I receive occasional emails and comments from people who can’t believe wheat isn’t health food. Some have quoted Bible passages about our daily bread, the staff of life, breaking bread with family, etc. Others have pointed out that Americans ate plenty of bread and other wheat products 100 years ago, but weren’t as likely to be fat and diabetic as people today.
I usually reply that the wheat products we consume today aren’t the same as those consumed by people in Biblical times, or even in more recent times. But I didn’t realize just how different today’s wheat is until I read Wheat Belly, a terrific new book by Dr. William Davis, the cardiologist you may already know from his Heart Scan Blog.
The title, of course, refers to the big gut that so many people today are carrying around in front of them these days. While he’s no fan of sugar or other refined carbohydrates, Dr. Davis believes wheat is a primary (if not the primary) driver of the rise in obesity we’ve witnessed in the past quarter century, and he makes a strong case for that belief. But getting fat is hardly the only price we pay for our love of bagels, breads, cereals and muffins. As Dr. Davis explains in the book’s introduction:
While much of the Wheat Belly story is about overweight, it is also about the complex and not fully understood range of diseases that have resulted from it – from celiac disease, the devastating intestinal disease that develops from exposure to wheat gluten, to an assortment of neurological disorders, curious rashes, and the paralyzing effects of schizophrenia. Documented peculiar effects of wheat on humans include appetite stimulation, exposure to brain-active exorphins (the counterpart of internally derived endorphins), exaggerated blood-sugar surges that trigger cycles of satiety alternating with increased appetite, the process of glycation that underlies diseases and aging, inflammatory and pH effects that erode cartilage and damage bone, and activation of disordered immune responses.
And later, in Part One:
There’s hardly a single organ system that is not in some way affected by wheat products. The health impact of Triticum aestivum, common bread wheat and its genetic brethren, ranges far and wide, with curious effects from mouth to anus, brain to pancreas, Appalachian housewife to Wall Street arbitrageur. If it sounds crazy, bear with me. I make these claims with a clear, wheat-free conscience.
In the rest of the book, Dr. Davis back up those claims. He delves into quite a bit of nutrition science and some biochemistry, but writes in a clear (and often humorous) style that makes for easy reading. As a doctor who’s treated thousands of patients, he has the added advantage of being able to cite case histories from his own practice – patients who came to him unknowingly damaged by wheat, but were cured by wheat-free diets.
One patient, a thirty-eight-year-old woman, was told by her doctor that she’d have to have part of her colon removed and replaced with an external bag. After Dr. Davis talked her into going wheat free, her colon healed itself. Another patient, a twenty-six-year-old man, was experiencing so much pain in his joints, he could barely walk. Three different rheumatologists failed to identify a cause. When he visited Dr. Davis for a heart condition, Dr. Davis suggested he try a wheat-free diet for the joint pain. Three months later, the young man strode into the office pain-free and reported he’d been jogging short distances and playing basketball. His heart condition had cleared up as well.
Before the chapters detailing the many ways wheat can damage our bodies and brains, Dr. Davis begins by recounting the history of wheat itself. It’s a fascinating story — in a Stephen King sort of way, that is. Here are a few quotes from that chapter, which is titled Not Your Grandma’s Muffins: The Creation of Modern Wheat.
Bread and other foods made from wheat have sustained humans for centuries, but the wheat of our ancestors is not the same as modern commercial wheat that reaches your breakfast, lunch and dinner table. From the original strains of wild grass harvested by early humans, wheat has exploded to more than 25,000 varieties, virtually all of them the result of human intervention.
The first wild, then cultivated, wheat was einkorn, the great-granddaddy of all subsequent wheat. Einkorn has the simplest genetic code of all wheat, containing only 14 chromosomes.
Shortly after the cultivation of the first einkorn plant, the emmer variety of wheat, the natural offspring of parents einkorn and an unrelated wild grass, Aegilops speltvoides or goatgrass, made its appearance in the Middle East. Goatgrass added its genetic code to that of einkorn, resulting in the more complex twenty-eight-chromosome emmer wheat.
Emmer wheat, Dr. Davis explains, was probably the wheat of biblical times. Later the emmer wheat mated naturally with another grass and produced Triticum aestivum, the forty-two-chromosome wheat that humans consumed for centuries – right up until the past 50 years or so. That’s when the story of wheat becomes a bit of a modern Frankenstein tale.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, the scientists who created today’s wheat had good intentions: the goal was to produce more wheat per acre in a shorter span of time, thus vastly increasing yields and preventing worldwide starvation as the planet’s population swelled. To that extent, they succeeded. Geneticist Dr. Norman Borlaug, who created the short, stocky, fast-growing “dwarf” wheat most of us consume today, is credited with saving perhaps a billion people from starvation.
