"I can't do it"

Anne sat across from me, bent over and sobbing.

"I can't do it. I just can't do it! I cut out the breads and pasta for two days, then I start dreaming about it!

"And my husband is no help. He knows I'm trying to get off the wheat. But then he brings home a bunch of Danish or something. He knows I can't help myself!"

Having asked hundreds of people to completely remove wheat from their diet, I witness 30% of them go through such emotional and physical turmoil, not uncommonly to the point of tears. For about 10-20% of people who try, it is as hard as quitting cigarettes.

Make no mistake about it: For many people, wheat is addictive. It meets all the criteria for an addictive product: People crave it, consuming it creates a desire for more, lacking it triggers a withdrawal phenomenon. If wheat were illegal, there would surely be an active underground trafficking illicit bagels and pretzels.

Withdrawal consists of fatigue and mental fogginess that usually lasts 5-7 days. Just like quitting smoking, wheat withdrawal is harmless but no less profound in severity.

People who lack an addictive relationship with wheat usually have no idea what I'm talking about. To them, wheat is simply a grain, no different than oats.

But wheat addicts immediately know who they are. They are the ones who can't resist the warm dinner rolls served at the Italian restaurant, need to include something made of wheat at every meal, and crave it every 2 hours (matching the cycle of blood sugar peaks and valleys, the "valley" triggering the craving). When they stop the flow of immediately-released glucose that comes from wheat (with blood sugar peaks that occur higher and faster than table sugar), irresistible cravings kick in. Then watch out: They'll bite your hand off if you reach for that roll before they do.

Break the cycle and the body is confused: Where's the sugar? The body is accustomed to receiving a constant flow of easily-digested sugars.

Once the constant influx of sugars ceases, it takes 5-7 days for metabolism to shift towards fat mobilization as a source of energy. But along with fat mobilization comes a shrinking tummy, reducing the characteristic wheat belly.

If you try to quit smoking, you've got "crutches" like nicotine patches and gum, Zyban, Chantix, hypnosis, and group therapy sessions. If you try and quit wheat, what have you got? Nothing, to my knowledge. Nothing but sheer will power to divorce yourself from this enormously destructive, diabetes-causing, small LDL-increasing, inflammation-provoking, and addictive substance.

Comments (20) -

  • Ghost

    5/30/2009 5:00:26 PM |

    I totally went through that. It took me several tries to quit wheat, and I still mess and have a cookie or a sandwich once every few months-- generally while eating at someone else's house. One thing that helps keep me straight: the ONLY time I get acne anymore is when I eat wheat or chocolate. So now when I think about how much I want a dinner roll, I try to imagine how many spots I will get on my face if I eat it, and ask myself if it's worth it.

    I have read in other sources that wheat, like A1 dairy (from Holstein cows, rather than A2 from Jersey or Guernsey or goats) contains opioid-like molecules, and this is why some people exhibit addictive behaviors in response to them-- and that people who are addicted to wheat also tend to react that way to milk. This certainly matches my own experience.

  • Nancy LC

    5/30/2009 5:15:50 PM |

    When I found out I have a reaction to gluten what I did was repeat to myself "Poison" every time I saw something with wheat (or gluten) in it.  When I smelled it, same thing.  Sometimes I'd use visualizations to imagine it was green and moldering like something poisonous.  It really worked to reprogram me.  I haven't once broken my conditioning and voluntarily ingested gluten, and I don't have the extreme reactions some people do, they can be pretty subtle and take a long time to really make themselves known.

    Maybe it's a technique that other people could find useful.

  • Gretchen

    5/30/2009 6:30:07 PM |

    If it takes a week, maybe you could try some weeklong retreats at which no wheat was available. People would have social support as well as a lack of temptation.

  • Anonymous

    5/30/2009 6:37:44 PM |

    Low Dose Naltrexone might help..

  • thania

    5/30/2009 6:53:33 PM |

    I understand that, I quit smoking 67 days ago, doing low carb, I dont miss as much wheat but rice yes. I have put on 20 lbs low carbing?? I havent ate more that before 1200-1800 cal, depending on the day. But I am a bit depressed dont feel like moving , so less work outs. The heavier I become the less I feel like moving, and I also am having hormonal changes...,
    I feel very unhappy, but dont want to smoke again, this time is for ever.

