Book Review: "Wheat Belly" by William Davis, MD

Book Review:

Wheat Belly is one cardiologist’s scathing indictment of America’s favorite grain.  Dr. William Davis emphatically argues that our voracious appetite for wheat has contributed to many contemporary health crises.  Excise wheat from your diet, Davis insists, and you’ll enjoy permanent weight loss, clearer skin, inflammation reduction, improved digestion, chronic disease relief, and better cardiovascular health.

The title Wheat Belly suggests a focus on the cosmetic consequences of wheat consumption.  However, Davis says modern wheat contributes to more than a protruding abdomen.  “I call it wheat belly, though I could have just as easily called this condition pretzel brain or bagel bowel or biscuit face since there’s not an organ system unaffected by wheat.”  Davis accuses wheat of underlying multiple grave health conditions, from diabetes to autoimmune disease, acne to osteoporosis, compulsive overeating to neurological dysfunction.

At some point over the course of his cardiology practice, Davis caught wind of a study demonstrating that a serving of whole wheat bread (with a glycemic index of 72) spikes blood sugar more than table sugar.  This piece of data inspired him to assign a wheat-free diet to a sample of his own diabetes-prone, overweight patients for three months, then test their health markers.  Following these “radical wheatectomies”, the blood sugar scores of most participants dropped out of the diabetic range and many also lost between twenty and forty pounds.  (Unfortunately, Davis rarely supplies hard numbers when he refers to such cases from his personal practice.  These statistical omissions make his testimonials pack less of a punch than they otherwise might.)  Davis had hoped for those results, but he was surprised by all the other benefits conferred on his patients:  rashes disappeared, rheumatoid arthritis pain cleared, asthma symptoms improved, irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux disappeared, and athletic performance enhanced.  Cue Dr. Davis’ fixation with exposing the shadow side of this revered food.

So what’s so bad about wheat?  It contains 75% amylopectin A, a glucose unit that raises blood sugar more than any fellow complex carbohydrate.  Davis maintains that amylopectin A content causes the body to process “healthy” whole wheat similarly to “unhealthy” pastry flour.  When the body’s blood sugar levels are repeatedly increased fat is stored - especially abdominal fat.  The bigger a person’s “wheat belly” the poorer her insulin response and the higher her risk of developing diabetes.  Visceral fat also heightens systemic inflammatory response, thereby increasing the risk of cancer and heart disease.

Prolonged high blood sugar causes the genesis of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which can contribute to the development of cataracts, dementia, and atherosclerosis.  Elevated insulin levels also kick-start a metabolic process called de novo lipogenesis (the liver’s conversion of sugars into triglycerides, which are then bundled into very low density lipoproteins - a key risk factor for heart disease).  Visceral fat worsens matters because it behaves like a triglyceride storehouse and facilitates a flood of triglycerides into and out of fat cells.  

Wheat gluten can contribute to “gluten encephalopathy” and other neurological symptoms in the general population and more vulnerable populations alike.  It is linked to dementia, vision problems, and cerebellar ataxia, not to mention appetite stimulation via the release of so-called “exorphins” (think endorphins that originate outside the body).

Why are we only now seeing an uptick in devastating illnesses when wheat has sustained populations for millennia?  Davis contends that today’s 25,000+ varieties of wheat bear little resemblance to their humble forebear einkorn.  Wheat’s genetic structure changed little until the mid-20th century, when sophisticated agricultural intervention led to rigorous introgressing, crossbreeding, and hybridizing in a fervor to create fast-growing, high-yield, hardy “dwarf wheat”.  Radical genetic manipulations led to considerable structural change in the grain.  Davis suggests that today’s “synthetic wheat” contributes to a spectrum of undesirable health impacts in unsuspecting humans.

You may wonder, “How am I supposed to eat a well-balanced diet if I avoid wheat-containing foods?  The USDA and ADA are always harping on the importance of healthy whole grains.  Where else am I going to load up on B vitamins and roughage?”  Davis frames such questions as forgivable misconceptions.  He boldly bucks against conventional medicine’s longstanding love affair with modern wheat, pointing out that the USDA’s campaign to encourage Americans to eat “more healthy whole grains” corresponds closely with the onset of nationwide chronic disease epidemics.  Americans consume more wheat than did our ancestors, yet we’re sicker and fatter than ever.  Davis dedicates the third section of this book to strategies, recipes, and moral support geared toward giving up wheat.

“I am going to argue that the problem with the diet and health of most Americans is not fat, not sugar, not the rise of the Internet and the demise of the agrarian lifestyle.  It’s wheat - or what we are being sold that is called wheat.”  Is excessive modern wheat consumption truly to blame for all (literal) ills here in the developed, convenience-oriented United States?  Davis ultimately concedes that other high glycemic carbohydrates can impair weight loss efforts, but he essentially ignores the potential health consequences of reduced activity levels, food additives, processed sugars, trans fat, gut health erosion, environmental disruption, and other variables present in a modern lifestyle.  Be that as it may, the scientific studies and abundant anecdotal evidence he cites are compelling enough to consider wheat an impediment to optimum health.

Wheat Belly explores the potential health hazards of this ubiquitous foodstuff, but in doing so it sometimes gets hung up on hyperbole and speculation.  For instance, the inflammatory claim “Wheat bread spikes blood sugar more than table sugar” resurfaces so many times throughout the book as to become mildly irritating.  The absence of hard numbers in Davis’ own sample trials also distracts from a purely empirical consideration of this work.  Even accounting for these shortcomings, this book is a useful layperson’s introduction to the dark side of a historically beloved dietary staple.  Wheat Belly presents fascinating science in a conversational way.  Furthermore, William Davis’s provocative counsel to “perform a radical wheatectomy” is a far less risky maneuver than many other medical interventions one could undergo.

Guest Contributor: Elizabeth McLister