You all (or y’all, as we say around these parts) submitted so many good questions for Wheat Belly author Dr. William Davis, we decided to make this a two-part Q & A. We’ll probably have part two ready early next week.
Fat Head: You’re a cardiologist by profession, and yet you just wrote an in-depth book about the negative health effects of consuming wheat. How did wheat end up on your radar? What first made you suspect wheat might be behind many of our modern health problems?
Dr. Davis: It started several years ago when I asked patients in my office to consider eliminating all wheat from their diet. I did this because of some very simple logic: If foods made from wheat raise blood sugar higher than nearly all other foods (due to its high-glycemic index), including table sugar, then removing wheat should reduce blood sugar. I was concerned about high blood sugar since around 80% of the people coming to my office had diabetes, pre-diabetes, or what I call “pre-pre-diabetes.” In short, the vast majority of people showed abnormal metabolic markers.
I provided patients with a simple two-page handout on how to do this, i.e., how to eliminate wheat and replace the lost calories with healthy foods like more vegetables, raw nuts, meats, eggs, avocados, olives, olive oil, etc. They’d come back three months later with lower fasting blood sugars, lower hemoglobin A1c (a reflection of the previous 60 days’ blood sugar); some diabetics became non-diabetics, pre-diabetics became non-pre-diabetic. They’d also be around 30 pounds lighter.
Then they began to tell me about other experiences: relief from arthritis and joint pains, chronic rashes disappearing, asthma improved sufficiently to stop inhalers, chronic sinus infections gone, leg swelling gone, migraine headaches gone for the first time in decades, acid reflux and irritable bowel symptoms relieved. At first, I told patients it was just an odd coincidence. But it happened so many times to so many people that it became clear that this was no coincidence; this was a real and reproducible phenomenon.
That’s when I began to systematically remove wheat from everyone’s diet and continued to witness similar turnarounds in health across dozens of conditions. There has been no turning back since.
Fat Head: You cite quite a bit of academic research in your book, but you also cite case histories from your medical practice. So, as a chicken-or-the-egg issue, which came first? Did you start noticing that patients who consumed a lot of wheat had more health problems and then go looking for the research to back up your suspicions, or did you come across research that prompted you to take notice of what your patients were eating?
Dr. Davis: The real-world experience came first. But what surprised me was that there already was an extensive medical literature documenting all of this, but it was largely ignored or didn’t reach mainstream consciousness nor the consciousness of most of my colleagues. And a lot of the documentation comes from the agricultural genetics literature, an area, I can assure you, my colleagues do not study. But I dug into this area of science and talked to people at the USDA and in agriculture departments in universities to gain a full understanding of all the issues.
One of the difficulties that partly explains why much of this information has not previously seen the light of day is that agricultural geneticists work on plants, not humans. There is a broad and pervasive assumption followed by these well-meaning scientists: No matter how extreme the techniques used to alter the genetics of a plant like wheat, it is still just fine for human consumption …no questions asked. I believe that is flat wrong and underlies much of the suffering inflicted on humans consuming this modern product of genetics research still called, misleadingly, “wheat.”
Fat Head: So after pinpointing wheat as a driver of various health problems, you started counseling your patients to eliminate wheat from their diets. What inspired you take the extra step – and it’s a big step – of writing a book?
Dr. Davis: What I witnessed in the thousands of people removing wheat from their diet was nothing short of incredible. When I saw weight loss of 70 pounds in six months, energy and mood surging, reversal of inflammatory diseases such as ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis, relief from chronic rashes and arthritis — and the effects were consistent over and over again — I realized that I could not just let this issue pass quietly in my office practice.
Admittedly, the world is going to need more confirmatory data before wheat, or at least the modern genetically-altered version of wheat we are being sold, is removed from the world’s dinner plate. But the data that are already available are more than enough, I believe, to bring this information to the public for people to make the decision themselves. I liken this situation to living in a village where everyone drinks water from the same well. Nine out of 10 people get sick when they drink water from the well; all recover when they stop drinking from it. Drink from the same well, they all get sick again; stop, they get better. With such a consistent and reproducible cause-and-effect relationship, do we need a clinical trial to prove it to us? I don’t.
This is going to be a long, hard battle in the public arena. Wheat comprises 20% of all human calories. It requires a huge infrastructure to grow, harvest, collect seeds, fertilize, herbicide, process, and distribute. This message is going to potentially hurt the livelihoods of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who are part of the infrastructure. It reminds me of the battles that were fought (and still being fought today) when it became widely accepted that smoking cigarettes was bad. When people within the tobacco industry were asked how they could work for a company that destroyed people’s health, they replied, “I had to support my family and pay my mortgage.” The eliminate-all-wheat-in-the-human-diet argument that I make will hurt many people where it counts: right in the pocketbook. But, personally, I am not willing to sacrifice my own health, the health of my family, friends, neighbors, patients, and the nation to allow the incredibly unhealthy status quo to continue.
