Thursday, January 5, 2012

Book Review: "Wheat Belly" by William Davis, M.D.

Readers of this page will know that, in the last fifteen months or so, I've been directing my OCD laser beam on issues of sports nutrition.  It's turned out to be a fascinating and engagingly reticulated field to study, and one with surprisingly few certainties, at least on a prescriptive level.  Michael Pollan has singlehandedly waged a pretty effective public-relations war on the corn industry, long thought to be an innocuous source of staple food products.  Michelle Obama took a lead public relations role in replacing the established, if deeply misguided, food pyramid with something called "My Plate" that, according to certain pundits, has been a spectacular failure.  In each case, the modern thinking is not only different from what the government had advocated previously, it is almost directly contrary to it, implying that the previous advice that consumers were given would actually have hurt them if followed.

Diets are, if anything, even worse.  There are innumerable ones out there, from Atkins to Paleo, South Beach, Weight Watchers, Dean Ornish, Blood Type, Zone, and even Subway.  Consumers could be forgiven for concluding that any dietary approach will lead to weight loss except their present one.   Everyone has an opinion on the right way to eat, and it's not hard to marshal facts in support of virtually any approach when outlets like CNN are reporting breathlessly that a professor of human nutrition lost twenty-seven pounds in two months eating nothing but a Twinkie every three hours.
Apparently no one chooses My Plate.

Despite the overwhelming amount of often-contradictory information out there, I've come to think that there are right answers, or at least better and worse answers.  I overhauled my diet pretty thoroughly last year, dropping ten pounds while building lean muscle in the process, and my race results showed it.  I think that further improvements are always possible, however, and in any case, I simply can't stop myself from cramming as much information into my head as I can find.  And so it was that I heard a podcast interview with William Davis, MD, the author of "Wheat Belly," who argued broadly that, for countless reasons, wheat in its modern form is a pernicious, toxic substance that is substantially responsible for a wide range of modern disorders and diseases ranging from obesity to diabetes, and including perhaps even arthritis and autism.  Davis's argument seemed somewhat overstated to me, which made sense -- he was trying to sell a book, after all.  But, on the chance that there was something to it, I quickly picked up the book and got stuck in.

There's a lot to say, but here's the main thing: If you care about your health, I would put this book very firmly in the "must read as quickly as possible" column.  I've rarely come across a book that so decisively changed my perspective on a food or even methodology.  Until now, I thought of wheat as a grain whose proteins trouble certain people but that otherwise was fairly benign, if not particularly nutritious.  I hadn't been eating much of it when I was on a strict nutrition plan because it was a source of relatively empty calories, but I certainly indulged in pasta before races, pizza at finish lines, and cake on special occasions.  After reading this book, at least for the foreseeable future, I will do none of those things, and I predict that anyone who reads it with an open mind will be very tempted to make a similar decision.

The book starts with a simple, but fairly devastating, fact: whole wheat bread, long thought to be a staple of healthy living, spikes blood sugar levels far more than just about any other substance, including table sugar.  In carbohydrate terms, wheat is basically rocket fuel.  Biochemically, a spike in blood sugar causes the body to release a flood of insulin, which is disturbingly effective at converting that blood sugar to visceral fat, which accumulates around the midsection.  Visceral fat is a particularly bioactive and harmful type of fat that releases triglycerides and even estrogen, thus causing Gynecomastia, i.e., "man cans," on some unfortunate souls.  Chronically high levels of insulin can cause the liver to become desensitized to it, thus causing the pancreas to emit yet more to rid the blood of sugar, which leads to a cycle that culminates in diabetes.  It is therefore no surprise that obesity and diabetes are strongly correlated.  And it is also no surprise that the skyrocketing rates of diabetes (up 500 percent since 1980) and obesity are also correlated with a marked rise in the quantity of wheat consumed.

When I listened to the podcast, one objection I had was that, look: people have been eating wheat for thousands of years, even back to biblical times, and it's a staple of countless religious traditions, so it can't really be so toxic.  But the book anticipates and smacks this point down pretty thoroughly, explaining that the modern variety of high-yield "dwarf" wheat is substantially different, both physically and chemically, from anything that existed before the late twentieth century.  It is simply not the same plant that our ancestors ate: its glycemic index (the amount by which it raises blood sugar) is far higher, and its gluten is more pronounced so as to support the processing into baked goods and countless other products.  There is therefore little reason to draw comfort from past experience -- although Davis also argues that there is no variety of wheat, regardless of how old, that gets around many of the problems that the book sets forth.

The problems are legion.  Wheat has been linked to, among other things, osteoporosis, irritable bowel syndrome, anemia, cancer, fatigue, sores, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and various other autoimmune diseases.  Gluten, furthermore, is linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, neuropathy, and even autism.  This page, compiled by another physician,  discusses some of the problems.  Davis includes perhaps twenty clinical anecdotes of chronically ill patients without outward signs of celiac disease or gluten intolerance, but who nonetheless were quickly and sometimes completely cured simply by eliminating wheat from their diets.

For me, certain parts of this hit close to home, at least on a potential level.  Since my college days, I've suffered from bouts of cluster headaches about which the less is said, the better -- suffice it to say that I can think of few less pleasant sensations.  These headaches have come and gone seemingly without reason.  I noticed this fall, though, that it had been over a year since I'd last had a symptom, a period that corresponded rather directly to my dietary reforms, one of which was a virtual elimination of wheat for most of 2011.  In that time, I hadn't felt a stitch of discomfort, whereas I'd previously suffered a couple of weeks' affliction a couple of times each year.  In December of 2011, however, after Cozumel, I allowed myself a month of "normal" eating that included pizza, bread baskets, and lots of sandwiches around the holidays.  And, starting late last week, i.e., around New Year's Day, the headaches came back, and I've been fighting them ever since.  I'm back on the dietary wagon now, though, so it will be interesting to see whether wheat is indeed a contributing factor.

