Friends say it; you hear it on commercials; you may have said it yourself: “I exercise and eat right, and I still can’t lose weight!” Dr. William Davis believes he knows why, and it’s not because most Americans are out and out liars when it comes to the battle of the bulge. Davis’ goal in “Wheat Belly” is to set the record straight. The growing obesity problem in America is caused by some extremely bad dietary advice.
We’ve been told to eat more healthy grains since the 1970s. But chucking the Wonder Bread didn’t result in smaller belt sizes. In fact, the obesity rate continues to climb with every passing year. Davis emphatically states that’s because the major grain we consume – wheat – is not only unhealthy, it also contains an addictive substance that makes us yearn for just one more bite, in the same manner a junky pleads for another fix. Hmm, now that could be the problem!
“Wheat Belly” contains a comprehensive history of wheat, from the grass seeds gathered by our Paleolithic ancestors to the variety now being used worldwide. As Davis points out, what we eat today is not “your grandmother’s muffins.” In the 1960s, American farmers and biologists took on the daunting task of ending starvation throughout the world. This was accomplished by genetically modifying the wheat kernels to make them resistant to diseases and drought. By the 1980s, there were no longer “amber waves” of tall stalks of wheat blowing across the plains. Wheat stalks now stand at 18 inches; the compact heads now mature faster than previous varieties; and farmers have achieved their intended goal – feeding the masses. Unfortunately, Davis writes, this modification is also responsible for some nasty “unintended consequences.”
Davis, a cardiologist, is no stranger to the battle of the bulge. His childhood diet was similar to most people raised in the mid-20th century – it included lots of cereals, pasta and sandwiches. By age 19, he was already sporting a tire around his belly. But it wasn’t until 1999, when his wife took a picture of him asleep on the beach with his fat flowing in all directions, that Davis realized he had a weight problem. At least 30 pounds overweight, he wondered, “What must my patients be thinking when I counseled them on diet?”
He embarked on an exercise program and started eating the same “healthy whole grains” that he advised his patients to eat. Yet, in spite of his efforts, the fat remained, and Davis’ health declined even as he increased the number of miles he jogged and cut his caloric intake. A blood test revealed he had high cholesterol and diabetes. “Something had to be fundamentally wrong with my diet,” he concluded.
As he began researching the glycemic levels of different foods, he was shocked to discover the consumption of carbohydrates, especially wheat, increased his blood sugar levels more than sugar! Bucking conventional health advice, he removed wheat from his diet, and asked his heart patients to do the same. For those who did, the results were astounding. His patients lost lots of weight, especially around their mid-sections, where visceral fat collects. “Diabetics became nondiabetics,” Davis writes, and those suffering with acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and a number of other physical and mental conditions saw a marked improvement in their health. In fact, these are the same benefits people suffering from celiac disease experienced, once they stopped eating wheat, rye, barley and oats grown or processed in conjunction with other grains.
The author could not fully understand the destructive properties of wheat without researching celiac disease, a potentially fatal autoimmune deficiency. It is triggered when gluten, from the grains mentioned above, destroys the lining of the small intestine. “The celiac sufferer becomes unable to absorb nutrients,” Davis said, and their immune system stops functioning. Davis explains a myriad of problems this causes in chapter six. Unfortunately, there is no medical cure for the disease, but once gluten is removed from the diet the small intestine can begin to repair itself. However, as Davis writes, even something “as small as a bread crumb or a crouton” can cause a relapse.
Davis discovered the number of Americans afflicted with celiac has doubled since 1978. And there has been a fourfold increase in those afflicted with a less severe form of wheat intolerance. Some physicians claim that’s because they have become better at diagnosing both. Davis doesn’t totally discredit that assumption, but he points out two factors that may also contribute to the increase. First, before WWII, wheat was only found in baked goods and pasta. Now, you will be amazed to find the number of products that contain wheat. Read the ingredients on the labels. Wheat can be found in many ice creams, salad dressings, soups, sauces, lipsticks, toothpastes and most processed foods. Second, he believes it is more than a coincidence that allergies to wheat increased at the same time the dwarf strain became the most popular variety grown in this county. He backs up his claim by showing the genetic differences between “today’s and yesterday’s wheat.”
Since being diagnosed with celiac disease six years ago, I’ve read a number of books and scientific papers about the illness. Davis’ “Wheat Belly” contains the most up-to-date information about the disease; and, best of all, it’s written so those of us who do not have a medical degree can understand it.
But that doesn’t mean I liked everything I read in “Wheat Belly.” “Live gluten-free,” Davis said, but don’t eat all the gluten-free products now found on supermarket shelves. As I read on, I realized what he wrote is true. These products are loaded with corn, rice and lots of sugar that can indeed cause someone with celiac to develop diabetes. And the last thing I want is to have more restrictions placed on my diet.
Lest I leave you with the wrong impression, Davis isn’t promoting a wheat-free diet just for those suffering from celiac disease. As a cardiologist, his goal is to eliminate obesity and diabetes. To this end, he wants everyone to follow the diet he proposes in “Wheat Belly.” It is similar to what our ancestors ate before the advent of agriculture. That goal may be unreachable for many. However, 70 percent of Americans’ daily caloric intake now comes from carbohydrates, with wheat accounting for the majority of those calories.
Read “Wheat Belly.” Try following his diet for a few weeks. As you watch your love-handles disappear, you may gain a new respect for a member of the medical profession who bravely challenges the “whole grain advice” that isn’t making us any healthier.