Undoctored, the terrific new book by Dr. William “Wheat Belly” Davis, covers pretty much everything I’ve been saying on this blog about how the Wisdom of Crowds is crowding out conventional (but lousy) health advice, then adds a heckuva lot of good step-by-step advice on how to monitor and improve your own health — partly by leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds.
Now for the longer review:
A couple of years ago, when I was kicking around the idea for the Fat Head Kids book and film, I drove to Wisconsin to interview Dr. Davis on camera. We ended up conducting the interview in a downstairs reading room because the desk in his upstairs office was piled high with stacks of research.
Over dinner later, he told me the research was for a new book. But before he described the contents of the book, he told me why he felt compelled to write it:
Dr. Davis grew up as a dirt-poor kid in New Jersey. After rising from such humble beginnings, working his way through medical school and becoming a cardiologist with a busy practice, he felt a sense of pride in what he’d accomplished. For most of his adult life, he enjoyed his status as doctor.
But that was then. Nowadays, Dr. Davis views the health-care system as little more than an industry designed to shuttle people through a series of expensive drugs and procedures. Actual health isn’t the priority. The movers and shakers have no interest in, say, preventing or treating type II diabetes with diet, because they view diabetes as the gift that keeps on giving. Diabetics are paying customers for life.
As a result, he explained, he hesitates to tell people who don’t already know him that he’s a doctor. He doesn’t like being associated with the modern medical industry.
So the new book (which was untitled at the time) would include two major sections: The first section would explain to readers why the “health-care” system is more interested in their dollars than their health. The second section would arm readers with the knowledge and tools to monitor and improve their own health, and thus avoid ending up in the belly of the health-care beast. With all the bad advice coming from the medical establishment, people need to do their own research and direct their own health instead of relying on doctors to do it for them.
That, of course, led to a long discussion about the Wisdom of Crowds effect.
You can gauge a doctor’s opinion of the general public by his or her attitude towards the explosion of health information available online. In a post last December, I pointed out that Dr. David Katz – a big-time promoter of arterycloggingsaturatedfat! hysteria whose idiotic NuVal system ranks sugar-laden soy milk as far healthier option than a turkey breast – sees social media as a danger. An essay Katz wrote for the Huffington Post basically boils down to this: Dangit! All those bloggers and podcasters and health discussion groups online are causing the stupid, gullible public to question true experts like me! This is very, very bad!
Let’s just say Dr. Katz doesn’t believe in the Wisdom of Crowds effect. He believes we should all bow before the superior expertise of The Anointed – himself included, of course.
Compare his attitude to the attitude expressed by Dr. Davis in the introduction of Undoctored:
I propose that people can manage their own health safely and responsibly and attain results superior to those achieved through conventional healthcare – not less than, not on a par with, but superior.
Self-directed health is a phenomenon that will stretch far and wide into human health. It will encompass preventive practices, diagnostic testing, smartphone apps, and therapeutic strategies. It puts the astounding and unexpected wisdom of crowds to work, providing you with a depth and breadth of collective information and experience that far exceeds that of any one person, no matter how much of an expert.
Just a wee bit different, eh? Dr. Davis thinks it’s perfectly okay for you to do research online and question your doctor. In fact, he WANTS you to do research online and question your doctor. He says so over and over in the book. That’s because unlike Katz, Dr. Davis believes people have brains and are capable of using them to find the advice that works and ditch the advice that doesn’t.
Undoctored offers plenty of specific advice on how to gather information about your own health and leverage the wisdom of crowds: sites for exchanging ideas and data with other people, places you can go to order your own lab tests, sites that help you interpret the lab tests, and so on.
But that’s a bit later. First, Dr. Davis gives the modern medical industry the blistering it deserves. Here are some choice quotes:
There’s no ham in hamburger, Grape-Nuts don’t have grapes or nuts, and health does not come from healthcare.
There is a continual push to medicalize human life. Shyness is now “social anxiety disorder” to justify “treatment” with antidepressant medication; binging in the middle of the night is now “sleep-related eating disorder” to justify treatment with seizure medication and antidepressants; obesity, declared a disease by the FDA, justifies insurance payments for gastric bypass and lap-band. Don’t be surprised if sometime soon, bad dreams, between-meal hunger and excessive love of your cat are labeled diseases warranting treatment.
