Exclusive: Four Questions for the Author of Wheat Belly, William Davis, MD

Readers: Today we have a treat in store for you: an exclusive interview with the outspoken author of Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis. As always, my goal is to bring new and compelling ideas to my readers, and if you saw my review, you can see that while I was impressed by the ideas in Wheat Belly, I was also left with some unanswered questions. I reached out to Dr. Davis to see if he'd be willing to respond.

Fortunately for us, Dr. Davis agreed--and he didn't hold back. Read on to hear his compelling and strongly-worded views.

1) What have been some examples of blowback you've received since the publication of Wheat Belly? Have you come under criticism from, say, the food industry or food lobbyists, other doctors, etc.? What stories can you tell?

Given the controversial nature of the assertions made in Wheat Belly, we should expect blowback from the proponents of wheat and grains, as they have a lot at stake here. The wheat trade groups, such as the Whole Grains Council and the Grain Foods Foundation, have been among the most vocal in defending wheat. They have, in fact, announced campaigns to defend their industry with renewed financial investment and vigor. They are well-funded, obtaining backing from agribusiness, Big Food, and, oddly, diabetes drug manufacturers. Most of their objections have been delivered via their nutrition experts in media interviews or paid articles placed in various media supporting the “healthy whole grain” message.

But I have found the counterarguments anemic. For instance, they have made much of the fact that wheat is not genetically-modified, i.e., in the language of geneticists, wheat has not received new genes via gene splicing techniques. That is absolutely correct and I have never asserted that modern wheat is genetically-modified, unlike corn and soy. Instead, wheat has been subjected to techniques like multiple hybridizations, backcrossings, embryo “rescue” (to salvage otherwise fatal mutations) wide crossings (with distantly-related or unrelated grasses to introduce unique genes), and gamma radiation and chemical mutagenesis (purposeful induction of mutations using gamma rays or toxic chemicals), techniques that predate genetic modification that were imprecise, unpredictable, far worse than genetic modification. In other words, the defense of wheat as “not the product of genetic modification” is a word game of no substance.

They have also argued that grains like wheat have been eaten by humans for thousands of years. The issue they sidestep with this argument is that humans have only consumed this modern product of genetics manipulations since around the 1970s. High-yield, semi-dwarf wheat, the 18-inch tall plant that emerged from the genetics experiments conducted near Mexico City in the 1960s and 1970s, then introduced widely in the early- to mid-1980s, is a very recent addition to the human diet. Incidentally, when this modern form of wheat was introduced that included a unique form of the gliadin protein, calorie intake increased, on average, by 440 calories per day, every day, 365 days per year. This is because the modern form of the gliadin protein in wheat is an appetite-stimulant.

They also argue that “healthy whole grains have repeatedly been shown to reduce risk for diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer.” That is absolutely true—if consumption of whole grains is compared to consumption of processed white flour products.

In other words, the epidemiologic studies, such as the Nurses Health Study and the Physicians Health Study, did indeed suggest that whole grain consumption was associated with reduced likelihood of all these conditions compared to individuals who consumed more white flour products.

So, they have shown that when something bad (white flour products) are replaced by something less bad (whole grains), there is an apparent health benefit. The conclusion drawn is that plenty of the less bad thing is therefore good for you. Let’s apply the same logic to another situation, cigarettes. If we replace something bad, unfiltered Camel cigarettes, with something less bad, filtered Salem cigarettes, and there is an apparent health benefit, then the conclusion should be that smoking plenty of the less bad cigarette is good for health.

Of course, that is absurd. But this false sequence of logic has served as the basis for the entire body of nutritional advice now echoed by the USDA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and other “official” providers of nutritional advice—all based on a flawed premise. The question that should have emerged from such research is: What happens to people when they completely remove grains--white and whole? That is where the unexpected and substantial health benefits emerge.

2) Given what you say about wheat and gluten-rich foods, how can we explain the lack of obesity in wheat-dependent cultures like France and Italy? What factors do you think shield these countries from USA-type obesity rates?

There are a number of factors at work in each country.

First of all, these countries are not shielded from the worldwide epidemic of obesity; they are just 20 years behind the U.S. They are all experiencing their own mini-epidemics of weight gain, obesity, and diabetes.

