Monday, April 16, 2012

Wheat Belly? Wheat BERRY!

Diet books come and go - the shelves are filled with titles that generally go unnoticed. Every once in a while there comes a book that, as a dietitian who works with the public, you just know you have to read. Wheat Belly, by William Davis MD, is one of them. Actually, it is probably THE book to read in 2012 if you are interested in this sort of thing. 

The premise of the book (spoiler alert!) is that wheat (and gluten - for which he uses the term "wheat" incorrectly and interchangeably) is the reason we are sick, fat and inflamed. To his credit, Dr Davis (and/or his editor at Rodale) knows how to spin a yarn. He has a very convincing and direct style - the only acceptable conclusion to the information he presents is that wheat makes us ill. In fact, Dr Davis' writing would be very much at home on the gossip sites - such is his sensational story-telling style. His arguments might be very convincing, until you look a little closer. 

Core to his argument is that modern wheat has been cross-bred to the point that it barely resembles the wheat we ate even 50 years ago. I won't argue that our 42 chromosome modern wheat is anything like the 14 chromosome einkorn wheat and that, according to a baker friend of mine, it is "much stronger" than wheat commonly used in Europe. It is also true that Celiac Disease is increasing in numbers; it is estimated that 1 in 133 of us have Celiac Disease and we might not even know it. And non-Celiac gluten sensitivity is also on the rise. Dr Alessio Fasano, one of the heavyweights of Celiac research, estimates that 6% of us have gluten sensitivity. So for those of us who fall into those categories, wheat and gluten do make us sick. But those numbers do not equal 100%. Dr Davis is a cardiologist, not a Celiac specialist.

My biggest concern with the book are the Swiss cheese-like holes in his logic and the way he cherry picks his evidence to support his arguments. Dr Davis makes the case that the molecular structure of wheat causes it to raise your blood sugar more than any other food. Then he tells you that you must also avoid most gluten free alternatives because they also raise your blood sugar. If it truly was the wheat/gluten (which one is it?) raising your blood sugar, then shouldn't gluten free options not have the same effect? In reality, it is all of our processed wheat products that wreak havoc with our blood sugar - any processed grain food, be it rice, oat or quinoa will do the same. Dr Davis knows that - his diet plan is pretty low on grains of any sort. Here are just a couple more of his transgressions:

1. Dr Davis claims that gluten acts like an opium-like drug in our system, making it addictive. To back up his argument, he cites a study from 1979 which used a concentrated gluten sample that had 10,000 times more opiate-like activity than the original 100g sample of gluten it was derived from. If you drank a glass of wine that had 10,000 times the wouldn't be so alive. The poison is in the dose.

2. Dr Davis also claims that newly diagnosed Celiacs lose weight when they eliminate gluten. The study he incorrectly cites to back his claim actually found that 82% of already overweight patients gained even more weight on a gluten free diet. People with Celiac Disease generally have malabsorption issues; as their gut heals and they are better able to absorb nutrients, weight gain isn't uncommon. In addition, many gluten free foods have lower fibre than their gluten-containing counterparts - making them easy to overeat and contributing to weight gain.

Yes, but....
I agree with Dr Davis on this: wheat has a large part to play in our current diabesity epidemic. But it isn't the wheat itself - our biggest sin is what we have done to the incredibly nutritious wheat berry. And the fact that we eat it 4-6 times a day in place of healthier foods like fruits, vegetables and beans. I have never met anyone who had blood sugar issues or uncontrolled appetite or weight gain from eating a wheat berry salad. I will bet $20 that many of you have never actually seen a wheat berry! Take a peek here. Cup for cup, they are higher in fibre than quinoa and have almost as much protein. And we call quinoa a superfood. Using more sound logic, by that rationale, wheat berries should be superfood too.

I have met a few people who have lost significant amounts of weight on Dr Davis' plan. And the internet is packed with glowing testimonials. That his plan works is not part of the debate. If you, like most North Americans, gave up all the processed wheat products you currently eat there wouldn't be much left but a bit of meat and a few veg. You would be, in fact, on a low carb plan much like Atkins or South Beach. Those plans help you lose weight because they replace high calorie, unsatisfying food with very satisfying options that result in a lower calorie intake. 

Dr Davis knows this. He also would know, after years of counselling, that people will have less trouble following a diet plan if the rules are clear and concrete. If wheat and gluten are poison, it is easier to rationalize avoidance of a whole food group. It takes willpower out of the equation somewhat because the overarching diet philosophy is so black and white. If you simply hear that you should "try and avoid processed grain foods" which is the kind of sane nutrition advice a dietitian would give - it requires you to make constant judgements about the definition of processed, how much is too much, etc. Much easier to rationalize falling off the wagon. 