I was reminded of what Dr. Malcolm Kendrick wrote in Doctoring Data: normal human conditions are now classified as diseases just in time to be diagnosed and treated with a new wonder drug.
Dr. Davis goes on to describe how Big Food and Big Pharma have corrupted the healthcare system from top to bottom, from the research, to the health advice, to the treatments when the advice doesn’t work. Your doctor may mean well, but her (ahem) knowledge of what to diagnose and treat often comes from seminars sponsored by Big Pharma. Prevention, of course, isn’t on the agenda.
Despite the book’s title, Dr. Davis isn’t suggesting people never visit a doctor again. He lists a number of conditions that absolutely, positively require medical attention. He wants doctors to treat what they treat well.
But he wants you to take control of your own health by leveraging the wisdom of crowds and the experiences of others. If you do that, there’s a good chance you’ll become what Dr. Davis calls undoctored … meaning you only need to see a doctor for actual emergencies and perhaps a bit of monitoring, not for conditions you shouldn’t develop in the first place.
Reading that, I was reminded of when I went in recently for a dermatology checkup. (I had a skin cancer removed from my back 15 years or so ago, so I get called in for occasional checkups.) Part of the conversation with the nurse went something like this:
“Who’s your primary-care physician?”
“Uh … sorry, I don’t remember his name.”
“You don’t know your doctor’s name?”
“I’ve lived in Tennessee for seven years and I’ve seen the guy once. That was because I decided to have a checkup when I turned 55.”
A big part of becoming undoctored is, of course, adopting a diet that enhances health instead of breaking it down. You won’t be surprised that the Wheat Belly doctor prescribes a diet devoid of grains. And sugar. And industrial oils. And almost all processed foods. To make it easier to adopt the diet, the book lists several weeks’ worth of recipes.
But there’s more to it than diet alone. Dr. Davis refers to the whole program as Wild, Naked and Unwashed. No, that’s not the description of a fraternity party. It’s a reference to the lifestyle of our paleo ancestors. We don’t have to actually forgo bathing and run naked in the woods to be healthy, but we do need to recognize that our genes were coded for an environment very unlike the modern industrial world.
With that in mind, Dr. Davis spends the next few chapters describing the nutrients that civilized humans rarely ingest in sufficient quantities, including magnesium and vitamin D. He also gives specific instructions on how to monitor blood levels of essential nutrients (vitamin D included) using direct-to-consumer tests. He offers similar advice for checking thyroid health.
The book also includes an entire chapter on the importance of bowel flora (a subject he talked about at length when I interviewed him). He explains how to obtain at-home test kits, and which specific supplements to take if necessary. He also provides dozens of recipes for prebiotic shakes using ingredients such as green bananas, inulin and bits of raw potato.
I don’t find the “Appendix whatever” sections of most books particularly useful. Undoctored is an exception. In fact, I suspect these final pages will become dog-eared.
Appendix A lists several common ailments – from constipation to fatty liver – with a protocol for identifying and correcting the source of the problem. Appendix B lists hidden sources of wheat and gluten. Appendix C describes how to ferment your own vegetables. Appendix D offers a list of sites where you can exchange ideas, do research, order at-home lab tests, etc. It also lists the brands of supplements Dr. Davis considers high-quality.
Like I said, this is a terrific book. With all the junk advice being handed down by doctors, government agencies, and organizations like The American Heart Association, it’s also a very necessary book. Readers of this blog don’t need to be convinced that a huge chunk of what passes for health advice these days is garbage, but plenty of other people do. And fairly or not, a lot of them will need to hear it from a doctor before they’ll believe it.
Dr. Davis took on the grain industry in Wheat Belly. He takes on pretty much the entire medical establishment in Undoctored. I’ve asked him to please stay out of dark alleys and to consider using a stunt double for public appearances.
Kidding, of course. Well, half-kidding. We need Dr. Davis to stick around for many more years and continue writing books like this.