Second, unlike the U.S., wheat and whole grains play a lesser role in their meals. Because Americans have been advised to eat more and more “healthy whole grains,” foods like pasta, bagels, and muffins and other wheat-based products have come to dominate meals. In France and Italy, wheat-based products are not as prominent. In addition, I believe that Big Food has understood that the gliadin protein of wheat stimulates appetite via opiate receptors in the brain and therefore add wheat to virtually all processed foods in the U.S. Foods in countries like France and Italy are much less likely to originate in a large factory and are more likely to come from a corner butcher, grocer, or farmer, who of course do not use this opiate appetite-stimulating effect in their foods. In many ways, Americans have served as the unwitting guinea pigs in a national experiment that demonstrates what happens when humans are exposed to this appetite-stimulating food with every meal: they become overweight, obese, and diabetic.

Lastly, to some degree farmers in France and Italy have retained some of the older strains of wheat and have not adopted the high-yielding semi-dwarf strain that is grown in virtually all of North America. The French and Italians can still purchase wheat products made with emmer wheat, farro, einkorn, or traditional full-height wheat. Older strains of wheat, while not entirely benign, do not trigger appetite to the same degree that the modern semi-dwarf strains do.

French bakers also tell me that they age their dough and are more likely to use lactic acid fermentation to generate sourdough, which results in reduced carbohydrate content, likely only a modest advantage.

It’s also worth noting that exposure to the ingredients in wheat products is not just about weight. There are all the other health issues that develop in people who consume wheat, such as gastrointestinal disruption, high blood sugar, joint pain and arthritis, and behavioral effects, that develops regardless of whether obesity is caused.

3) How do you explain the effectiveness of high-carb diets (e.g., a Dr. Robert Haas Eat To Win-type diet), which encourage highly trained athletes to load up on carbs in the days before major endurance races?

I would argue that this is a very destructive and unnecessary practice. Just because someone is very fit does not mean they are metabolically healthy. I meet elite endurance athletes with heart disease, pre-diabetes, diabetes, carotid disease, arthritis, and other health consequences of this distorted way of eating. Key to understanding what happens with high-carb loading is the process of glycation, or glucose modification of proteins in the body. If blood sugar rises above 100 mg/dl (normal), glucose modifies proteins such as those in the lenses of the eyes (cataracts), cartilage cells (leading to brittle cartilage and arthritis), apoprotein B in LDL particles (leading to atherosclerosis), endothelial cells lining arteries (leading to stiff arteries and hypertension).

As you likely know, marathoners, triathletes, long-distance cyclists, and other endurance athletes are beginning to reject the high-carb idea and embracing a limited carbohydrate exposure to encourage fatty acid oxidation, a much more rational approach to exercise that mimics the natural situation of humans running, for instance, for hours to hunt down wild game. Even Dr. Timothy Noakes, well-known author of the encylopedic Lore of Running, has replaced carbohydrate-rich eating with a low-carb style of nutrition for runners.

High-carbohydrate eating, such as the carb-load prior to a race, creates the peculiar situation in which the athlete becomes very carbohydrate-dependent. You can identify these athletes by their frequent need for energy drinks, Goo, bananas, as they are barely able to keep up with the need to replenish glucose and liver glycogen. The low-carb athlete, on the other hand, is an efficient fat oxidizer, able to draw from the virtually unlimited energy of fat and may only need modest quantities of such carbohydrate supplement during a long-distance effort.

4) I can imagine a lay reader finishing your book and reasonably arriving at the conclusion that wheat is the cause of practically everything that's wrong with modern society. What was behind your decision to write the book in a polemic style, rather than an academic style? Do you think that including more contra-evidence or more qualifications to your conclusions would have helped your book's persuasiveness even more? Or would it have hurt it?

The book was written to appeal—and be understood—by the broadest audience. Some people wanted less documentation and science, while others wanted more. I tried to strike a balance.

