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Friday, August 23, 2013


I have had my little love affair with wheat since childhood bagels and grandma’s homemade bread, fresh from the oven. I even ate the raw dough, after playing with it for awhile. Edible play-dough.

Years of eating bologna sandwiches for school lunch satisfied my hunger, but I wanted to eat 10 of them, not just the one I got in my lunchbox. Sunday brunch BLT’s, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pretzels--the American Way!  My mouth waters just writing this. Just can’t get enough! (AND I've been making awesome sourdough bread for over 20 years.) 

Naturally, I did not want to learn that my wheat addiction must end. I already gave up ice cream! Please say it ain't so. I loved my bread and could eat half a loaf in one sitting.

But, that was then, and this is now—the age of hybridized and genetically altered grains in favor of high yields, environmentally-armored plants and even plants born to be “Round-Up Ready.” Round-Up Ready? I don’t know about you, but I think I’d rather skip the poison-ready breed of bread that stocks the grocery shelves.

Cardiologist, Dr. William Davis, in his NY Times Bestseller, Wheat Belly
put his medical background and intuition to work, and presents the science behind the notion that wheat is bad for human consumption. Not only those with celiac disease have ill reactions to wheat, says Davis. (Celiac disease affects the intestine and causes severe malnutrition that can lead to death in severe cases.) 

Davis claims that wheat “…the world’s most popular grain is also the world’s most destructive dietary ingredient.” (p. x of the Introduction.) He warns us that we should not eat wheat because it attacks nearly every system in our bodies, including skin, bowel, liver, heart, brain, you name it.

Davis backs his wheat offensive with research, clinical trials and case studies of his own patients. He devotes the first two-thirds of the book defending the premise that wheat, and more specifically the gluten that is in wheat and other grains, is very bad for us. Bad because we were not meant to eat the hybridized wheat of today, a completely different plant than what our hunter-gather forbearers consumed. That wheat, called "Einkorn" contained 14 chromosomes. Today's wheat contains over 40 chromosomes. The genetic alterations wheat has endured are foreign to our systems, even toxic, says Davis.

The new wheat of the last 50 years is called dwarf wheat, because it no longer grows long stalks. The hybrid wheat would not support the heavy seed head at the top of the plant, which grew too fast and too big due to modern fertilization methods. Geneticist Norman Borlaug developed the plant to grow a short, stocky stalk. This genetically altered, hybridized wheat entered our food supply without testing the new wheat strains in either animals or humans! (p. 29-30) FDA’s got your back? Not today.

Davis suggests that wheat’s adverse effects on virtually all our bodily systems stem from several phenomena:
1) An immune response triggered by gluten (anti-body blood test available);
2) A non-immune response triggered by the break-down by-products of gluten, called exorphins (no test available);
3) An unidentified component of wheat responsible for behavioral distortions in people with schizophrenia and children with autism. (No test available, however Davis suspects that exorphins rule here too.) (p. 174-175)

Davis supports his theories beginning with his own self-experimentation. He suffered from chronic health issues including diabetes and a 30 pound unexplained weight gain, despite jogging.  His lab test results confirmed ill health. He connected the dots and eliminated wheat, thus regaining his health.

He used his experience to help his patients eliminate wheat from their diets, with unexpected results, such as reversal of diabetes, weight loss, complete resolution of damaging digestive issues and pain relief. Patients who successfully eliminated wheat, also eliminated pharmaceutical dependence, further improving health.

For those readers who scoff at anecdotal evidence, a.k.a. “testimonials,” Davis assures us of his credibility by citing hundreds of references. I did not check those references; but for now, I will trust that the editors did so. That said, undoubtedly reliance on others' research to make an argument becomes problematic because any research may have procedural flaws, which leads to flawed conclusions. Others have criticized Davis for  his faulty research, however they did not back up that criticism with either competing research or examples fettering out the alleged research-flaws.

At least Davis' argument and the facts he presents make intuitive sense. Davis tends to stretch the research rather thinly, however, when he gets away from the basic scientific facts and extrapolates his own conclusions about wheat's role in neurological disorders like schizophrenia, for example. His zealous attack on wheat as the quintessential evil in our diet may overlook other factors that lead to poor health and obesity. Although, Davis does stress that wheat elimination alone is not enough for optimal health and weight loss. He includes other food group elimination as well, mainly processed carbohydrates. Other reviewers have categorized Davis as just another "Aitkin's Diet" proponent, sans the bacon. Those critics miss Davis' main point: that today's wheat is toxic to our systems.

Davis gets technical with the carbohydrates, proteins, enzymes, and how the various components move through our digestive and other bodily systems. For example, wheat contains amylopectin A which gets easily digested by the amylase enzyme in our saliva and stomachs.It rapidly converts to glucose, thereby spiking blood sugar and triggering an insulin response. By contrast, amylopectin B, in potatoes and bananas, resists digestion somewhat; and amylopectin C, in legumes, is the least digestible and ends up in the colon, leaving the sugars undigested. (p.33)

The fact that wheat causes radical shifts in blood sugar is one of the reasons wheat products are so addicting. Wheat is addicting, much like opiates, says Davis. Digested wheat yields polypeptides, called exorphins, which have the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to the brain’s opiate receptors. (p. 51) You just want more of it. When you don’t get it, you may have uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. (I need a drink.)

