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Review: Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis
I have read a big ol’ pile of nutrition books in the past 33 years. I generally learn at least a little something from each one, or at the very least am reminded of a point I may have forgotten. But in his new book Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist from Milwaukee, and author of Track Your Plaque, and the Heart Scan Blog has written a book in which the majority of the information is new to me. I am agog. And excited – I am a big nutrition geek, after all; it’s thrilling to have this sort of stuff presented to me, and presented in such a readable form.
But I am also frightened. Why frightened? Because the problem Dr. Davis has limned in this groundbreaking new book is staggering in its scope and implications. And the stuff causing it is not only near-universal, but widely seen as the most wholesome and beneficial of foods.
Ironically, I had it in my mind that I needed to write a review of Wheat Belly today, when I got an email from a reader, thrilled with my low carb whole wheat bread recipe. I’m glad she likes it, and the book, but... sigh.
Of all the foods low carbers give up, perhaps the group most missed is “foods made from wheat” – bread and pasta, particularly. New low carbers, especially, are forever searching for a version of these foods that will allow them to have their sandwiches and mac-and-cheese, while maintaining the benefits of their low carbohydrate diets. For years, I kept low carb bread from Natural Ovens of Manitowoc in my freezer, most of it to be consumed in the form of late-night grilled cheese sandwiches. Low carb tortillas were a staple; in the summer, particularly, I pretty commonly ate wrap sandwiches, and they were de rigeur on long car trips. And while I never quite trusted Dreamfield’s, I have answered repeatedly readers’ plaintive inquiries as to whether it’s really low carb, or, as they fear, too good to be true. (Too good to be true. Sorry.)
Accordingly, in several of my books I have included yeast bread recipes. I have also used modest quantities of wheat germ and/or wheat bran, the lower-starch fractions of the wheat kernel, to give a wheaty flavor to crackers, pancakes, and the like. Too, for a while I added a little vital wheat gluten – the protein fraction of wheat – to various baked goods, because it does make them hold together better. These recipes have proven to be very popular with readers.
All of this seems logical, even inevitable. We have heard since childhood that bread is the very “staff of life.” Husbands pride themselves on being good “breadwinners.” We show friendship by “breaking bread” together. Religious ceremonies, most notably the Christian Eucharist, center on bread as a symbol, and every Christian sect has learned to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread*.” It is, perhaps, possible to accept that we, with our damaged carbohydrate metabolisms, simply cannot tolerate most baked goods, the way some people cannot eat nuts, or shellfish. It is a very different thing to accept that these seemingly ancient foods, with so much inbuilt emotional pull and symbolism, are quite simply hazardous, even toxic.
Still, awareness that gluten, the protein that makes wheat the versatile stuff that it is, may not be good for us has been growing rapidly. The demand for gluten-free foods is exploding. The number of complaints that are now suspected of being tied to gluten consumption is daunting. Has this always been so? Are we just noticing that the most common of foodstuffs is toxic? Or has something changed?
Both, it seems.
In Wheat Belly, Dr. Davis identifies two major problems with the ubiquitous consumption of wheat products. One is the fact that wheat, whether it’s in the form of Wonderbread or sprouted 100% whole wheat bread from the health food store, spikes blood sugar like nobody’s business. It’s not just a major source of carbohydrate in the diet, it’s also one of the most rapidly absorbed. I am going to assume we can take it as read that big ol’ carb loads and blood sugar spikes are bad, leading to weight gain (wheat belly), diabetes, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, messed up LDL/HDL ratio and LDL particle size, and all that other stuff you and I have been talking about all these years. Lots of blood sugar, bad. Got it.
It’s the part about gluten that’s really got my head spinning. I’ve known for thirty years or more that there was an illness called celiac, or celiac sprue, caused by gluten sensitivity, resulting in terrible intestinal trouble. I had become aware, over the past few years, that the list of health problems being attributed to gluten was rapidly expanding. I knew that there was suspicion that it was involved in or even to blame for a number of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and even, possibly, juvenile-onset diabetes. I also have some friends with an autistic child who functions far better on a gluten-free diet. Certainly it would be impossible for anyone paying even cursory attention to the world of nutrition not to notice the growing ranks of the gluten-free, and the growing arrays of gluten-free foods to serve them.
I have also known for 16 years that, owing to their carb load, grains, whether whole or refined, are not my friend.
But I did not connect the two. Some people were gluten sensitive; I was carb sensitive, but I’d never shown any signs of celiac – my guts work just fine, thank you (I’m sure you wanted to know that) – so gluten didn’t seem to be a concern.
I had no idea that the list of health problems attributable to gluten was so long and so frightening. Among the health conditions Dr. Davis links to gluten are:
* Schizophrenia. May as well start with the Big Casino, huh? Turns out that taking wheat products away from institutionalized schizophrenics reduced auditory hallucinations, delusions, all that stuff that makes schizophrenia the terrible illness it is. Adding wheat back caused the symptoms to reassert themselves. There are even some reports of complete remission with the removal of wheat from the diet.
* Autism. Research is preliminary, but in a Danish study of 55 autistic children, removing gluten from the diet reduced formal measures of autistic behavior.
* Liver diseases, including chronic hepatitis and biliary cancer.
* Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the most common cause of hypothyroidism.
* Inflammatory bowel disease
* Crohn’s disease
* Several forms of cancer, including bowel cancer.
* Ataxia – loss of balance and coordination. Indeed, apparently half of all patients with otherwise unexplained ataxia test positive for celiac markers – aka gluten sensitivity. This involves progressive, irremediable brain damage.
