In 2011, the national best-selling diet book “Wheat Belly” flew off the shelves.
Written by Dr. William Davis, a U.S.-based cardiologist, the Wheat Belly Diet promises to get rid of excess weight and transform your health.
With claims that wheat is the root of rising obesity rates, this book has received tremendous criticism for its anti-wheat rhetoric.
However, with millions of books sold, and many people touting success after ditching wheat, you may wonder if this diet is right for you.
This article reviews the benefits and downsides of the Wheat Belly Diet and whether scientific evidence backs up its health claims.
diet review scorecard
- Overall score: 2.25
- Weight loss: 3
- Healthy eating: 2
- Sustainability: 2
- Whole body health: 1
- Nutrition quality: 3.5
- Evidence-based: 2
BOTTOM LINE: The Wheat Belly Diet promotes eating whole, unprocessed foods without calorie counting. However, its large list of restrictions and focus on quick weight loss make this diet difficult to follow and sustain long term.
The Wheat Belly Diet originated from an epiphany that came to Davis after a family vacation. After seeing his larger stomach, he realized that he needed to make a change in his lifestyle.
Through personal observations of his own diet, he realized that carb-rich meals made him feel sluggish and tired, which prompted him to ditch wheat.
According to Davis, wheat is a “perfect, chronic poison” due to its overprocessing and massive genetic changes over recent decades. In fact, he goes as far as to say that wheat is the main cause of obesity and diabetes in the United States.
Davis has referred to today’s wheat as being genetically altered and notes that it contains a “new” compound called gliadin that’s harmful to health.
Despite claims from Davis that gliadin is a new compound in wheat, it naturally occurs in ancient grains. Moreover, only very limited research shows that these proteins cause harm to human health (
The Wheat Belly Diet encourages its followers to exclude all wheat-containing foods, as well as other foods, such as high fructose corn syrup, potatoes, legumes, and fried foods.
While many people insist that this diet has transformed their health, many researchers and health professionals have dismissed it for its lack of research-backed practices (2).
Of course, for people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy, avoiding gluten and wheat products is necessary.
Founded by Dr. William Davis, the Wheat Belly Diet insists that gluten and wheat are the main causes of rising obesity rates.
The rules of the Wheat Belly Diet are outlined in Davis’ book, “Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health,” his blog, and other “Wheat Belly” books.
The main rules of the diet include eliminating foods that contain wheat, gluten, or other grains and focusing on a diet full of whole, unprocessed foods. It also promotes regular exercise, although no specific recommendations are given.
Though the diet emphasizes avoiding gluten, Davis discourages people from using gluten-free alternatives since they contain supposedly fat-promoting starches, such as tapioca, corn, rice, and potato starches.
Foods to eat
The Wheat Belly Diet provides a list of foods that are allowed on the diet, including a visual of the Wheat Belly Food Pyramid, which has meats, poultry, and fish as its foundation, followed by non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some fruit.
Moreover, it emphasizes listening to your body’s natural hunger cues instead of focusing on portion sizes or calorie counting.
Foods allowed on the diet include:
- Non-starchy vegetables: asparagus, avocado, bell peppers, broccoli, broccolini, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, collard greens, cucumber, dandelions, eggplant, jicama, kale, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, radishes, spinach, sprouts, squash (all types), tomatoes, zucchini
- Fruits: apples, apricots, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, lemons, limes, raspberries, strawberries
- Meat, poultry, and fish: grass-fed meats like beef, elk, lamb, pork, and wild game; poultry like chicken, duck, and turkey; fish and shellfish, including catfish, clams, cod, crab, halibut, lobster, mussels, salmon, trout, and tuna
- Eggs: yolks and whites
- Dairy: full fat cheeses like cheddar, cottage cheese, feta, goat cheese, Gruyère, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, Parmesan, ricotta, Stilton, Swiss, as well as small amounts of milk and yogurt
- Fermented soy products: miso, tempeh, tofu
- Fats and oils: plant-based oils like avocado, coconut, and olive oils
- Raw nuts: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, and their butters
- Raw seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, poppy seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
- Flours: non-grain flours made of almond, chickpea, coconut, peanut, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds
- Herbs and spices: allspice, basil, bay leaf, caraway, cardamom, chili peppers, chili powder, chipotle seasoning (gluten-free), chives, cilantro, cinnamon, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, marjoram, mint, mustard, onion powder, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper (all kinds), rosemary, sage, saffron, salt, star anise, tarragon, thyme, turmeric
- Sweeteners: monk fruit extract, stevia (liquid or powdered, free of maltodextrin), erythritol, xylitol
- Beverages: coffee, tea, water, unsweetened milk alternatives like almond or coconut
- Dark chocolate: nothing below 70–85% cocoa and no more than two squares
Although the diet permits some non-wheat grains, such as amaranth, quinoa, and rice, Davis suggests eliminating grains entirely from the diet for best results.