  • Anne

    5/30/2009 8:21:30 PM |

    I am not the Anne in your post, but I was addicted to wheat. It was my favorite food. I lived on and for breads. Then I discovered I was gluten sensitive and I did go through a withdrawal of about 4 days. After 4 days I noticed my health problems were disappearing. Depression, brain fog and joint pain are 3 of the many symptoms that disappeared. That was 6 yrs ago.  

    Of course giving up gluten does not mean I gave up sugar. I still got my sugar fix with candies and alternative grains. Then I found out my blood sugar was too high so I started eliminating anything that spiked it. I easily lost 20 lbs with low carb eating that got my blood sugar under control.

    Tell Anne that I had dreams about bread in the beginning - they will pass. Now the donuts, breads, cookies and cakes in the stores and at work don't even look good. In fact, I don't like the smell of bread anymore. It takes time, but the cravings do pass.

  • Tom

    5/30/2009 8:49:44 PM |

    I agree, although this leaves open the question of why some people get addicted to things and some people don't (the 10%-20%).

    Meditation and problem-solving seem to be effective cures for all varieties of addiction. Exercise might be used as a substitute for meditation.

  • Lena

    5/30/2009 9:36:50 PM |

    I cut out everything with gluten pretty much immediately once I figured out it made me very ill. That wasn't hard. As for reducing intake of other carbohydrates, I just did that gradually and avoided the desperate cravings. I don't see any particular need to cut down on wheat and refined carbohydrates in one drastic move. Maybe first week, reduce intake by 20%, then another 20% the next week, then in about a month you'll probably be doing fine.

  • Ed

    5/30/2009 10:08:58 PM |

    I've heard "wheat spikes blood sugar more than sucrose" before, and upon reflection, I'm not sure I understand it.

    I assume this is for an equal amount of carbohydrate, ie 100 grams starch (not 100 grams wheat) vs. 100 grams sucrose.

    The problem I see is you're comparing 100 grams of glucose to 50 grams glucose + 50 grams fructose. After looking at it that way, wouldn't you expect your blood *glucose* levels to spike higher with starch than with sugar?

    (Suggesting that sugar is the same as other carbohydrates has become my pet peeve. Technically fructose is a carbohydrate, but the human body processes it totally differently than glucose. It's like saying oleic acid is equivalent to linoleic acid because they're both lipids.)

    Anyway, I have worked grains, sugar and "vegetable" oils out of my diet and my waist just sort of evaporated, while not going hungry -- eating pretty much as much of anything else I want. I would offer moral support for anyone else trying to do the same. Keep at it, the effort is worth the result.

  • Captain Mikee

    5/31/2009 12:06:16 AM |

    Actually, if you are lucky enough to live near a chapter of Food Addicts Anonymous, I think you can get help there. Unfortunately, I do not.

  • Scott W

    5/31/2009 1:45:35 AM |

    I completely agree that wheat is addictive to many and I personally never eat it. However, I'm not sure that your basis for this position, as stated in your posting, passes the credibility test. You have related the addictive capacity of wheat to its starch load, rather than its gluten content.

    If the only reason that wheat is addictive is its starch, then the same position could be taken on potatoes, rice or bananas. But no one ever says they are addicted to boiled potatoes.

    Now, if the patient has a compromised metabolism (type 2 diabetic), then they truly do have a problem with all carbs - not just wheat - and the blood sugar swings that can result.

    However, I think that for a person of normal metabolism (good blood sugar control), it's not the carb content of wheat but its gluten that cause the addiction and other issues.

    Thanks for your ongoing willingness to share your insights from your medical practice.

    Scott W

  • mongander

    5/31/2009 3:25:09 AM |

    In addition to following Dr Davis, I also follow Dr Gabe Mirkin.  So I have compromised and quit wheat, but continue to eat whole intact barley and oats.  Have done well, losing over 60lbs, with the help of exercise.  Haven't had the comprehensive lipid tests nor the heartscan but at age 70, feel good.  Last total cholesterol was 158. Also take niacin, K2, and fish oil.

