Review: Wheat Belly by William Davis

Readers, a quick programming note: in two days we'll run an exclusive interview with the author of Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis. Stay tuned!

Wheat Belly is an excellent book with striking ideas about our food supply, and I'm betting it will convince hundreds of Casual Kitchen readers to rethink their diets. We're rethinking ours.

Wheat Belly's central thesis is this: there is something fundamentally unhealthy about the chemical and genetic structure of modern wheat. And as modern wheat proliferated throughout our food supply beginning in the mid 1970s, it brought about an explosion of negative health consequences across our society--including, of course, obesity, which is a rapidly worsening pandemic in nearly every country where wheat is a staple food.

In chapter after chapter, author Dr. William Davis builds an entire edifice of allegations against wheat:

* It causes our blood sugar to spike and then plummet,
* It has a near-narcotic effect on our brains, driving food cravings,
* It drives a roller-coaster cycle of hunger/food coma/hunger, causing us to overeat,
* Our bodies convert it into visceral (belly) fat extremely efficiently.

In our parents' and grandparents' generations, obesity was relatively uncommon, and a person with extra belly fat would often be described as having a beer belly. Today, the phrase is wheat belly--and it seems like nearly everyone has one. This book's bottom line: the more wheat we eat, the more unhealthy we'll be.

Dr. Davis supports his claims about wheat with extensive evidence, and he then piles on with anecdote after acecdote from his own cardiology practice (memo to any patient who darkens Dr. Davis' door: chances are you're going on a gluten-free diet). Notably, seemingly all of his patients' health problems fade within weeks of cutting out wheat.

And therein lies a minor problem in an otherwise exceptional book. Wheat Belly is packed with evidence and anecdotes, and the author builds a persuasive case for removing wheat from your diet. But as the book progresses--and as the evidence piles up--the claims about the dangers of wheat get more and more aggressive. In fact, a naive reader, by the time he finishes the book, could easily conclude that modern wheat is the single worst thing that ever happened to the entire developed world.

This is why I want readers to keep their critical thinking skills handy as they read. Rhetorically speaking, Wheat Belly is a polemic. It gives no quarter--none--to any other side of this debate.

Admittedly, authors can use whatever rhetorical techniques they want, and I would never blame Dr. Davis for doing his best to persuade his readers. He has strong and sincerely held views, and the fact that Wheat Belly is so extraordinarily persuasive suggests he made the correct choice with his style of argument. Make no mistake: many readers will walk away from this book convinced.

But few arguments are 100% clear-cut, and when a book presents a debate as if it's already open-and-shut, some readers may find themselves less persuaded rather than more.

Further, a few of Davis' most extreme claims about the evils of wheat are, well, extreme. For example, as much as I wish it to be true, I have some stray doubts that eliminating wheat will fix my hair loss--or slow my accelerating cognitive decline. In fact, I'm curious if we can really blame obesity on wheat: after all, the French seem to function reasonably well on daily croissants and baguettes, as do the Italians with their pasta.*

However, these are minor criticisms of a striking book that will make you seriously rethink your diet. I highly, highly recommend Wheat Belly. Just keep your critical thinking skills handy as you read.

Finally, readers can draw three profoundly useful conclusions from this book:

1) If you're looking to lose weight, you'll get by far the best bang for your buck by removing as many wheat- and gluten-based foods from your diet as you possibly can. (PS: Next week, we'll discuss tips on how to manage and execute a Wheat Belly diet.)

2) The consensus dietary recommendation to reduce your fat intake and increase your intake of "heart-healthy" whole grains is exactly backwards. Instead, reduce your grain intake. Your body--and your belly--will thank you.

3) If you overeat, and if you do so with high-carb, gluten-based foods, you're going to get fat. Very fat.

If you find yourself battling food cravings, or if you're exercising and eating with discipline and still struggling to lose weight, try removing wheat from your diet and see what happens. You certainly won't starve, and you may very well show significant results. Try it for a few weeks, see how you feel, and report back.

* Programming Note: On Thursday, Casual Kitchen will run a fascinating interview with Dr. Davis. I'll ask him to explain his decision to write Wheat Belly in a polemic style, and I'll ask him to explain why he thinks wheat-dependent countries like France and Italy aren't seeing the same obesity rates present in the USA. You won't want to miss his answers. Stay tuned!

For more information on Dr. Davis, visit him at The Wheat Belly Blog and at his heart disease prevention and reversal site, Track Your Plaque.

I'd also like thank Erica Douglass for suggesting I read Wheat Belly in the first place.

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looloolooweez said...

Ooooh, I'm really excited about the upcoming interview. I'm still on the waiting list at the library for this book, but I don't think it is "spoiling" anything to read thoughtful reviews like this.

I do think the low carb/gluten free crowd has a point -- obviously we as a society eat way too much refined wheat. But a coworker of mine who self-diagnosed as celiac is now convinced that everyone else at the office should immediately quit wheat as a means to cure lupus, arthritis, and endometriosis among other ills. This seems to be stretching it a bit too me.

newoman said...