Additionally, permitted foods should be free of artificial flavors and ingredients like sodium nitrate, which is found in meat.
Foods to avoid
Although avoiding wheat is the main focus of the diet, many other foods are also restricted, such as:
- Non-wheat grains: all should be avoided, according to the book “Wheat Belly Total Health,” including amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff
- Wheat and grain products: bagels, baguettes, biscuits, bread, breakfast cereals, cake, cookies, crackers, croutons, doughnuts, noodles, pancakes, pasta, pita bread, pizza, sandwiches, sprouted grains, taco shells, tortillas, triticale, waffles, wraps
- Flours and starches: amaranth, millet, quinoa, wheat flours, as well as corn, potato, rice, and tapioca starches
- Beans and lentils: beans (black, butter, kidney, lima, pinto, red, Spanish), garbanzo beans, lentils (all varieties), peas
- Peanuts: should be avoided raw
- Processed foods: fast food, frozen food, potato or veggie chips, premade dinners, processed and cured meat
- Fats and oils: hydrogenated oil, margarine, foods with trans fat, polyunsaturated oils like corn, grapeseed, or sunflower oils
- Soups: canned soup, court bouillon, premade broths and stocks
- Desserts: cakes, chocolate bars, ice cream, ice cream bars, icing, most candies (except Starburst and Jelly Belly), pies, tiramisu, whipped cream
- “Sugary” fruit: bananas, dried fruit, grapes, mango, papaya, pineapple, applesauce
- Sugar-sweetened beverages: energy drinks, fruit juices, soda, specialty coffees and teas
- Alcohol: wheat beers, cocktails, or other sweetened alcoholic beverages
- Sweeteners: agave syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, nectar, sugar alcohols like mannitol and sorbitol
Additionally, those interested should follow specific eating rules outlined in the “Wheat Belly” book to achieve optimal results. For example, people on the diet should completely avoid added sugar and push through cravings to achieve a detoxed state.
The Wheat Belly Diet encourages eating whole, unprocessed foods while eliminating gluten-containing ones, grains, beans, lentils, and other, ultra-processed foods.
Although Davis promises that this diet will cure dozens of illnesses and ailments, most people try the Wheat Belly Diet to lose weight.
The diet encourages eating whole, unprocessed foods and avoiding a Western diet that emphasizes nutrient-depleted foods high in salt, fat, and sugar. Moreover, it identifies gluten and wheat as the main causes of weight gain and obesity (
One review study including 13,523 people found that those following a gluten-free diet had lower body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and higher HDL (good) cholesterol levels compared with those who didn’t avoid gluten (
However, the authors noted that those who followed a gluten-free diet were also more likely to remove processed foods from their diet, monitor portions, and engage in healthier lifestyle behaviors, which more likely led to weight loss than the removal of gluten (
Beyond this study, there are few experimental studies that look at the gluten-free diet and weight loss in those without celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, making it difficult to know gluten’s role in weight loss (
That said, a review of 12 studies in 136,834 people found that a diet high in whole grains was associated with a lower BMI and lower risk of weight gain — putting into question Davis’ claim that grains are the culprit of weight gain (
Whole grains are a great source of fiber, helping you feel fuller longer and better manage your food intake. In contrast, refined grains, such as white bread, pasta, and cookies, are low in fiber and lead to unstable blood sugar levels and increased hunger (
Finally, whenever ultra-processed foods are replaced with whole, unprocessed foods, you’re likely to experience weight loss since these foods are usually lower in calories, fats, and sugars (
Therefore, although many people who follow the Wheat Belly Diet report weight loss, it’s likely due to a lower intake of processed foods and engaging in healthier food choices, such as more fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, rather than due to avoiding gluten.
