Demystifying the Book “Wheat Belly”

Dr, William Davis, has authored the diet book “Wheat Belly” in which he concludes that the excessive consumption of dwarf wheat is not only the primary cause of the obesity epidemic but also enlarged men’s breasts, breast cancer in women, irritable bowels, thunder thighs, leg nerve damage, aching joints, diabetes, leaky intestines, an unhealthy Ph balance, excessive blood sugars, hair loss, cataracts, wrinkly skin, dowager’s hump, accelerated aging, addiction, uncontrollable appetite, schizophrenia, hallucinations, suicidal desires, delusions, detachment from reality, destruction of brain tissue, pimples, rashes, mouth sores, and many more ailments such as Behcet’s disease (ulcers of the genitalia) that I learned about for the first time when reading the book. ( I am not making this up – all the above are listed as being caused by wheat!!) It is possible that for some readers the scenarios presented are so unpleasant that even thinking about wheat will result in add yet another infliction to the list.
The book does provide credible evidence that celiac disease which is severely aggravated by the consumption of wheat gluten, is on the rise. However, the claim by Dr Davis that wheat causes the disease seems not to be supported by others. For example, the Mayo Clinic has the following comment: “While the exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, doctors have discovered that it often runs in families”. Meanwhile the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse makes the following comment. “Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning it runs in families”.
It should be noted that there is an increase in most autoimmune diseases in the US so celiac should not be singled out as unique in this regard. Indeed while no hard evidence exists on why this group of diseases is on the rise, there are well documented studies that demonstrate that their incidence in lesser developed countries is substantially lower than in more prosperous nations. The theory that is evolving is that along with the high levels of sanitation associated with the prosperous, the immune system is unchallenged when it comes to fending off disease and infection that are a part of life in many societies of the Third World. Thus it would appear that Americans might just be too squeaky clean and fail to provide their immune systems with the occasional rigorous workout and thus causing it to misbehave. The point here is that to jump at the conclusion that wheat causes celiac disease just because it seriously impacts on the symptoms is incomplete science.
Also, the author’s claim that bread from wheat has a high glycemic index and turns to sugar in the bloodstream too quickly with negative health consequences is quite correct. This is presumably because bread is easy to digest. However, the highly respected International Table of Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Values as prepared by the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, provides unprocessed wheat or even bread with cracked wheat with an acceptable score. Also included in the table that lists hundreds of wheat based food products that are also in the healthy range. No need to panic here.
Fortunately the glycemic index challenge for bread was conveniently resolved almost exactly 250 years ago in 1762 by the British Statesman, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, Postmaster General, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Secretary of State for the Northern Department. Outside his day job he was apparently an ardent gambler who did not want to waste time away from his game so he ordered his servants to bring him slices of meat between pieces of bread. His fellow gamblers did not want to be outdone by the creative Earl and asked for “what Sandwich is having.” The rest is history that comes full circle with the publication of the above mentioned glycemic index. Interestingly, the index lists several different “sandwich” combinations that exhibit modest glycemic indexes. Thus unless a person is disposed to eating bread without butter or any other condiments, the glycemic index issue seems to be of no great consequence.
Moving on from the medical claims, there are other fundamental facts that fly in the face of Dr. Davis’s findings.
The first is that wheat consumption has fallen dramatically over the last century. According to the USDA the per capita consumption in the US fell from 225 pounds in the 1880s and stood at 134 pounds in 2005. Also according to the USDA, the per capita caloric intake for all types of food and beverages over the period from 1990 to 2008 increased by 10%. The following chart illustrates where these additional calories have crept into diets.
Per Capita Annual Consumption of Selected Foods (USDA), 1990 and 2005
Food (in pounds) 1990 2005
Red meats and poultry 171.4 183.6
All dairy products 568.9 600.5
Fats and oils 65.3 85.5
Fruits and vegetables 660.2 688.6
Wheat flour 135.9 134.1
Flours from oats, barley, rice, rye and cereals 181.0 192.3
Sugar and corn sweeteners 132.4 141.6

Wheat flour, and by extension bread, stands out as the only significant food group that actually saw a decrease in consumption. Thus to blame wheat for the obesity epidemic makes no sense whatsoever. However, to be realistic, a book entitled “Calorie Belly” would never get on the New York Times bestseller list. But as every reader knows, every good yarn needs a villain and “Wheat Belly” provides one in spades.
As an agriculturalist, I find it rather amazing that Dr. Davis has been able to single out dwarf wheat alone as having a flawed genetic composition and thus the culprit for so many ailments. He seems to overlook the fact there are thousands of plants that contribute to providing the array of food products listed above and that all are, to one degree or another, genetically quite different than their wild ancestors. Wheat breeding is by no means unique.
While “dwarf” wheat may sound a bit odious to those unfamiliar with the concept; all that is involved is cross breeding of a short straw Japanese wheat type with longer stem North American varieties to prevent the grain from falling down when crops are bountiful and thus avoid a challenged and reduced harvest. This breeding program was concluded in the 1950s and by 1960 wheat growers were already well on the way to adopting this new wheat variety. This begs the question that with billions around the world having consumed the product for approaching two generations, why it was not until 2011 that one doctor alone raised so many alarms?
Dr. Davis is clearly dedicated to his cause as is evident in his book by introducing the probability that the FDA will duplicate the tobacco example and issue the following: “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Wheat Consumption in all forms poses potentially serious threats to health.” He goes even further in an open letter to the Grains Food Foundation with the statement: “I propose that you or your organization, as well as the wheat industry and its supporters, are at risk for legal liability on a scale not seen since the tobacco industry was brought to task to pay countless millions who died at their product’s hands.” These suggestions by just one man could lead to grave unintended circumstances on a global scale given that 20 per cent of the calorie intake of humans comes from wheat.
In this regard I recall that when I studied agriculture at university, wheat was admired as “the crop of last resort’ given the fact that it would flourish in dryer, colder and even hotter conditions than corn, soybeans, or a host of other crops. Imagine the disruption to the global food supply if wheat was driven from the human diet. As the options for producing other crops than wheat in much of its range are limited, food output to feed the world’s seven billion inhabitants could be in serious jeopardy. While the intent of Dr. Davis is to facilitate weight loss, such a scenario could easily lead to millions shedding pounds on an involuntary basis (aka starvation). I suggest that there is too much at stake to take the mostly anecdotal claims of the good doctor seriously without vigorous peer reviewed scientific evidence.
Finally, on a personal and closing note of disclosure, I enjoy my customary whole wheat toast, butter, and jam most mornings. In spite of this supposedly reckless behavior, I am pleased to advise that as a result of regular inspections of the relevant part of my anatomy, I remain completely free of any symptoms of Behcet’s disease.

Maurice Hladik, author of “Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork”.


One thought on “Demystifying the Book “Wheat Belly”

  1. Great post, Maurice.
    The last time I looked on Amazon, his book was number 1 in sales. I guess he is doing something right. As far as nutritional concerns, don’t you think wheat from the early 1900s would be better for our bodies than the more starchy varieties today? The obesity problem is caused by eating all these processed foods. The average person consumes about 10 pounds of chemical food additivies a year. Can you imagine what that does to our bodies? Also, eating fat-free and lowfat all these years has done more harm than good. In my estimation we need to decrease the starches and sugars and increase the healthy fats in our diets.

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