The science in this book may stymie those who have not studied biology and chemistry lately, like me. Nevertheless, I think he’s on to something. At least he has followed a trail based upon his own wheat skirmish and those of his patients. Again, not hermetically sealed science, as he admits, but compelling.

Davis' book seems to follow the diet book trend of offering more and more anecdotal evidence in place of the scientific gold standard, the double-blind study. Diet book authors generally defend the anecdotal evidence model as the precursor to double-blind studies, noting that science tends to follow overwhelming anecdotal evidence. The diet book authors also point out that not many people would want to sign up for a protracted double-blind study where they could potentially become very ill. Good point.
In Chapter 6, Davis discusses celiac disease, stressing that even if you do not have it, understanding its causes and cures proves useful when looking at wheat in the diet. 

Celiac disease, the most obvious manifestation of humans failed adaptation to wheat gluten, has increased fourfold in the past 50 years, doubling in the last 20 years. (p.82) In 1% of the population, even a tiny amount of gluten breaks down the small intestine, allowing fecal matter to enter the bloodstream. Not all celiacs display the same symptoms, however, making it difficult to diagnose. Only 10% know they have it. (p.90) “…undiagnosed, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma of the small intestine can result.” Wheat causes cancer, says Davis. (p. 90)

Wheat consumption increases blood sugar more than any other food, including candy, soda and table sugar, says Davis. The repeated blood sugar highs and lows cause insulin resistance, requiring more and more insulin production which leads to fat storage (insulin’s job.) That fat storage forms “visceral fat,” the bad kind—belly fat, a.k.a. “wheat belly.” Inflammation ensues, in an effort to combat the sugar/insulin barrage. Inflammation, as we all know, leads to disease, including cancer.

Wheat may also cause type 1 diabetes. Researchers propose that “a subgroup of type 1 diabetics develop the disease triggered by gluten exposure.” (p.86) Although Davis disagrees with many policies of the American Diabetics Association, especially dietary recommendations including wheat (p. 107), he applauds their view that children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes should be tested for celiac disease. (Sidebar “Wheat and Childhood (Type1) Diabetes” p. 113)

Now that you’re convinced that wheat sucks, Davis devotes the final third of the book to suggesting that you eliminate wheat from your diet “cold turkey,” in order to avoid cravings or withdrawals. 

In a previous chapter, Davis warned that the new gluten-free fare made of starches in potatoes, tapioca and rice, increases blood sugar even more than wheat. (p.72-73.) So no fake substitutes allowed. No processed foods allowed. No sugar allowed. No alcohol for the first part of wheat elimination. Go for high nutritional value and low carbohydrates. Yes, this is a low-carb plan.

Eat real fresh food prepared yourself. Here’s an abbreviated list:

Consume unlimited quantities: Fresh veggies (except potatoes)
Lean, organic, free-range meats, fish, eggs, raw nuts and seeds, cheese, healthy oils like coconut, olive, macadamia nut, sesame, avocado, walnut.

Consume limited quantities: Fresh fruit, rice, legumes, and other dairy products, potatoes, sweet potatoes and soy products.

Rarely consume: dried fruit. No corn or corn products.


I've been wheat-free for over 8 weeks and barely miss it. I did not consume wheat daily, but rather occasionally when I baked bread or had pasta, so had no problem with what to eat—I already ate as Davis suggests. I had no withdrawal symptoms.

I did not think I had wheat intolerance, much less celiac disease, whether latent or full-blown, so did not expect much. I may have been wrong about that, as I've noticed some interesting happenings, for example:
I have lost a few pounds and notice that I do not feel bloated.  Occasional bouts of diarrhea or constipation have virtually disappeared. An itchy, allergic rash on my back for the past 2 years has cleared completely! That alone is worth it. 

I ate lunch at the Atlanta Airport last weekend. I asked the server for wheat-free, gluten-free food choices, and that meant no bread. She offered me a wheat burrito first. I pointed out that a wheat burrito was, well, wheat, and contained gluten. She then offered me a corn tortilla. Nice save! I opted for grilled chicken and veggies over savory rice, even though I told the server that the prepared savory rice may contain gluten. She looked at me with that “deer in the headlights” look. I assured her that if the rice did contain gluten, I would not projectile vomit. I would just suffer for it later. She served me with a big grin.

That lunch exchange serves as an example that wheat is seemingly unavoidable in restaurants, and more importantly, that some servers remain oblivious to the ingredients in the food they serve. Not their fault. (In the server's defense, she got her manager who offered to get their guide listing food allergies relating to their products. Again, nice save.) Avoiding wheat while dining out is getting easier, however, and many restaurants now offer gluten-free fare.

Davis' Wheat Belly helped me to embrace wheat-free eating and I feel generally better, with more energy, as he promised.  Consequently, I happily join the celiac folks in the fight for wheat freedom in a wheat-centric world. 

Pass the organic mixed greens with black beans or grilled chicken please! Fresh blueberries for desert? Yes, I just CAN get enough-- and enjoy it too.

Have you gone gluten free? Have you tried baking with ancient Einkorn or Emmer wheat? Please share you experience in the Comments below.

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