Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health
by William Davis, MD
Rodale Press, 2011
Preventive cardiologist, Bill Davis, throws down the gauntlet in this provocative exposé on the dangers of consuming modern-day wheat. It is not too many calories, too little exercise, or eating at night that causes double chins and protruding bellies, he says. It is wheat. He speaks from personal and professional experience. For over twenty-five years, Davis has been treating patients with cardiovascular diseases and observing the effect of wheat on the function of the body, not only on his patients’ bodies, but on his as well, the not-so-proud former-owner of a wheat belly.
Wheat Belly gives strong evidence linking the consumption of wheat with celiac disease, other digestive diseases, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, aging-related conditions, and skin and hair problems.
When you look at old photos of parents and grandparents, there was seldom a wheat belly among them. Usually the people in those photos were on the lean side. Not so many years ago, a two-hundred-fifty pound person was an unusual sight. But now stroll the shopping mall on any given day, and you will see the majority of persons are overweight, some so fat that they must use a special vehicle to get around. And the shocking truth is, that many of those persons are children and young adults.
The history of the wheat belly begins in 1985 with a governmental campaign to reduce fat and cholesterol in the American diet. Eliminate eggs, butter and other animal products, and then what’s for supper? Carbohydrates and more processed carbohydrates, increasingly from GMO genetically modified grains. This coincides precisely, Davis says, with the start of a sharp increase in body weight for both sexes, which has continued aggressively onward and upward. Despite monumental increases in obesity since that time, the U.S. Public Health Service, the USDA and FDA, still have their noses to the lowfat/low cholesterol grindstone, prodding the overweight public to eat yet more carbs, highly processed oils and soy products.
Davis submits that eating two slices of whole wheat bread is not much different from eating a candy bar or drinking a soda. All raise blood sugar very quickly. We know the connection between blood sugar, insulin and fat. Insulin is a fat storage hormone, and what provokes outbursts of insulin? Wheat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and even beverages, causes rapid peaks and valleys of blood sugar, calling forth more and more insulin at a rapid pace. And the more wheat you eat, the more insulin is on the job, efficiently storing fat away, rounding out that wheat belly. Gradually this pattern leads to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
All that is hard to believe for those of us who consider bread an essential part of life. Just the smell of bread baking evokes warm and comforting feelings, and is reminiscent of home, of mom or grandma in the kitchen, conjuring up a taste of heaven. We pray to God to “give us this day our daily bread,” and sing out our patriotism with “amber waves of grain” in the national anthem. These words describe the strong connection that we, as a society, have to wheat bread, which has sustained generations of Americans.
So how can something that is so beloved, be so bad for us? Where has wheat gone wrong? This sacred food of yesteryear bears no resemblance to the modern-day loaf which Davis says is a product of genetic engineering and intense hybridization. The four-foot-tall “amber waves of grain” were reduced to a miniaturized “dwarf” which produces high yields, is quick growing, requires less maintenance and resists drought. These changes have caused today’s industrial bread to differ in more ways than one from grandma’s loaf. The new products of wheat engineering were not subjected to rigorous toxicology studies, and were released upon an unsuspecting public without consideration for human safety.
Davis maintains that the changes in the wheat protein, called gluten, that resulted from genetic tweaking prove devastating to the human immune system. The modern dwarf has become the Public Enemy Number One to many American immune systems. Celiac disease or gluten intolerance, a devastating disease, is on the rise, increasing four-fold in the last fifty years. In addition to the standard digestive problems like diarrhea, constipation and bloating, this disease can present with many different signs and symptoms, including tooth abnormalities, depression, anemia, osteoporosis, acne, migraines, fatigue and infertility. Tests which confirm celiac disease may miss many sufferers because they only confirm the most advanced cases where intestinal villi have been severely damaged. Gluten is contained in wheat, rye and barley, but wheat is by far the most common food containing gluten in the Standard American Diet (SAD).
Modern wheat is higher in carbohydrate and lower in protein that any of the earlier wheat varieties. But most of the “complex carbohydrate” in wheat is different from many other carbs, which makes it so “fattening.” Amylopectin A, the most digestible form of amylopectin, a “supercarbohydrate” model of efficiency and appetite stimulant, is modern wheat’s heavy hitter. Unlike amylopectin B and C, which exist in beans, bananas and other foods, amylopectin A works faster and harder to increase blood sugar more than any other complex carb.
