Review: Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis
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 Wonder bread 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 – were not 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.