lifestyles is not yielding to passing diet fads but eating a balanced diet from all the basic food groups, which includes wheat products.
"What we have to remember is moderation," Brown says. "Cutting out a specific food group, unless you're allergic to it or suffer from some specific illness, isn't the way to improve health."
Davis is a Milwaukee-based cardiologist and author of several books dealing with what he considers the evils of wheat consumption. His book "Wheat Belly" became a New York Times bestseller only weeks after it was published in 2011.
Davis contends that "wheat is not to be trusted" as a food product, because it possesses properties that render it addictive.
"You can't help yourself — you have one bagel, you want more," said Davis in a recent interview about his newly published book, "Wheat Belly Cookbook."
The basic premise behind Davis' argument is that wheat consumption produces incessant hunger, which leads to the consumption of more junk foods, which, in turn, contributes to between 400 and 800 extra calories a day.
Davis cites dwarf wheat as the culprit. In their zeal to increase wheat yields, plant breeders also ended up producing characteristics that render wheat into a more addictive food.
Barring additional research into the issue, Brown isn't buying the argument. For starters, she says this appears to be only the latest in a series of dietary arguments mustered against one or more of the basic food groups and that will likely play out in a similar fashion, initially attracting many followers but eventually burning out over time.
"It seems to me that Davis is trying to give wheat the same bad rap that eggs got a few years ago," Brown says. "We need to be reminded that there is not one specific nutrient or food that is going to secure all the nutritional value that we need."
Moreover, Brown says it's important to bear in mind that Davis' hypothesis about dwarf wheat is entirely that — a hypothesis that has not yet been borne out by research.
Until nutritionists gain a clearer picture of wheat's possible contribution to overeating and obesity, Brown advises peoples to consume wheat as an integral part of a balanced diet.
She says the federal government's nutrition guide, MyPlate, which includes wheat and wheat products as one of the components of a balanced diet, provides a more reliable basis for healthy eating because it reflects the refined insights of more than 100 years of nutritional research.
Aside from that, Brown says wheat brings several key benefits to the nutritional table.
For starters, wheat is considered an excellent source of fiber.
This is only one of several benefits associated with wheat. A hundred grams of unrefined wheat contains only 15 to 20 grams of unsaturated fat, which research has shown contributes to higher levels of healthier cholesterol. Partly for this reason, wheat serves as an excellent substitute for less healthy high-fat snacks and food.
Wheat is also rich in B vitamins, such as thiamine, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin and folate, all needed for cellular respiration, prevention of certain diseases and proper neural function.
Wheat also contains iron, magnesium, zinc and phosphate.
If there is one take-home message to all of this, Brown says it's the advice that she and other Extension nutrition and health educators have been giving for years: balanced diets, moderation and exercise.
"Eliminating wheat isn't the answer to a healthier lifestyle," she says. "The best strategy involves limiting saturated fats, refined sugars and dietary sodium; limiting serving sizes; eating more fruits and vegetables; and, last but certainly not least, exercising regularly."
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