Davis says that this particular amylopectin is the reason that wheat causes such a blood sugar roller coaster ride throughout the day, every day. The more wheat in the meal, the higher the blood sugar climbs, the greater amount of insulin is needed to bring it down, and the more fat is put into storage, particularly into the abdomen. The wheat belly fat, called visceral fat, with its fat cells, or adipocytes, is a special kind of fat with its own command center, a distinct organ, making its own hormones, and influencing the disease processes throughout the body.
Davis has found that the wheat belly is a sign of future diabetes. The bigger the wheat belly, the more insulin resistant the person becomes; and the bigger the belly, the more inflammation builds, triggering cancer and heart disease, even producing more estrogen and “man boobs.’’ In women, the estrogen factory going on in the fat belly tissue has been associated with a risk for breast cancer that is almost four-fold.
Davis also implicates wheat as a “vigorous trigger” for the development of AGE-advanced glycation endproducts, the stuff of cataracts, retinopathy, neuropathy, nephropathy, dementia, male erectile dysfunction and other conditions associated with aging. Foods that dramatically increase blood sugar increase AGEs. Carbs in wheat trigger blood sugar the most, and make the most AGEs.
He says that the health outlook for those who consistently consume mostly industrial foods is grim. Fructose, as in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is often found together with wheat in bread and baked goods. In fact high fructose corn syrup is everywhere. The bad news is that HFCS triggers AGE formation in the body up to one hundred fold more than wheat.
But the solution to the modern spiral of obesity, diabetes and cancer, is in our hands— and bellies. Studies show that people who must eliminate wheat from the diet, such as those who are diagnosed with celiac disease, have lost large amounts of weight, and fat. Davis claims that he has seen belly fat “vanish” when his patients eliminated wheat, “with weight losses of twenty, thirty and fifty pounds over a few months.” He says he continues to be amazed at the improvement in chronic health conditions, even though he has seen this phenomenon “thousands of times.”
Davis recommends cooking one’s own food as a way to eliminate wheat and regain health. In addition to many menu suggestions, he includes twenty-eight pages of creative recipes for smoothies, cereals, wraps, entrees, salads and desserts, which introduce the reader to the use of quinoa, flax seed, pumpkin seeds, nuts, coconut, eggs, dairy—including the use of cauliflower as pizza base, in recipes where wheat is usually used.
He gives many thoughtful suggestions on kicking wheat, and following a wheat-free life: what to expect in the first hours, day and weeks. Davis says that about 30 percent of people will experience a withdrawal effect, something like a withdrawal from nicotine, which can last from two to five days. But most people, he says, do not have much difficulty. He prepares the reader to be mentally and physically ready for the new experience and to condition their blood sugar cycles by avoiding other high glycemic foods such as rice, desserts and snack foods to prevent jumping head first back into a pizza or “Subway.” Because cravings occur in two-hour cycles, he talks about keeping blood sugar levels on even keel, how to minimize them, and ease into a wheat-free diet.
My only reservation about Wheat Belly is that it fails to acknowledge the fact that many people do tolerate wheat bread without problems if it is eaten with plenty of butter and properly prepared the WAPF way, and this is especially likely to be true if the wheat comes from a traditional non-hybrid form such as spelt. Ancient wheat forms of emmer, einkorn and spelt have been a part of the human diet for generations. Our ancestors prepared these grains through soaking, sprouting and souring to neutralize the anti-nutrients in the seed. Although emmer and einkorn are not readily available at present, some small farmers are interested in re-establishing these grains. Spelt can be purchased at the market. This wheat variety was not hybridized to the extent of modern wheat bread flour, contains more protein and fat, and lends itself well to the sourdough process. Preliminary studies show that celiac patients tend to tolerate sour dough breads prepared from spelt in the traditional way.
For more information on traditional wheat, souring and sour dough bread, and celiac disease, see www.westonaprice.org/digestive-disorders/against-the-grain and www.realsourdoughbreadrecipe.com.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2012.