The problem is that virtually all of the arguments I make have already been scientifically validated but have not achieved the widespread recognition that they deserve. Before I wrote the book, although I pride myself on having a pretty good understanding of nutrition, I was not aware that celiac disease has quadrupled in frequency over the past 50 years. I was not aware that modern semi-dwarf strains of wheat contain unique Glia-α9 sequences for the gliadin protein, the most intestinally destructive form of this protein, not present in traditional strains of wheat. I was not aware that National Institutes of Health research had already demonstrated that the gliadin protein of wheat was an opiate, binding to opiate receptors in the brain. I was not aware that, if wheat germ agglutinin (a lectin protein in wheat) is purified and fed to laboratory animals, their intestinal tract is destroyed. Not only was I not aware of all these observations, neither were my colleagues, nor was much of the nutrition community.

So I have managed to increase awareness of what is already known. What makes this even more incredible, of course, is that not only are we not informed of these observations, we are advised by all “official” sources of dietary advice to eat more foods made of wheat.

Compound this with the anecdotal but large experience I have witnessed in patients and followers of the book and online discussions, who continue to report dramatic, often life-changing turnarounds in health and weight. While further exploration of the destructive effects of modern wheat are indeed required in some areas (e.g., the peculiar but substantial relationship of food obsessions triggered by the gliadin protein in people with a genetic predisposition to eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating; blocking of leptin receptors by wheat germ agglutinin; the contribution to senile dementia by wheat gliadin), I believe that, given what we already know, added to what I observe, I have no hesitation in saying that no human should be consuming this incredibly destructive grain.

Once again, I'd like to offer Dr. William Davis an enormous thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, and for graciously addressing all my questions--even the combative ones. Clearly this is a doctor with our best interests at heart, and I'm deeply grateful he was willing to have this conversation on behalf of readers here at Casual Kitchen. Once again, you can find him at The Wheat Belly Blog and at his heart disease prevention website Track Your Plaque.

Readers, what do you think? I want to know.

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Joanne said...

As a scientist with a deep rooted interest in nutrition and who gets absolutely inflamed when people quote scientific studies without actually understanding them and their implications, I'm compelled to bud in here.

First, the study that is quoted that shows opiate receptor binding activity of gliadin was done in 1984. The fact that no studies have been done to follow up on it since then means that it was unrepeatable and didn't pan out. Regardless of that, the studies were done in vitro, on tissue samples that were mounted on a slide so nowhere was there any evidence that gliadin actually gets to the brain to activate opioid receptors in a real organism, human or otherwise. In all honesty, the likelihood of it getting past the blood brain barrier is slim.

Now, onto your claims about high carb diets and glycation. Normal post-prandial blood sugar levels fall between 100 and 120 with 120 being the upper limit and with most normal people falling below that. This rise is CRITICAL for signaling insulin to be produced which allows glucose to be stored and used in tissues where it is needed, such as the muscle and the brain (which cannot function without sugar, by the way). In an endurance athlete, who already has a lower blood sugar than normal, this spike probably does not even go as high as 120 and so glycation is not even an issue. In addition, the side effects of glycation that you mention such as cataract formation and weakening of blood vessels only happen in very severe, long term diabetes where blood sugar levels have been extremely high for years...not in individuals who have normal rises and falls of blood sugar that come along with normal eating. Word of advice...don't make extreme hyperbolic claims when theyre totally not based in reality.

Eleni said...

I'm curious if the book goes into the difference between 'wheat free' and 'gluten free'? I have been considering cutting back my wheat intake for some time but as a daily bread consumer I am finding the alternatives a bit of a minefield - is it the wheat that's bad for you or is it the gluten in the wheat that's bad for you?

Daniel, I look forward to your menu suggestions!

Daniel said...

Joanne, I was hoping you would weigh in on this conversation at some point. Thank you.

And I'll admit, I asked that question on high-carb diets to Dr. Davis for a selfish reason: I have found that high complex carb foods like pasta are exceptional fuel sources for me. My body "runs well" on them, and I have zero belly fat. So I wanted to understand this in light of all of the supposed problems with wheat/gluten/carbs.

Thanks for sharing your insights.


Daniel said...

Eleni, yes, the book goes into that. Basically in Wheat Belly, Dr. Davis uses the word "wheat" as verbal short-hand for gluten. There are other sources of gluten, it's just that in our diets, wheat is by far the largest source. Dr. Davis explains it extremely well in his book.

And sadly, you'll have to rethink your daily bread consumption if you want to adhere to this books prescriptions. But I recommend you read Wheat Belly (critically!) and see what you think. Thanks for your question!


