Reviewed in the United States on December 5, 2015
I recently finished Wheat Belly by William Davis (2011), and it’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Sure, it’s about wheat, but I found myself being educated on so much more than I expected. Since I bet recommending this book to everyone I know might result in just 1 or 2 people actually reading it, I thought a better idea was to outline some of the main points and thereby share in what I got out of the book.
Number 1, and for me the most important point of all, is that the wheat we are eating today is totally different from the wheat we evolved with. About 10,000 years ago, humans first started growing and eating wheat. About 50 years ago, wheat was drastically changed by hybridization so that it now has different proteins and lots more of them (mostly gluten). By the way, there are some seeds of the old kinds of wheat available (called einkorn and emmer). We should ask our grain farmers to grow them for us.
The next point concerns wheat’s glycemic index. A given food’s GI is supposed to tell you how much it will increase your blood sugar 1½-2 hours after eating it. (The GI numbers are not the whole story because blood sugar’s increase after eating depends on other factors as well, like what else you have in your stomach for example.) The takeaway for me was that, compared to white table sugar or sucrose, which is a disaccharide made up of fructose and glucose molecules bound together, wheat starch, which is made up of chains of glucose molecules, has an even higher GI despite the fiber present from the bran and wheat germ. This is because 1) blood sugar is glucose, and 2) fructose is processed by the liver, so it doesn’t raise post-meal blood sugar. This is important because so many of our modern illnesses are caused by spikes in blood sugar causing spikes in insulin, with type 2 diabetes the worst of them. By the way, many “gluten-free” foods are made from cornstarch, rice starch, potato starch, and tapioca, and unfortunately these ingredients also cause blood sugar spikes.
I also learned why wheat is addictive. There are molecules in wheat called “exorphins” (think endorphins, but from outside the body) that stimulate the opioid receptors in our brains, and that keep us coming back for a fix. A couple hours after you eat wheat, you’ll find yourself wanting more. On the other hand, if you eat wheat regularly and then stop cold turkey, you may experience withdrawal symptoms.
The title of the book refers to the phenomenon of middle of the body visceral fat deposits from eating wheat. This fat produces various hormones like estrogen, which you might think is a good thing if you’re a post-menopausal woman, but it’s really not – think breast and cervical cancer. And it’s really not good if you’re a guy (ever heard of man breasts?)! This is a pretty complicated subject that the author explores brilliantly. So get the book and skip ahead to chapter 5 if this is your interest.
Yes, there’s a whole chapter on celiac disease. If you have CD, you probably already know why you can’t eat wheat and you probably already know about the gazillion foods that have hidden gluten in them. But a huge number of people have undiagnosed CD – over 90% of those with the disease – because they have less symptomatic versions of CD or an atypical symptom picture. In addition to the typical symptoms of abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss, here are some other symptoms and diseases that can be caused by issues with gluten: migraines, neurological impairment, cerebellar ataxia, peripheral neuropathy, anemia and other nutrient deficiencies, type 1 diabetes, asthma, arthritis, rashes, allergies, hair loss, infertility, chronic fatigue, liver disease, atherosclerosis, kidney disease, acid reflux, inflammatory bowel diseases, incontinence, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, dementia, and many more.
I found the story of gliadin fascinating! Gliadin is a gluten protein found in all modern wheat and it makes your intestines permeable. This permeability eventually leads to a number of autoimmune diseases where the body’s immune system attacks its own organs, diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and autoimmune thyroiditis.
Another favorite chapter concerns pH, a subject that had recently been discussed over the water cooler at the fitness center I attend. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14 with 7 being neutral, lower numbers are more acid, and higher numbers more alkaline. Our bodies have a normal pH of 7.4 or slightly alkaline. Acidity in our body is balanced by sources of bicarbonate in our blood. But when that’s not enough, we draw calcium from our bones – the true cause of osteoporosis. Animal products – meats and cheeses – cause acidity in the body, but they also contain factors that improve bone health. Vegetables and fruits are alkalinizing. By the way, that knowledge should point us toward eating well-balanced meals. I love this: “Incidentally, taking calcium supplements is no more effective at reversing bone loss than randomly tossing some bags of cement and bricks into your backyard is at building a new patio.” There is a striking relationship between the incidence of hip fracture and the ratio of dietary protein from animal to vegetable sources. Basically if you eat less than a third of your protein from animal sources, you reduce your chances of hip fracture by 95%. So what’s the wheat connection? Grains also cause acidity in the body, with oats and wheat being numbers 1 and 2 on the list.
And the chapter on cholesterol… I have long known that restricting cholesterol in the diet – the idea that eggs are bad for you – was bogus. (Thank you, Sally Fallon.) This chapter was a lesson, sometimes a little too “medical,” that helped bring it together for me. Did you know that the LDL number on your blood test (the so-called “bad cholesterol”) is not measured but computed from HDL, total cholesterol, and triglycerides? And LDL isn’t even cholesterol, it’s a molecule that carries cholesterol, and it’s only bad if it’s too small. OK, I admit it, I still don’t quite understand all of this. We have VLDL (very low density lipoproteins) carrying triglycerides released by the liver, a process stimulated by insulin. My questions are: Why do the VLDL give their triglycerides to LDL? And for what purpose do LDL give up those triglycerides and become smaller, which is bad? It all happens when we eat too many carbohydrates, but the body must have a reason for doing it.
Have you heard of The China Study by Colin Campbell? It’s a book about how the typical Western diet is bad for us because of the animal foods we eat, and a diet based on non-animal foods is better. OK, I never read it, but I believe that’s the gist of it. Denise Minger is a researcher who went exploring in the source materials for Campbell’s book. What she found is that many of his conclusions were flawed due to his selective interpretation of the data (bad science). She also found – and he neglected to include in his book – that wheat flour was even more closely correlated to the diseases he studied than foods from animals, diseases like coronary disease and heart attacks. (See more at http://rawfoodsos.com/.)
My least favorite part of the book is the “how to” section at the end. Personally, I like to be educated, not told what to do; I can make my own decisions thank you very much. But others may appreciate the guidance and recipes provided for eliminating wheat from their diet.
What a great book… I couldn’t put it down! I wish all non-fiction writers could educate us so well while keeping us turning the pages.