In all, I think anyone who takes health and nutrition seriously should pick this book up and devour it forthwith.  Endurance athletes, in particular, should be quite concerned if Dr. Davis's thesis is correct, because many indulge in virtually limitless bread, pasta, pancakes, bagels, and other wheat-based foods in the belief that it's acceptable, and perhaps even necessary to support the training load.  I've personally found that not to be the case, and this book confirms that there is every reason to doubt the wisdom of a grain-based diet.

The book is written in a highly accessible manner, is full of concrete anecdotes, and is well-sourced.  In the later chapters, some of the biochemical explanations for observed phenomena are quite detailed and technical, and I can't honestly say that I followed it all.  Still, I appreciated that the proposed causal chain is set forth should I want to invest the time to understand it down the road.  I also found that, toward the end, the anecdotes began to blend together, but only because they all fell into the pattern of "serious diseases cured merely through excising wheat from the diet."  On the whole, I suppose that, if they're true, such anecdotes can't be offered too often.


  1. Navigating the nutrition/dietary/ingredients landscape has never been as "information overload" as it is now not to mention the endless contray information. To misquote X Files, the information is out there, you just have to find it.

    The more you dig, the more you find out some version like you did on your nutrition quest 14 months ago. It's akin to trying to figure out which religion/belief construct is "right" and which one is for you.

    Knowing the reason for the pervasiveness of certain basic ingredients (soy, corn, and wheat) in industrialized foods comes back to commerce in the end. The history is interesting but the choices remain the same for the individual.

    The older I get, the more irritated I am with the sham of pervasive thinking through media etc. Finding out what behind the curtain, like finding out there's no Santa Claus, is dishearting and confusing simultaneously.

    I took a similar path this last race year to optimize all the vectors I could toward performance on the bike. Diet was certainly one. Organic, non processed, shop on the perimeter of the grocery store, fruits, vegetables, pretty much what you did. It's not easy. I learned alot, lost 10 lbs but didn't really go any faster despite all this. That part was really disappointing and it wasn't for lack of trying. Again, to paraphrase Billy Crystal, "what if today is the best you're every going to feel, the fastest you're going to go and it's not that great/fast". My paltry 290W FTP was exactly that.

    Greatly appreciate all your blog entries.

  2. DT, Interesting that you look to wheat as the migraine culprit and not any of the meats/cheeses/high fructose corn syrup/food coloring and other processed ingredients common to "pizza, bread baskets, and lots of sandwiches." Regardless, I look forward to following your gluten-free (or gluten-reduced) journey on your blog and in person :) --Kendra

  3. Kendra, thanks for the comment. I'd say it's too soon to suggest that I think wheat is the culprit, but there is an association worth exploring. I'm also having a G.I. panel done, and after a little while of being free of wheat and gluten, I'll try a reintroduction and see if I observe any symptoms. I don't think that HFCS causes any symptoms that corn and fructose don't, and I do eat corn and fruit, so that's probably not it. Food coloring? Maybe. Hard to say. But one has to start somewhere.

  4. Watts, thanks for following along, and I agree with all of your sentiments but one: I'll never use "290W FTP" and "paltry" in such close proximity. That's about where mine has peaked over the last couple of years; I've simply gotten more aerodynamic over that period. But there's always tomorrow.

  5. Interesting stuff. It's been a while since I've done any nutrition reading but maybe this will draw me back in.

  6. You probably didn't see this study or my comments about it on Dr. Davis' Wheatbelly Blog showing that besides the problems of glycation of proteins and the damage caused by the modern mutant 42 chromosome wheats used in ALL man made Processed Ingestible Snack Substances (PISS), carb loading as practiced by even novice athletes is the underlying cause of deaths from heart attacks & cancers among even the seemingly "fit" elite athletes.

    From my Twitter feed @cancerclasses, click the link below for the link to the study.

    "Proof that #carbs & carb loading thicken your blood reducing circulation, oxygenation & cardiac function. #cancer #diet"

  7. It is so clear that Dr. Davis' seminal work brings many factors to the surface that the oligopolies of corporate food america are going to have to address over the long term. We at Culinary Intelligence Summits, a Boston based event that is intended to provide the information the food service industry, whether channel, restaurants, higher education venue, corporate kitchen etc. NEED to understand the gravity of the transformation that needs to be undertaken to change our collective diets for the better.

    Mr. Davis, would would be delighted for you to Key Note this October 16 Culinary intelligence Summit in boston to speak with 400 movers and shakers in the food service arena, COMPASS, Aramark, US Foods, Sodexo,Sysco, PF Changs, other restaurant chains and QSR's along with almost 800 students from culinary schools and colleges across New England will be in attendance. Your message will strongly resonate with this and helps lay down markers for the grass roots efforts to implement change.

    We request your consideration to present at Culinary Intelligence Conference as a Keynote speaker. Some in our organization see you as controversial. We must move the discuss forward to generate real change.

    Please contact me at your earliest convenience. We will work with you on all the details and provide appropriate allows for trave, hotel and speaking stipend. There will be a tremendous media and analyst presence at this event which will help to further ampliy the messaging. America needs to wake up and demand changes in their diets that will provide longevity and living active lives.

    Thanks for you seminal work. I for one am looking for to discussing this opportunity with you asap.

    Warm regards,

    John Wilczak
    Managing Director
    Culinary Intelligence Summit.

  8. Contact email:, 805-895-8500

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