Marcia said...

I'm happy to see Joanne check in too.

My neighbor just read Wheat Belly and has been telling me a bit about it. She's given up all grains and dairy, and really cannot gain weight. (She is controlling her Crohn's with diet.)

I think it's fair to say that all of our bodies are different. Some people really do have problems with wheat and grains. I've read a book called "Refuse to Regain" by Dr. Barbara Berkeley. In her experience as an obesity doctor, folks who have been overweight or obese are MUCH more sensitive to grains than those who have been a normal weight. She suspects that we can permanently damage our ability to process carbs. But that's less flashy than telling everyone to give up wheat.

Fascinating stuff.

Joanne said...

No problem, Dan! I also just want to mention that after a little further investigation, the study to which the author refers (on gliadin and opiate receptors) was actually NOT done by the NIH but by a group in Illinois and it was published in a journal to which the medical/graduate school I'm in does not even subscribe. I'll let you make your own conclusions about the reputability of such a journal...personally, I wouldn't put stock in anything published in it and the fact that Davis didn't even know where the research was done gives me faith that (a) he didn't actually read the article and (b) he doesn't know how to use pubmed, which for someone involved in science at all is pretty atrocious. Moral of the story...read everything a scientist says about science VERY critically...and take everything a non-scientist says about science with a grain of salt. I think too many cavalier conclusions about "scientific discoveries" are made by people who have no idea what they're talking about and it ends up influencing the public in very unfortunate ways. And now I'll get off my soapbox. :)

chacha1 said...

Verrry interesting and I very much appreciate the feedback from Joanne.

I am not going to draw any conclusions about wheat at this time. It's clear the science is, well, inconclusive.

I'm going to stick with my high-protein, high-produce regime ... which does include the occasional English muffin or bottle of beer. :-)

Daniel said...

I don't think the book is inconclusive, it's more that the most aggressive claims the book makes are inconclusive.

As I said in my review post, very little in science--and still less in dietary science--is 100% open and shut. If you write a book intended for a lay audience, but then proceed to fill it with "on the one hand/on the other hand" statements, nobody is going to get through the first chapter, much less follow your prescriptions. It's a conundrum for an author.

It reminds me of the old joke about President Harry Truman. He got so sick of leading economists saying "on the one hand/on the other hand" to him that he (half-jokingly) demanded to see a one-armed economist. ;)


Elizabeth said...

I notice that in the response to question 3 (probably partly due to the way the question was worded), he uses the term "carbohydrate" rather than wheat, implying that all carbs have the negative effects he mentions, where he generally mentions wheat specifically otherwise.

Sally said...

When I read this I realized I'd read it before -- right down to the statement that obesity wasn't the only problem, but many chronic ailments as well. The difference was that the interviewee wasn't Dr. Davis and the offensive food (or food groups) wasn't wheat (or gluten or starchy foods in general). It was meat or poultry or fish or eggs or dairy or any kind of fats -- and occasionally some vegetables and fruits. All the science was there, too, to "prove" the author's premise. Pick your author, pick your poison.

Interestingly, some people do very well on diets that omit specific foods/food groups. Most people, however, don't do well on plans that completely omit any food groups and find that they aren't sustainable over long periods of time.

When I was following a vegan eating plan, I realized that there were no groups on earth that were naturally vegan. I don't think there are any that are naturally vegetarian. In the same way, I don't think there are any that naturally eliminate grains, starchy vegetables or legumes. In fact, most civilizations have been nourished on grains, starchy vegetables and legumes that grow and store well in their area.

The biggest difference for us may be in our cooking methods for these foods.

Actually, I think it's kind of funny that I'm so adamant about this, because I don't eat many grains, especially whole grains. I do eat starchy vegetables and legumes.

"I learned that in fact science knows a lot less about nutrition that you would expect -- that in fact nutrition science is, to put it charitably, a very young science...It's a fascinating subject, and someday the field may produce definitive answers to the nutritional questions that concern us, but -- as nutritionists themselves will tell you -- they're not there yet. Not even close Nutrition science, which after all only got started less than two hundred years ago, is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650 -- very promising and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you? I think I'll wait awhile." Michael Pollan in Food Rules