Have you heard of Wheat Belly? It’s the wildly popular book that claims wheat is bad and it has strongly motivated people to eliminate wheat and gluten products from their diets. I have patiently listened to many friends and family members talk passionately about it. I’ve reserved (most of my) judgment because I had not read the book and had not objectively evaluated its claims. I have, however, learned about a gluten allergy versus an intolerance in school and the appropriate diet recommendations to treat these clinical diagnoses. So last week, I went to the public library, sat down with Wheat Belly, and finished it in four hours. I read it with an open mind and here is what I learned and what I think about it.
His message is clear (and repeated): wheat is bad. Wheat is so bad that it is the main reason Americans have bellies. Therefore, all bellies should be called “wheat bellies.” No, it’s not that we are less active or the sugar or the alcohol. It’s our consumption of wheat. Here are some of his main claims:
- Wheat is bad because of the hybridization and genetic modification of the crop
- Wheat is the primary contributor to fat gain (especially visceral fat around the belly)
- Wheat is aging you through AGE’s (Advanced Glycation End-products)
Claim #1: Wheat Hybridization
Firstly, I agree that wheat, amongst many crops, have been hybridized and modified. Although the health effects have yet to be fully realized, genetic modification of crops occurs for many reasons: increase in nutrients, aesthetics, resistance to pests (to reduce use of pesticides), resistance to weather damage (heat or rain), etc. Dr. Davis argues that wheat has changed from 4-feet tall crops that sway in the wind to 18-feet tall crops that are rigid. Additionally, there are newer strains of gluten complexes within our wheat. There has been a lot of controversy with genetic modification of foods. There are arguments for both sides. Pros: it helps crops become more resistant to bugs and weather damage, increase in aesthetics and nutrients, etc. Cons: Uncertain long-term health concerns.
The primary health concerns are the gluten content and the indigestible quality of wheat. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, less than 1% of the US population has Celiac’s Disease (aka an actual allergy to wheat). Tack on the increasing number of people who state that they have a wheat sensitivity, it seems that wheat may be negatively affecting people’s GI.
My take: I think that wheat has changed and that there is no clear evidence of how the modifications may affect each of us. Although we are theoretically the same in terms of biological and physiological make-up, we have differences as well: one of which is how we digest food as evidenced by our varying sensitivities and allergies to certain foods. If you think you have a wheat allergy or sensitivity, don’t self-diagnose. Go to a doctor and verify it. If you are like me and most Americans, you can process wheat and gluten just fine and can eat a healthy diet which includes wheat.
Claim #2: Wheat Makes You Fat
Dr. Davis argues that although sugar and lack physical activity may contribute to weight gain, but he claims that consumption of wheat is making us fat, especially around our abdomen. Hence, he calls all bellies, wheat bellies (I see what you did there, mister). He denounces the USDA, AND, AHA, etc’s endorsement of whole grains, saying that whole grains are not good. Rather, they are less evil.
His diet recommendations look like this:
Eat lots of vegetables
Eat little/some fruit
Eat raw nuts
Use oils generously
Eat meats & eggs
Eat dairy products
Never eat wheat products, sugary foods, fried foods, etc.
My take: Dr. Davis wrongly represents the many endorsements of whole grains and general wheat consumption by health organizations. It’s not that they say “eat grains and whole grains, and eat lots and lots of it” as Dr. Davis states. Rather, these organizations recommend moderation of our intake of grains and to make 50% of our grain intake be whole grains. In his book, he only provides anecdotal evidence of his patients trying to lose weight by moderation. Only when they completely eliminated wheat and gluten did they lose weight. It’s not scientifically backed, as he literally states in his book. I can see why he thinks our wheat consumption is bad. Think about how much we eat and the form in which our grains are consumed: pasta, chips, etc. But, he missed the mark completely by demonizing wheat and grains. It is not wheat that is making us fat. It’s our overconsumption of EVERYTHING that contributes to our weight gain.
Many people claim that once they cut wheat out, they have lost the weight that they haven’t been able to lose in years. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that they are consuming less calories. When you cut out all that processed foods that wheat may or may not be in, you’re most likely going to consume less calories. Switching to a whole food diet is not new or wrong, but demonizing wheat is. Secondly, when people start to take a more active role in their nutritional health (like eliminating wheat from their diet), they tend to do more healthful things in their lives like sleeping more, exercising more regularly, and eating better foods. It’s unreasonable to pinpoint just ONE thing that has helped us feel better. Really, it is the accumulation of all our healthy food choices and activity that has improved our health.
Claim #3: Wheat AGEs us.
AGEs, advanced glycation end-products, are not new. They were discovered in the 1980’s and they have been examined to age use inside and out. AGEs can also contribute to systemic inflammation, diabetes, and cancer. They naturally occur in our body as well as are found in our foods. Dr. Davis summarizes the process: eating high glucose containing foods or foods that increase blood sugars (like wheat) will provide more substrates to form AGEs. Therefore, eliminate AGEs by eliminating wheat from your diet. Other foods that can provide high AGEs are foods cooked at high temperatures, fried foods, etc.
My take: This is becoming a very popular nutrition topic and the evidence supports this. It goes hand-in-hand with eating healthfully and focusing on a whole food lifestyle diet. Combining weight gain and AGEs, Dr. Davis perfectly hits wheat consumption at every angle.
Ultimately, I think that Dr. Davis raises an interesting question about wheat consumption. However, he uses more scare tactics and anecdotal evidence than peer-reviewed scientific based evidence to support his claims. Maybe with more data, we can better understand this in the future. But for now, take it with a grain of salt (ha!). Anytime anyone demonizes one thing or says that this ONE thing can cure you, it should be a red flag for everyone. Unless you have a diagnosed allergy and sensitivity to gluten/wheat, you don’t have to exclude them from your diet. That is not to say that we should overeat and be lazy while consuming wheat products. Remember, it is a health lifestyle that should be sustained in many aspects. People can eat healthfully with or without wheat. Personally, I support a whole food diet, and I am less concerned with the wheat content. I am more concerned with the presence of artificial additives and preservatives. If preservatives stop bacteria growth in our food (to increase shelf life), what effect do they have on our gut health? Food for thought.