Do the ends justify the means?
What bothers me most about this book is that it further confuses an already confused public, nutritionally speaking. Yes, you can lose weight by avoiding processed grain foods like cereals, granola bars and cookies. No, wheat is NOT the same as gluten. Wheat contains gluten but so do other grains such as rye, barley, spelt and commercial oats. Eating a wheat berry will not cause the health effects outlined in Wheat Belly (unless you are gluten sensitive or intolerant, in which any crumb of gluten will trigger a reaction). If you think gluten-containing foods are causing illness, you should go and get the tTg blood test to screen for Celiac Disease so you can get the medical care you need and nutrition support to help you fully adopt a gluten free diet for life. Because a lot of foods that have nothing to do with bread - BBQ sauce, ice creams and trail mixes - contain gluten.

Yes, wheat contributes to weight gain but only because we abuse it, not because it is some franken-plant. Sure, having a diet rich in processed (usually wheat) foods can contribute to acne but only because unstable blood sugars lead to acne-promoting inflammation and usually leave a person without much in the way of nutrition to support healthy skin. Switch all your processed wheat to wheat berries and let's see what happens.

The bottom line
If you take one thing away from Wheat Belly (and this review!), I hope it is this - we are not meant to eat wheat 6 times a day and we should not eat such poor quality, processed wheat foods all the time. Just please don't allow his mis-information to cloud your mind. You are savvy, intuitive eaters - real food brings health, processed food diminishes it. Now go enjoy an apple. You know, to keep Dr Davis away. 

A HUGE thank you to Melissa Baker, Marianne Bloudoff, Kim Lucas - three very savvy future dietitians - who took the time to dig deep into the science behind Wheat Belly. Marianne has her own blog, French Fries to Flaxseeds. Follow her on Twitter here. Melissa, who has been one of my amazing volunteers this year, also has a Twitter page here


Melissa said...

Great post Desiree. I think it is so important to always consider the quality, the amount one is eating and the preparation of a particular food. It is rarely black and white, especially in the industrial food system.

Marianne (frenchfriestoflaxseeds) said...

Great post Desiree! And thanks for the shout out :)

Vincci said...

Thanks for the great summary, Desiree! I'm jealous that you seem to have some very talented interns under your wing - I wish them the best in their future careers!

Desiree Nielsen RD said...

You know the brilliant thing? These three girls aren't even interns yet - they are still dietetics students. A bright future, indeed.

Melissa (@UpBeetRD2B) said...

Wow! Such kind words. Thanks ladies! Love this post Desiree, you hit the nail on the head.

Connie said...

this is so interesting! i have never even heard of a wheat berry before! this is definitely going on my list of books to read this summer.

it is super alarming how celiac disease is becoming more common... i hope i never get it

Unknown said...

Hi Desiree, thanks for the review on this book. I'm an RD myself, this morning I went to see an orthopedic doctor and he told me a lot of his patients raved about this book and asked me what I think about it. Sounds like a similar diet to Aktins.

Anonymous said...

In the book he actually states that many newly diagnosed celiacs end up gaining wieght because they were previously malnourished .

Also in the book he mentions very early on that he uses the word "wheat" to capture all grains containing gluten so that he doesn't have to repeat the list throughout the book.

Desiree Nielsen RD said...

While I prefer not to post anonymous comments I would like to address your concerns.

Yes, it is true that Dr Davis states that he will use the terms wheat and "gluten containing grains" interchangably at the beginning of the book. However, as a dietitian - the person to whom clients come to after reading a book like this - I feel that there are some issues with this shortcut.

Not the least of which (as mentioned) is the confusion it causes.

When taking in the information presented in the book, it is not often that people will bring that remembrance forefront in their minds. So when they come to choose foods for themselves, they can make a lot of mistakes looking for wheat free as opposed to gluten free items. And if, self diagnosing by using the compelling information in this book, they don't seek diagnosis and instead attempt to eat wheat free - they may be ingesting plenty of gluten when they should actually be avoiding it strictly.

With respect to the weight loss study, the key point is that the specific study sited was, in fact, misinterpreted.

I hope this clarifies my arguments for you. Rest assured, as a wheat free (allergy and Celiac already ruled out) person myself, I take very seriously that wheat makes many of us sick. For me, what is most important is that we do not take lightly the elimination of a food so firmly entrenched in our food supply, especially when an individual may not fully have the knowledge or the tools to do so healthfully.

Anonymous said...

