Book Review: Wheat Belly

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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.

 

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368 thoughts on “Book Review: Wheat Belly

  1. Joseph

    The barley thing raises some interesting questions. Barley has nothing to do with this book, therefore shouldn’t be scrutinized. Saying barley is ‘not a good choice’ needs to be expanded upon. If my goal is to avoid carbs, that comment might be valid. But eating bacon and eggs every day probably isn’t a good choice either. However, after reading posts from the Wheat Belly Facebook page, it’s amusing to me how happy all these people are because they think wheat is the source of all evil. If they avoid wheat, they can eat lard covered lard balls simmered in lard enhanced lard, not exercise, go out to eat and eat everything they want– as long as they don’t eat the bun!

    Actually, you can eat lard-covered lard balls with no ill effects.

    Reply
  2. Marjorie

    Since my second pregnancy 12 years ago, I’ve been on a downhill slide of bad health. I take good care of myself, exercising and eating “right”, but the past 4 years have been a living he** of high blood sugar, migraines, weight gain, joint pain, mental fog, irritablility, excruciating abdominal pain, and nausea. Doctors said, “Exercise more and lose weight”, “Well, you’re probably starting menopause”, and “Try to reduce your stress.” A five-minute conversation with an acquaintance from my son’s school ended with her suggestion to go gluten-free and dairy free for two weeks. Desperate for any relief, I did as she suggested. By day four, I felt like the me of 15 years ago – energetic, emotionally balanced, and nearly pain-free. I found Wheat Belly at B&N on day five and hoped it might shed more light on the subject. I have since bought 4 more copies for friends and family members who are going through similar struggles to mine. Be fair to Dr. Davis and read the book – he promotes a balanced, healthy-fat, lean protein, lots-of-vegetables diet. I have definitely been given a new lease on life by taking gluten out of my diet. And my husband and children have regained the woman I used to be.

    Sorry to hear about the years of needless suffering, but at least they’re over now.

    Reply
  3. Marjorie

    Since my second pregnancy 12 years ago, I’ve been on a downhill slide of bad health. I take good care of myself, exercising and eating “right”, but the past 4 years have been a living he** of high blood sugar, migraines, weight gain, joint pain, mental fog, irritablility, excruciating abdominal pain, and nausea. Doctors said, “Exercise more and lose weight”, “Well, you’re probably starting menopause”, and “Try to reduce your stress.” A five-minute conversation with an acquaintance from my son’s school ended with her suggestion to go gluten-free and dairy free for two weeks. Desperate for any relief, I did as she suggested. By day four, I felt like the me of 15 years ago – energetic, emotionally balanced, and nearly pain-free. I found Wheat Belly at B&N on day five and hoped it might shed more light on the subject. I have since bought 4 more copies for friends and family members who are going through similar struggles to mine. Be fair to Dr. Davis and read the book – he promotes a balanced, healthy-fat, lean protein, lots-of-vegetables diet. I have definitely been given a new lease on life by taking gluten out of my diet. And my husband and children have regained the woman I used to be.

    Sorry to hear about the years of needless suffering, but at least they’re over now.

    Reply
  4. Harry

    people keep quoting the part of the bible,give us this day our daily bread,they are not talking about something to eat, they are talking about the word of God

    Even if you’re religious, references to wheat in the Bible don’t change the fact that the wheat we consume today is nothing like the wheat grown back then.

    Reply
  5. Harry

    people keep quoting the part of the bible,give us this day our daily bread,they are not talking about something to eat, they are talking about the word of God

    Even if you’re religious, references to wheat in the Bible don’t change the fact that the wheat we consume today is nothing like the wheat grown back then.

    Reply
  6. Mary

    Just bought the book at a Local Costco. Suffer from Diabetes, IBS, and numerous other ailments the Wheat free diet appears to help. Gonna give it a try. Why not. Sure would like to feel better!

    Reply
  7. Mary

    Just bought the book at a Local Costco. Suffer from Diabetes, IBS, and numerous other ailments the Wheat free diet appears to help. Gonna give it a try. Why not. Sure would like to feel better!

    Reply
  8. Mark Blue

    I see none of the posts about the constant, weeks-long headaches that come with wheat withdrawal are showing here. Most people, if you check out open sites like youtube, suffer horribly starting a few days after giving up wheat and the experts have no clue why or how.

    I haven’t heard of that happening to most people, but I can see where withdrawal could be an issue.