@Louise, it's not stretching it. It is so hard to keep quiet when it is such an easy cure. Read it and try!

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel!
Love your blog and how you encourage readers to think for themselves!! Have you heard of biohacking? The concept is, to me, try it for yourself with an open mind and see how it works for you.
I've been reading/experimenting with some really interesting propositions on increasing healthy fat consumption along with grain/wheat reduction. Can't wait to hear how you feel off wheat!

Stuart said...

People are so used to eating wheat that they simply cannot appreciate the damage it is doing to them and those around them especially when a lot of the side-effects of eating wheat are not instantaneous but build up over years.

If you dramatically want to improve your quality of life, then you have to make the sacrifice and lose the wheat.

Erica Douglass said...

Daniel, thanks for this write-up. I, too, was skeptical of some of the claims he made...until I sent this book to my parents.

My mom read this and "Why We Get Fat", and decided that wheat had to go. She switched both her and my dad (who was rather grumpy about the whole thing) to a gluten-free diet immediately.

Now, I knew that going on a gluten-free diet had dramatically helped me. But as my parents' story started to unravel, I realized what an epidemic this was.

I didn't know my parents had so many health problems. The first result (in under a week) was that both of their tongues, which had previously been so sore they had resorted to not eating certain foods, were healed. I was aware of my mom's tongue issues, which a doctor had already diagnosed, and I had also identified, as Candida, but not that my dad had the same issue. My dad was shocked.

I then found out my dad had had diarrhea basically his entire life. Within two weeks of going gluten-free, it was completely gone. (Keep in mind I had urged him a year before to get a blood test for Celiac disease, which turned up negative.)

But the most shocking result didn't come until several weeks into their new diet. Apparently (another thing I had no knowledge of) my dad's doctor was extremely concerned with his platelet count. It had been dropping precariously, to the point where a small cut could have landed him in the hospital due to his blood not being able to clot. Within 6 weeks of going gluten-free, his platelet count had returned to normal. He had made no other adjustments except going gluten-free. His doctors were completely stunned. They couldn't explain it. But, as we know, wheat *really* messes with your body.

My parents are now looking at getting rid of most of the prescription drugs they're on (they're 68 years old and have a huge list of pills they take on a daily basis.) My mom is committed to a gluten-free diet and now sends me gluten-free recipes. My dad is not so committed, but remains mostly gluten-free, and is seeing dramatic health improvements.

More shockingly, studies are coming out on a regular basis linking wheat consumption with pretty much all auto-immune diseases. Here's an example:

You can see there that if a pregnant mother has Celiac disease, her child is 350 times more likely to have autism. Given that Celiac and gluten intolerance are at epic proportions in our society, and over 90% of people who have it are undiagnosed, it could be possible that eating wheat while you're pregnant is the single biggest factor in your child potentially developing autism. And that could mean, in our lifetimes, as awareness builds, doctors will start telling pregnant women not to eat wheat--just as they tell pregnant women today to not smoke or drink alcohol.

This is all shocking, and somewhat hard to wrap your head around. I have so many more stories. Like the fact that when I eat wheat, I get depressed. Depression rates have skyrocketed, too, in the past 50 years. Could it be the wheat? I took it out of my diet and noticed I was happier and had fewer mood swings. It's crazy to think about, but the more you connect the dots, the worse wheat starts to look.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am into day 16 of my wheat- free diet. I am a 50yr old female, 5'6" currently 154 lbs and have always had that belly pooch. I have been documenting my daily food intake since Aug 13 as follows: morning egg white omelet with veggies, lunch of green salad with veggies, snacks of fruit and nuts morning and afternoon and dinner of protein with veggies. Lots of water all day. I can say my stomach is getting flatter and I've lost 4 pounds so far. This diet is not too far off what I usually eat, I just cut out any and all wheat. I would usually have a morning muffin here and there, pasta at least once a week or pizza, and crackers or pretzels for snacks. Yes, I do believe I see a difference. I'll be interested to see how it goes after one month. I truly haven't been so bloat-free in a long time and I attributed that to my age and menopausal stirrings. :) I really don't have any other health related problems other than mildly high ldl and lower than should be hdl. If this can reverse that trend, I'm golden!

Diane said...

This kind of seems like trendy nonsense to me, but I haven't read the book so I can't say for sure. I eat wheat in moderation (I eat more rice than wheat), eat a lot with no real restrictions on my diet, am thin, and have no "wheat belly." Much of the world also does the same - northern India, north Africa, the parts of China that eat wheat starch rather than rice starch, etc etc etc.

Now, are there people with wheat intolerances who are best served with a wheat-free diet? Sure. And people who are so wheat-intolerant that they get radically sick from ingesting it? Absolutely. But the idea that wheat is poisoning all of us and we just need to back away slowly from that paratha? Ummmm....not buying it. It's certainly not the experience of me and my relatives both here and abroad. For most of us if you eat a balanced, healthful diet (many foods all in moderation, heavy on the veg, little "snacking") wheat is no worse than anything else.

Diane said...