Though some people claim to lose weight on the Wheat Belly Diet, it’s likely due to consuming more whole, unprocessed foods, which are lower in calories, fats, and sugars, rather than removing gluten.
Although weight loss is the main goal with the Wheat Belly Diet, there are other potential benefits.
Whole, unprocessed food
The Wheat Belly Diet emphasizes eating a diet made of whole, unprocessed foods.
A 2-week study found that participants who ate an ultra-processed diet consumed significantly more calories than the group who ate whole, unprocessed food (
Moreover, the group who followed an ultra-processed diet gained weight by the end of the study, while the group who ate whole, unprocessed foods ended up losing weight.
This may be attributed to the higher fiber and protein content of whole foods, which help control hunger and food intake (
Therefore, the Wheat Belly Diet’s emphasis on whole foods likely contributes to good health.
No calorie counting
The Wheat Belly Diet focuses on natural hunger cues rather than calorie counting.
This intuitive eating style has been shown to decrease anxiety surrounding food while also supporting weight loss efforts. In one review in 11,774 men and 40,389 women, those who ate intuitively were less likely to have overweight or obesity (
However, intuitive eating is more likely to be successful when a person is allowed to have access to all types of food. Considering the Wheat Belly Diet has many restrictions, it may lead to increased pressure and anxiety surrounding food choices (
The Wheat Belly Diet emphasizes a diet consisting of whole, unprocessed foods, which are associated with better health and weight management. What’s more, the diet avoids calorie counting and focusing on the body’s natural hunger cues.
Despite many anecdotal success stories, there are many downsides to the Wheat Belly Diet.
Lacks scientific research
Though Davis claims a gluten-free diet leads to weight loss and other health benefits, there’s limited research to back up these claims, especially in those without celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (
Moreover, the diet promises to cure dozens of ailments based on personal anecdotes from Davis’ patients and followers of the diet. Though these stories appear promising, without proper research, it’s difficult to know if these results can be replicated for every person (
It’s true that Western society consumes too many processed carbs, which can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Therefore, limiting these foods can be beneficial (
However, whole, unrefined grains are linked to a lower risk of disease, despite Davis’ claims that they’re harmful (
The Wheat Belly Diet mirrors other low carb diets, such as the Atkins diet, which also encourages limiting carbs. However, a 2018 review study found no evidence that a high carb diet was harmful or linked to weight gain or poor health (
Therefore, it’s likely that the type of carbs is more indicative of health rather than carbohydrates in general.
To follow the diet correctly, you must eliminate large food groups, such as starchy vegetables, wheat and other grains, beans, lentils, and certain fruits.
For most, this overly restrictive diet leaves little room for flexibility — socially, economically, and culturally — which may be overwhelming, not enjoyable, and difficult to follow long term (
Although more gluten-free products are available on the market, the Wheat Belly Diet discourages followers from eating these products, making food selection even more difficult.
Additionally, this type of restrictive diet may lead to a negative relationship with food since it vilifies a variety of foods. If you have a history of disordered eating, this diet may worsen your relationship with food and should be avoided (
May lead to nutrient deficiencies
Additionally, those who follow this diet may not consume enough fiber, which is essential for a healthy gut, heart health, stabilizing blood sugar levels, and aiding weight management (
Weight loss from the Wheat Belly Diet isn’t due to the removal of gluten. The diet makes many claims that aren’t backed by scientific research. It may also increase your risk of developing a deficiency in certain nutrients, including vitamin B12, folate, and iron.
The Wheat Belly Diet has resulted in a surge of gluten-free lifestyles.
It emphasizes eating a diet of whole, unprocessed foods, which may lead to weight loss if you normally rely on ultra-processed foods.
However, there’s no research to support removing gluten or grains from your diet as a way to lose weight. In fact, a diet rich in whole grains is linked to better weight management and overall health.
If you have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy, avoiding gluten and wheat is essential to good health. But if you’re looking to ditch gluten to lose weight, there are healthier and more sustainable diets available.