    Reply
  9. Mark Blue

    I see none of the posts about the constant, weeks-long headaches that come with wheat withdrawal are showing here. Most people, if you check out open sites like youtube, suffer horribly starting a few days after giving up wheat and the experts have no clue why or how.

    I haven’t heard of that happening to most people, but I can see where withdrawal could be an issue.

    Reply
  10. Ashley

    My doctor just prescribed I read this book, literally on a prescription wrote it down with some advice. I always thought I was a healthy eater but I could never lose any substantial weight and now I am being tested for type 2 diabetes and thyroid disorder. I guess it’s time for a change, glad to see so many people have had success!

    You’re lucky to have that doctor.

    Reply
  11. Ashley

    My doctor just prescribed I read this book, literally on a prescription wrote it down with some advice. I always thought I was a healthy eater but I could never lose any substantial weight and now I am being tested for type 2 diabetes and thyroid disorder. I guess it’s time for a change, glad to see so many people have had success!

    You’re lucky to have that doctor.

    Reply
  12. Susan

    I suffered very little wheat withdrawal. I suffered more by realizing that I couldn’t just stuff my face with anything I wanted any longer. It was hard to change habits. I can still see my hand darting in and out of a chip bag. This temporary suffering was replaced with more and more control from eliminating wheat. Can you imagine getting your fiber from other sources other than wheat? It’s possible.

    The amount of suffering I experienced before I went wheat-free was even worse. I had times of panicky hunger from hypoglycemia, a gradual weight gain from stuffing my face when I couldn’t control myself, and from the weight gain I was depressed and down on myself. I was going down a bad road. For some of us this way of eating is necessary. I would have never thought about eliminating wheat, but for me it works. If you don’t like it try something else, but at least try it.

    Reply
  13. Susan

    I suffered very little wheat withdrawal. I suffered more by realizing that I couldn’t just stuff my face with anything I wanted any longer. It was hard to change habits. I can still see my hand darting in and out of a chip bag. This temporary suffering was replaced with more and more control from eliminating wheat. Can you imagine getting your fiber from other sources other than wheat? It’s possible.

    The amount of suffering I experienced before I went wheat-free was even worse. I had times of panicky hunger from hypoglycemia, a gradual weight gain from stuffing my face when I couldn’t control myself, and from the weight gain I was depressed and down on myself. I was going down a bad road. For some of us this way of eating is necessary. I would have never thought about eliminating wheat, but for me it works. If you don’t like it try something else, but at least try it.

    Reply
  14. Kelly

    Is it recommended not to eat any grains at all? Rice /rice noodles have been my savior sense I had to go gluten free (Doctors orders). I also don’t need to lose weight I am actually very under weight. I eat oats too (gluten free or not gluten infested). I been told to stay a way form starchy foods too(not by my Doctor but know it all friends who think they have the answers. Even though they are fat and tyring to lose weight. They told me to stay away from potatoes and eggs. Which I am like “umm how am I suppose to keep weight on???

    Thin people can become type 2 diabetics too. I’d suggest buying a glucose meter and testing your glucose an hour after eating to see if those meals are spiking your blood sugar.

    Reply
  15. Kelly

    Is it recommended not to eat any grains at all? Rice /rice noodles have been my savior sense I had to go gluten free (Doctors orders). I also don’t need to lose weight I am actually very under weight. I eat oats too (gluten free or not gluten infested). I been told to stay a way form starchy foods too(not by my Doctor but know it all friends who think they have the answers. Even though they are fat and tyring to lose weight. They told me to stay away from potatoes and eggs. Which I am like “umm how am I suppose to keep weight on???

    Thin people can become type 2 diabetics too. I’d suggest buying a glucose meter and testing your glucose an hour after eating to see if those meals are spiking your blood sugar.

    Reply
  16. Tamara

    I’m still reading the book and have stopped wheat about 3 weeks ago. The foot pain I have been suffering from in the last 5 years is gone. I no longer get those horrible hunger pangs that would get me out of bed at midnight and have me munching on anything wheat til I was stuffed. I have already lost a few pounds and I have more energy. I also started juicing vegetables for added nutrition. I have not eliminated oatmeal. I do eat some brown rice, quinoa, brown rice pasta and sweet potatoes for starch. I’m simply amazed when I walk through a supermarket that EVERYTHING seems to have a wheat base to it. It’s almost like the grain & cereal industry is working with the pharmaceutical industry to keep people fat & ill, so they can both make money. My doctor will get a copy of this book for sure.

    I hope your doctor reads it.

    Reply

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