  • stern

    5/31/2009 4:30:57 PM |

    we need to restrict from carbs since we started with the poisenios wheat ,but we can get along with healthy carbs which is organic whole einkorn sourdough bread ,does any have a tip on how to rise it without yeast please let hear from you

  • Anonymous

    6/3/2009 2:24:54 AM |

    For rising sourdough try Kefir !

  • Shreela

    6/4/2009 12:35:42 PM |

    While waiting for my doctors to diagnose my gut ailment, I thought it sounded like I had a few gluten-intolerance symptoms and was desperate enough to try cutting gluten from my diet to see if I could stop the terrible pain.

    The pain did stop fairly soon after stopping wheat/gluten, so it seemed I had Celiac, so I continued being wheat/gluten free.

    After reading about how difficult it was for people because of the cravings, I searched for gluten free substitutes for baked goods and pasta. They were pretty expensive online, and that's not factoring in shipping prices. So I thought I'd tough it out if I got the cravings.

    I did get them. It was rough for about 2-3 days, then faded a little. Watching TV didn't help either! I decided to try out some local health food places and found one that carried a nice selection of gluten free baking mixes and pasta.

    My husband almost laughed as I fought off tears when I ate gluten-free muffins, after eating NO muffins for at least a month.

    And eating those gluten-substitute baked goods and pasta DID help reduce my cravings! So I'm guessing that once I past the rough first few days, maybe I was craving foods I used to enjoy but could no longer eat.

    Although Dr. Davis warns about gluten-free products still being high-glycemic and spiking blood sugars, I'm still suggesting that if you're not diabetic, and want an easier time going off the wheat, try gluten-free products to see if they offset your cravings, for it might be a combination-craving of both gluten, as well as comfort foods. After a few weeks off the gluten altogether, then wean down the gluten-free products if needed for normalizing blood sugars, weight-loss, and not spending so much on expensive gluten-free products.

    Meanwhile, my gluten-intolerance bloodwork returned negative! It looks like it was IBS triggered by insoluble fibers in whole wheats (and some other foods). But even though I discovered I can tolerate processed flour, I don't eat nearly as much flour/gluten as I did before this experience, since my borderline A1C dropped a lot after being off wheat products.

  • Anonymous

    6/4/2009 12:47:05 PM |

    In response to the sourdough , do you have a recipe using the Kefir? Thanks

  • Trinkwasser

    6/17/2009 12:56:14 PM |

    "If you try to quit smoking, you've got "crutches" like nicotine patches and gum, Zyban, Chantix, hypnosis, and group therapy sessions. If you try and quit wheat, what have you got? Nothing, to my knowledge. Nothing but sheer will power to divorce yourself from this enormously destructive, diabetes-causing, small LDL-increasing, inflammation-provoking, and addictive substance."

    It's worse! With wheat you have friends, relatives, bakeries and especially *mothers*, pushers all


  • jpatti

    7/24/2009 11:57:04 AM |

    I've done induction to go back to low-carb several times when I'd gotten off track.  For me, it does feel like a withdrawal, and I tend to feel sick 2-3 days if I do it strictly, whereas otherwise I feel crappy for a week.

    I choose a time when my life will be relatively low-stress, roast a whole turkey and buy a bunch of pepperoni for snacking on.  Going meat-only for a few days makes the withdrawal pass faster.  

    After a few days of turkey and pepperoni, I add back in vegetables, then a few days later dairy, then later still, low-sugar fruits.  

    IME, that's fastest way to get through the ickiness.  

    And REMEMBERING the withdrawal is the best way to avoid having to go through it again.

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  • hopeful geranium

    5/19/2010 11:27:35 PM |

    Tom, the 10-20% addicts are not the same people for every drug.
    I was junkie, speedfreak, benzo addict, alcoholic, ether sniffer for years (decades). I chain-smoked when high (lucky to be alive smoking on ether) but always went off tobacco when sober - I could never get hooked on cigarretes, never had withdrawals, don't smoke now, but if I chose to once, it would be the only time.
    Apparently 20% of people don't have the tobacco addiction gene. Most don't smoke at all, but I enjoyed changing my consciousness with tobacco while high on other things. 20% of men where I come from are red-green color blind - I wonder if this is connected to the gene for no nicotine addiction.
    Perhaps nicotine, for all its effects, didn't interact with endorphin receptors, and for addicts, there is a link? This is known to be important for determining who gets alcoholism.