* Dementia. Doesn’t get any scarier than that. Again, gluten sensitivity can cause permanent brain damage. Gluten ataxia can progress to dementia.
But why this apparent increase in gluten sensitivity? Is it just a fad? After all, people have been eating wheat for millennia, but dementia, for example, has only started accelerating recently.
Turns out that we’re getting more wheat than we did, thanks to the big push for everyone to eat lots of Healthy Whole Grains! There’s also increased awareness, and research into the effects of gluten on the body. But that’s not the whole problem.
I was floored by the opening chapters of Wheat Belly, where Dr. Davis explains in detail the evolution of the wheat plant, through deliberate manipulation of breeding, aka hybridization. It turns out that the wheat being grown now, and making up the vast majority of wheat-based foods on the market, is genetically completely different, not just from the original strains of wild grass domesticated 10,000 years ago, but from the wheat commonly grown even 50 years ago. It is, quite simply, a different plant than it was, different from the wheat your grandparents ate, and it has never been demonstrated as safe for human consumption.
Ancient wheat – einkorn, emmer, and the like – weren’t particularly safe for human consumption even as they were. We know that when our ancestors went from hunting and gathering to farming, their stature dropped, their life spans shortened, their teeth rotted, and their pelvises became smaller, causing problems in childbearing (“And Eve’s pain in childbearing will be greatly multiplied.”) Diabetes apparently started with wheat agriculture, too.
But it turns out that unlike you or I, who only have the genes our moms and dads passed on to us – blue eye genes or brown eye genes, you know the drill – when you hybridize wheat you actually come up with genes that were not present in either of the parent species. Specifically, you get 5% unique, novel genes. And the genes controlling gluten proteins are particularly likely to undergo structural change. Multiply that 5% by the tens of thousands of cross-breedings that have taken place to achieve the “Green Revolution” high-yield semi-dwarf wheat that now dominates agriculture, and you have a product with more gluten, and more potentially sensitizing gluten proteins, than has ever existed. The stuff has been great for agriculture’s bottom line; wheat yields per acre have increased dramatically. It’s just that it is potentially far more toxic than wheat originally was. Details.
Please note here that we are not talking about genetic modification, simply hybridizing. Buying non-GMO wheat is no protection. (Dr. Davis did, however, experiment with einkorn and emmer, which are being grown for the health food market. He found he did not react to them anywhere near as badly as he does to modern wheat.) Note, too, that whether a wheat product is refined or whole-grain, whether it’s a donut or whole wheat noodles, makes no difference whatsoever. It all contains gluten. It’s like asking whether a recovering alcoholic would be better off drinking a Mudslide or a glass of red wine.
So that’s it for me. I have, over the past year or so, largely dropped low carb tortillas and bread from my diet, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re completely gone. I won’t be creating any more recipes with wheat germ or wheat bran, and I certainly will not use vital wheat gluten any more. I may well go back and rewrite some of my recipes to eliminate wheat products, especially vital gluten. This will not work with the yeast breads, I’m afraid, but quick breads, cookies and the like shouldn’t be a big problem. I will not be using any low carb specialty products that include gluten or wheat.
Whether you choose to give up low carb bread, tortillas, and other products is, of course, up to you. If you have hinky blood sugar, the low carb varieties of these products are probably better than the high carb kind – you’re getting the toxic gluten, but at least you’re not spiking your blood sugar. I do believe that there is a role for “bridge foods” – low carb substitute foods that help people through what is, after all, a big damned change. But I hope that if you choose to use bridge foods containing wheat or wheat products that you will keep it in the back of your mind that they are not foods to rely on. They are only a crutch, to be used until you can lay them down and walk without them.
You may find the idea daunting right now. It’s important that you realize that Dr. Davis also lays out excellent evidence for wheat being physically addictive and mind-altering, triggering the same sensors in the brain as opiates. In fact, the same drugs that can be used to block opiate cravings also can block wheat cravings. (I told you this book was full of fascinating information.) This addictiveness is apparently part of the endless hunger caused by a high carbohydrate diet. I had thought it all due to blood sugar fluctuations, but it turns out that we've all been a bunch of gluten junkies as well as sugar junkies, with the opiate-like properties of gluten driving our craving for another fix.
I doubt you can get your doctor to prescribe naltrexone to help you go gluten-free. Like addicts of every stripe, if you want to quit you’ll have to go cold turkey, and endure a few uncomfortable days. I’m not saying you have to do this, nor if you plan to do it, when. I just want you to know that the little voice in the back of your head saying “Never eat bread again?” is no different from the voice that says to other people “Never smoke another cigarette?” or “Never take another painkiller?” or "Never have another drink?"
But if you have any of the problems potentially linked to gluten – and I didn’t list ‘em all; you really need to read the book – you owe it to yourself to skip the bridge foods, and go gluten-free. Do not, however, start eating a bunch of processed, purchased gluten-free breads, crackers, cookies, pasta, and other stuff. Why not? Because it’s still loaded with carbs, that’s why not. Generally this stuff is made with rice flour, potato starch, corn starch, and other refined carbs. It’s gluten-free, but it will still cause big, nasty blood sugar swings, and the health problems and obesity that come with them.
Now that I’ve scared the bejeezus out of you, let me assure you that despite the information, Wheat Belly is not a grim read at all, far from it. Wheat Belly is extremely entertaining; Dr. Davis delivers this serious information in a lively and often even humorous fashion. The information itself, however, is sobering. And not one of you can afford to miss it.
* I have read that missionaries to the Inuit had to deal with teaching the Lord’s Prayer to people who had no clue what bread was. Apparently the translation they came up with was “Give us this day our daily fish.” Sounds like an improvement to me.