Fat Head: The more of the book I read, the more I found myself thinking, “Wow, I knew wheat was bad for us, but it’s even worse than I thought.” Did you have the same reaction while researching the book? Were you surprised at how many physical and mental problems wheat can cause?
Dr. Davis: Yes. I knew wheat was bad from the start of this project. And there were times when I wondered if I was missing something, given the unanimous embracing of this grain by agribusiness, farmers, agricultural scientists, the USDA, FDA, American Dietetic Association, etc. But the opposite happened: The deeper I got into it, this thing being sold to us called “wheat” appeared worse … and worse, and worse, the farther I got.
I am mindful of the “For a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” trap we can all fall into, but when you see disease condition after disease condition vanish with elimination of wheat, you can’t help but become convinced that it plays a crucial role in hundreds, literally hundreds, of common conditions.
Fat Head: You described in your book how today’s wheat is the product of energetic cross-breeding. Is cross-breeding inherently bad? Doesn’t cross-breeding take place in nature all the time?
Dr. Davis: Yes, it does. Humans, along with all plants and animals, are the product of cross-breeding or hybridization. Love, sex, and cross-breeding make the world go ‘round and make life interesting. The problem is that these terms are used very loosely by geneticists.
For example, if I subject wheat seeds and embryos to the potent industrial poison sodium azide, I can induce mutations in the plant’s genetic code. First, let me tell you about sodium azide. If ingested, the poison control people at the Centers for Disease Control advise you to not resuscitate the person who ingested it and stopped breathing as a result —just let the victim die—because the rescuer can die, too. And, if the victim vomits, don’t throw the vomit in the sink because it can explode (this has actually happened). So, expose wheat seeds and embryos to sodium azide and you obtain mutations. This is called chemical mutagenesis. Seeds and embryos can also be exposed to gamma irradiation and high-dose x-ray radiation. All of these techniques fall under the umbrella of hybridization or, even more misleading, traditional breeding techniques. I don’t know about you, but cross-breeding among the humans I know doesn’t involve slipping each other chemical poisons or a romantic evening in the cyclotron to induce mutations in our offspring.
These “traditional breeding techniques,” by the way, are markedly more disruptive to the plant’s genetics than genetic engineering. Americans are up in arms about genetically-modified (GMO) foods (i.e., the insertion or deletion of a single gene). The great irony is that genetic engineering is a substantial improvement over “traditional breeding techniques” that have gone on for decades and are still going on.
[Note from Tom: I tried talking my wife into stepping into a cyclotron with me on our honeymoon. She told me to stop drinking the champagne and go to sleep.]
Fat Head: I met you in person over a year ago, and you’re a very lean guy, so I was surprised to learn from the book that you used to carry around your very own wheat belly. Describe the differences between you as a wheat-eater and you now, both in terms of your physique and your health.
Dr. Davis: Thirty pounds ago, while I was still an enthusiastic consumer of “healthy whole grains,” I struggled with constant difficulties in maintaining focus and energy. I relied on pots of coffee or walking and exercise just to battle the constant stuporous haze. My cholesterol values reflected my wheat-consuming habits: HDL 27 mg/dl (very low), triglycerides 350 mg/dl (VERY high), and blood sugars in the diabetic range (161 mg/dl). I had high blood pressure, running values around 150/90. And all my excess weight was around my middle—yes, my very own wheat belly.
Saying goodbye to wheat has helped me shed the weight around the middle; my cholesterol values: HDL 63 mg/dl, triglycerides 50 mg/dl, LDL 70 mg/dl, blood sugar 84 mg/dl, BP 114/74—using no drugs. In other words, everything reversed. Everything reversed including the struggle to maintain attention and focus. I can now concentrate and focus on something for so long that my wife yells for me to stop.
All in all, I feel better today at age 54 than I felt at age 30.
Fat Head: How has learning what you now know about wheat and other grains changed your medical practice?
Dr. Davis: It has catapulted success in helping people regain health into the stratosphere. Among people following this diet, i.e., eliminate wheat and limit other carbohydrates (along with the other heart-healthy strategies I advocate, including omega-3 fatty acid supplementation with fish oil, vitamin D supplementation to achieve a desirable 25-hydroxy vitamin D level of 60-70 ng/ml, iodine supplementation and normalization of thyroid dysfunction), I no longer see heart attacks. The only heart attacks I see are people whom I’ve just met or those who, for one reason or another (usually lack of interest) don’t follow the diet. A priest I take care of, for instance, a wonderful and generous man, couldn’t bring himself to turn down the muffins, pies, and breads his parishioners brought him every day; he had a heart attack despite doing everything else right.