The problem is that dwarf wheat varieties were developed through a combination of cross-breeding and gene splicing. The result is a mutant plant with a genetic code that never existed in nature before. In fact, today’s wheat literally can’t survive in a natural setting. Take away the modern pesticides and fertilizers and it’s (pardon the pun) toast.
Perhaps overjoyed at the prospect of the feeding the world, the developers of modern wheat varieties weren’t interested in conducting tests to see if these genetically-modified strains were actually fit for human consumption. Dr. Davis believes they’re not. At the very least, we’re now consuming wheat that’s genetically different from what our ancestors consumed:
Analyses of proteins expressed by a wheat hybrid compared to its two parent strains have demonstrated that while approximately 95 percent of the proteins expressed in the offspring are the same, five percent are unique, found in neither parent. Wheat gluten proteins, in particular, undergo considerable structural change with hybridization. In one hybridization experiment, fourteen new gluten proteins were identified in the offspring that were not present in either parent plant. Moreover, when compared to century-old stains of wheat, modern strains of Triticum aestivum express a higher quantity of genes for gluten proteins that are associated with celiac disease.
Hybridization efforts of the past fifty years have generated numerous additional changes in the gluten-coding genes in Triticum aestivum, most of them purposeful modifications of the “D” genome that confer baking and aesthetic characteristics on flour. It is therefore the the “D” genome of modern Triticum aestivum that, having been the focus of all manner of shenanigans by plant geneticists, has accumulated substantial changes in genetically determined characteristics of gluten proteins.
In other word’s, this ain’t your grandma’s wheat. Little wonder that when researchers compared blood samples taken from thousand of soldiers 50 years ago to blood samples from today’s soldiers, they found that celiac antibodies are five times more common today among today’s soliders.
Dr. Davis recounts an experiment he conducted on himself to compare the different impacts of ancient wheat and modern wheat on his blood sugar. He managed to find some einkorn wheat and made bread from it. Two slices of that bread raised his blood sugar from 86 mg/dl to 110. Not bad. Then he made bread from modern whole wheat – you know, the stuff the USDA says is the key to great health. Two slices raised his blood sugar from 84 mg/dl to 167. That’s diabetes territory. As Dr. Davis writes in another chapter after explaining the specific types of carbohydrates found in wheat:
Wheat products elevate blood sugar levels more than virtually any other carbohydrate, from beans to candy bars.
As the graph I displayed in a previous post showed, the typical American consumes somewhere around 1,000 calories per day in the form of sugars and grains. Our dominant grain by far is wheat — wheat that was never part of the human diet until 50 years ago.
The rest of the book details the damage modern wheat can do to our bodies and brains, with plenty of references to both academic studies and case histories from Dr. Davis’ medical practice. He covers the addictive properties of wheat, the effects wheat can produce in our brains (including actual brain damage), and of course the many ways wheat can wreak havoc on our digestive systems. Compared to those chapters, the chapters on skin conditions, accelerated aging, and heart disease seem almost tame. Sure, it’s not good to produce mostly small, dense LDL … but heart disease will kill you later. Untreated celiac disease will make you miserable for life – and most celiac sufferers are never diagnosed.
This is an excellent book, and also an important book. A story a co-worker told me last week illustrates why: his wife suffered from debilitating headaches for years. She went from doctor to doctor, but none could offer an explanation or solution, other than pain medications that basically knocked her out. Then a few months ago, she mentioned the headaches to some acquaintances over dinner. One of them – not a doctor – told her the headaches could be caused by a reaction to wheat gluten and suggested she try a gluten-free diet. She did … and headaches went away.
As my co-worker told me, “I’m glad someone finally gave her the answer, but why did she have to hear this from some Joe Schmoe after years of suffering? Why didn’t any of the doctors we consulted think of that?”
The doctors didn’t think of that because they weren’t trained to think of that. Ask the vast majority of doctors for dietary advice, and they’ll tell you to limit your fats and eat your “healthy whole grains.” They can’t teach what they don’t know.
I hope you all read this book. But more than that, I hope you buy a copy and stick it in your doctor’s hands. The next time a patient shows up suffering from splitting headaches (or irritable bowel, or stomach cramps, or acne, or psoriasis, or depression, or emotional problems, or high triglycerides, or high blood sugar, or arthritis, or asthma), perhaps the doctor will take a careful dietary history and suggest trying a wheat-free diet before reaching for the prescription pad.
Next week I’ll be posting a Q & A with Dr. Davis. I have a list of questions I want to ask, but if you have questions of your own, post them in a comment. I’ll pick some to add to my list.