I read the book two months ago. I am a 67 year old male with metabolic syndrome that is becoming the norm in my age group. I was 40 lbs overweight and a pre-diabetic, according to my Dr. He gave me the typical direction to lose weight, exercise more, and cut back on "bad carbs" . I cut out all wheat products and also focused on lowering carbs to less than 60/day. I have dropped 20 lbs, off blood pressure meds, joint pains gone, walking three miles a day and looking forward to my
next blood work. Also, I thought he explained the wheat/gluten term substitution very well and expounded on it numerous times in the book. I am glad I read it and will leave the wheat products out of my diet for the rest of my life.


Desiree Nielsen RD said...

Hi Rod,

Thanks for your comment. Especially in diabetes, a low carb plan (as it sounds like you are on) can post dramatic shifts in glycemia and weight loss. Congratulations on your success - the most important thing is to find a plan that works for you.

Personally, my biggest concern is that the book paints advice in such broad strokes - one approach does not fit all.

For example, I have recently helped someone (over 60, 60lbs overweight, diabetic) lose almost 50lbs and reverse his diabetes symptoms in just 4 months with a plant-based, gluten containing (but totally unprocessed) diet. His inflammation markers have plummeted - for him, gluten does not contribute to inflammation and weight gain.

Thank you for taking the time to comment; continued luck on your healthy eating journey!

bailey j said...

At the end of 2011 I lost 40 lbs but I've been in a platea for eight months now and been having some serious digestive/intestinal issues.I have had blood work done and tried what feels like everything to figure things out. I came across this book and after reading it, am doing a 30 day trial for not only my weight loss but because Celiacs disease has crossed my mind as a possibility. I have been researching reviews of the book (because the way he wrote it irks me and puts me off) so it's good to find lots of arguments. I am going to try it either way but I like feeling educated on it and seeing both sides of it. Thank you so much for the great review. I am going to be reviewing my 30 day experiment on my blog most likely if you are interested in a real persons trial aha.

Miss Ruth said...

Having read WB, I have cut out all wheat for 5 weeks now. I cannot believe the awesome changes in my skin. I've had ongoing acne issues over the last 12 years for which I have tried EVERYTHING, from cutting out sugar completely, various dietary changes, to ongoing antibiotics (which wreaked HAVOC on my digestion) to take care of this issue. For the first time since I was 19 I have clear gorgeous glowing skin. And it's worth saying I never ate white bread, I ate healthy organic bread, even ate only sprouted grains for the last 2 years. Now I truly believe wheat itself to be the source of my problem. I intend to keep it out of my diet forever.

And I for one HAVE seen, and eaten, plain wheat berries.

Desiree Nielsen RD said...

Thank you for taking the time to comment. It sounds like for you, wheat was definitely an issue. For people with wheat or gluten intolerance, removing it from the diet can have truly dramatic effects. In fact, for the last couple of years, wheat makes me quite sick as well.

As a health professional, and someone who avoids wheat herself, my issue is with misrepresenting facts and the suggestion that 100% of people should follow a certain eating style. Each one of us has a different constitution and way of eating that helps us thrive.

azélia said...

Good article well written it's the sort of nonsense out there I hate, where science is used selectively to sell that person's book, nice to find someone taking the trouble to debunk some of the rubbish.


Douglas said...

Hi Desiree, I'm not here to attack your post but will you will let me tell you what eliminating modern wheat did for me? I've had severe acid reflux for years. The moment I removed modern wheat the reflux left. I tried other grains, spelt, kamut (sp?) with no reaction. The moment modern wheat hits my system i'm out of commission for 24 to 36 hrs. My wives IB is gone. My carpel tunnel arms are fine now, I even think some of my hair follicles are coming back (yes, i know how crazy that sounds) This book isn't a diet book but a scathing rebuttal to modern wheat, and yes i've lost 15 lbs in 6 weeks and my bp has dropped from 140/90 to 125/85. At 6'3 and 200 lbs I wasn't overweight to begin with but I had a Buddha belly that is now almost gone. p.s. For men eliminating the belly has some very beneficial effects in the bedroom, if you know what I mean....

Desiree Nielsen RD said...

I had someone leave a comment today - which I will be happy to post if the person can resubmit it in a more respectful tone.

To begin to respond to the comment, I will share that in fact, what you have stated about wheat itself having a dangerous glycemic impact on the body is in fact, incorrect. A wheat kernel, or wheat berry, has a glycemic index of 30 and a glycemic index of 11.

I hope you will consider reposting so we can engage in dialogue.

caramelchica said...

I stumbled upon this post when looking into wheat berries... in a ravenous whirlwind I purchased, and had halfway finished eating, a salad containing them before realizing it had wheat in it... I avoid grains altogether, gluten especially.
Anyway, I just wanted to ask, I thought quinoa was a seed, not a grain. Have I been mislead?