This diet approach, though it seems quirky on the surface, is extremely powerful. What diet, after all, causes substantial weight loss, corrects the causes of heart disease such as small LDL particles, reverses diabetes and pre-diabetes, and improves or cures multiple conditions ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to acid reflux?
Fat Head: You’ve seen hundreds of your own patients become cured of supposedly incurable diseases after giving up wheat. Describe one or two of the most dramatic examples.
Dr. Davis: Two people are on my mind nearly every day, mostly because I am especially gratified about the magnitude of their response and because I shudder to think what their lives would have been like had they not engaged in this diet change.
I describe Wendy’s story in the book, a 36-year mother and schoolteacher who had nearly incapacitating ulcerative colitis; so bad that, despite three medications, she continued to suffer constant cramps, diarrhea, and bleeding sufficient to require blood transfusions. When I met Wendy, she told me that her gastroenterologist and surgeon had scheduled her for colon removal and creation of an ileostomy bag. These would be lifelong changes; she would be consigned to wearing a bag to catch stool at the surface for the rest of her life. I urged her to remove wheat. At first, she objected, since her intestinal biopsies and blood work all failed to suggest celiac disease. But, having seen many amazing things happen with removal of wheat, I suggested that there was nothing to lose. She did it. Three months later, not only had she lost 38 pounds, but all the cramps, diarrhea, and bleeding had stopped. It’s now been two years. She’s off all drugs with no sign of the disease left—colon intact, no ileostomy bag. She is cured.
The second case is Jason, also described in the book, a 26-year old software programmer, in this case incapacitated by joint pains and arthritis. Consultations with three rheumatologists failed to yield a diagnosis; all prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medication, while Jason continued to hobble around, unable to engage in much more than short walks. Within five days of removing all wheat, Jason was 100% free of joint pains. He told that he found this absolutely ridiculous and refused to believe it. So he had a sandwich: Joint pains rushed right back. He’s now strictly wheat-free and pain-free.
Fat Head: Your patients are lucky – you’d rather change a patient’s diet than write a prescription whenever possible. Unfortunately, you’re in the minority. As I recounted on my blog recently, a co-worker’s wife was finally cured of her pounding headaches when an acquaintance suggested she stop eating grains. She’d been to several doctors who merely prescribed medications. So … why are so few doctors aware of how grains can affect our health?
Dr. Davis: I believe healthcare has detoured towards high-tech, high revenue-producing procedures, medications, and catastrophic care. Too many in healthcare have lost the vision of helping people and fulfilling their mission to heal. While that sounds old-fashioned, I believe it is a bad trend for healthcare to be reduced to a financial transaction bound by legal constraints. It needs to be restored to a relationship of healing.
I believe that many in healthcare have also been disenchanted with the ineffectiveness of dietary advice. Because dietary “wisdom” has been wrong on so many counts over the past 50 years, people have become soured on the ability of nutrition and natural methods to improve health. From what I’ve witnessed, however, nutrition and natural methods have enormous power to heal—if the right methods are applied.
Fat Head: Do you hope your book will educate more doctors on the topic, or is this one of those situations where the public will have to ignore their doctors and educate themselves?
Dr. Davis: Regrettably, many people will read the message in Wheat Belly, experience the life-changing health and weight transformations that can result, then they will then tell their doctors, who will declare their success “coincidence,” “mind over matter,” “placebo effect,” or some other dismissal. Many of my colleagues refuse to recognize the power of diet even when confronted with powerful results. That can only change over a very long time.
Thankfully, more and more of my colleagues are beginning to see the light and not look for the answer in drugs and procedures. These are the healthcare providers that I hope will emerge to assist people as advocates and coaches in conducting an experience like that described in Wheat Belly.
Fat Head: If more doctors were informed of the issues you wrote about in Wheat Belly, do you think they’d change their dietary advice, or is the “fat is bad, grains are good” mentality too ingrained in the profession?
Dr. Davis: There is absolutely no question that the “fat is bad, grains are good” argument will persist in the minds of many of my colleagues for many years. However, I believe if they were to read the arguments laid out logically in Wheat Belly, they would first come to recognize that “wheat” is no longer wheat but an incredibly transformed product of genetics research. Then they would begin to follow the logic and understand that the long menu of problems associated with consumption of modern “wheat” begins to explain why we’ve all been witnessing an explosion in common diseases. That’s when I hope we all hear a collective “Aha!”