Oh and I should just add - all my family eats the same as me - eating wheat along with other things. My parents are in their 70's on no medication. We are all thin and healthy. No wheat belly. My relatives who live elsewhere in the world with different diets - the same...

chacha1 said...

I have a high level of skepticism about any claims that a nutrient that's been in use population-wide for hundreds of years has somehow magically in the last 30-40 years morphed into a toxin.

That said, I'm not a nutritionist or a cardiologist or an obesity expert. But I eat wheat products with no problem and the only reason I restrict them is that they are high in starch, which = sugar.

I personally feel that is the real root of the American problem. I don't think we have Wheat Belly. I think we have Sugar Belly.

I am pretty sure that population studies have fairly well established that the obesity explosion tracks very closely with the introduction of highly sugared processed foods, and particularly beverages, into the mainstream diet.

Sally said...

This is from Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and while he's talking about saturated fat, he could just as well be talking about wheat (or any number of substances that various experts consider to be the primary reason we've gained weight and become less healthy over the last 40 years or so):

"The zero-sum fallacy of nutrition science poses another obstacle to nailing down the effect of a single nutrient. As Gary Taubes points out, it's difficult to design a dietary trial of something like saturated fat because as soon as you remove it from the trial diet, either you have dramatically reduced the calories in that diet or you have replaced the saturated fat something else: other fats (but which ones?), or carbohydrates (but what kind?), or protein. Whatever you do, you've introduced a second variable into the experiment, so you will not be able to attribute any observed effect strictly to the absence of saturated fat. It could just as easily be due to the reduction in calories or the addition of carbohydrates or polyunsaturated fats. For every diet hypothesis you test, you can construct an alternative hypothesis based on the presence or absence of the substitute nutrient. It gets messy."

The program I mentioned the other day eliminates other foods/food groups. It also claims to "cure" everything from acne to ulcers, including male-pattern baldness.

What's interesting to me is that this seems to be primarily a problem of those who consume the Western Diet -- lots of processed foods and very little real food (food that rots). Wheat has been consumed for at least 10,000 years. Something has changed in the last 40 years or so. Another source believes that it may be the "healthy", highly processed vegetable oils we've been consuming since we were told, about 40 years ago, to minimize the saturated fat in our diets. Interestingly, our weight gain and health problems associated with that began at the very same time.

Something I've read in several non-related sources is interesting. When people immigrate here from other countries and adopt our diet, they develop the weight and health problems that plague us. When they return to their homelands, they nearly always lose weight and the health issues disappear. The biggest difference in the diets of their homelands is the absence of processed foods.

Diane said...

Sally: I tend to think as you do. I eat almost no processed food, only fresh whole foods (as does my family, including my parents). I eat pretty much like a South Asian/Thai/Vietnamese/Italian mash-up with an emphasis on veg.

Given that I think that's why I don't have weight issues or wheat bloat. I eat wheat alongside other things, and it doesn't make up the bulk of my diet.

Laura said...

Dan, I am SO excited to read the two upcoming posts! (Interview and how to execute). I felt like the "how to execute" was extremely lacking in the original book, which seemed to be more about eliminating all carbs rather than just wheat, so it was very confusing how to put it into practice without going whole-hog.

Sally said...

I should have said that when people go back to their native countries and resume eating their traditional diets they lose weight and health problems disappear. Our processed foods are everywhere now.

Daniel said...

Excellent conversation so far.

One nuance worth noting: in some ways, what this book is really advocating is a low-carb/low refined foods diet in drag.

Thinking about it that way may make it seem less offensively "trendy" to some readers. And it's clear that many people achieve great results from eating this way.


chacha1 said...

The nuance is well taken. :-) I am in complete agreement with a low carb - minimal processed foods recommendation.

I just don't like the "wheat is the root of all evil" approach.

I wish all these anecdotes included a full accounting of exactly what people ate before and after going gluten-free, because I'll bet they cut *a lot* of non-nutritive food out when they cut wheat, and I think it's important to distinguish between a total effect and a specific effect.

BonnieBanters said...

I'd like to see his comments why France and Italy don't have this problem also!

Sue Duby said...

Hello! Interesting column. I also read Dr. Davis's book. In it he writes about ALL grain elimination (not simply wheat) including rice(s) and corn. I've gone that route as he suggests along with eliminating casein (dairy) and all my symptoms will remain resolved as long as I resolve to continue this life enhancing eating. Thanks, Sue

Anonymous said...

I saw the documentary "Cereal Killers" and stopped all wheat, and drastically cut other grains and sugar. Two months later, 15 pounds lighter, one inch lost around my waist.

The main effect of this was: no more drive-thru, no more convenience foods from the supermarket like pizza, lasagna, etc. No muffins, cake, cookies, crackers, bread, pasta -- use a spoon, bowl or celery stalk and eat all kinds of delicious cheese and fatty meat. And buttered veg and fruit with cream.

My portly dad went low-fat in the 80s and 90s and was constantly munching on toast with jam because he never felt full. Died of a heart attack at age 63.