Review: ‘Wheat Belly’ by William Davis MD

WheatBellyReally? You want me to eat like a cave man?

An emerging diet trend tells us to “eat like our ancestors”.  The Paleolithic (Paleo) diet, which is popular among athletes, is now hitting mainstream. The concept is very simple: if our ancestors didn’t eat it then you shouldn’t eat it.  This diet eliminates dairy, legumes and most notably grains.  The book Wheat Belly by William Davis M.D. takes this diet and adapts it a little.  He does not say to eliminate dairy, legumes or all grains but instead he points the finger at one of the most widely consumed grains there is: Wheat.

Yes wheat is everywhere. It’s in the morning Danish and bagel, the elegant pasta dish, the simple bread slice, the tempting donut and muffin, and in both the pizza and beer.  It is even in items you might not expect, like soy sauce, “play-doh”, the glue in stamps and envelopes, and even in gum.  So what’s so awful about this grain?

Davis claims that modern day agriculture has significantly changed the structure of wheat, modifying it to increase resistance to pests, drought and other environmental factors.   Davis believes that these modifications change the way we digest wheat, increasing the likelihood of only partial digestion.  He claims that partially digested wheat wreaks havoc on the intestinal wall, enters the blood and contributes to a host of diseases.  Critics to this diet claim that even with the modification of wheat, the way we digest it continues to remain unchanged.

Go gluten free without going “Gluten-Free”

Gluten is a major protein in wheat that gets a lot of attention.  Celiac Disease is a genetic disorder when individuals have an inability to digest gluten which leads to severe digestive effects. Gluten is made up of two proteins: glutenin and gliadin. Gliadin is the protein that gets the inflammatory response from the body in Celiac Disease.

Gluten sensitivity is another adverse reaction to the ingestion of gluten. Gluten sensitivity can sometimes be asymptomatic, that is it will show no signs of the intestinal discomfort that is a common marker for celiac disease. Other cases will show very similar reactions to that of Celiac Disease.  Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity are two distinct diseases, and represent a very small percentage of the population.

Davis claims that everyone will have an adverse reaction to gluten, not just with those that are diagnosed with Celiac Disease or Gluten Sensitivity.  He also claims that gluten can also act as an exorphin, binding to opioid receptors (the same receptors that make heroin addicting).  Further claims state that with the initial withdrawal of wheat, people will experience “withdrawal-like” symptoms, similar to those with drug abuse.  Other areas of research will state that gluten is only problematic with Celiac Disease or Gluten Sensitivity, and that gluten cannot bind to any opioid receptors. Although there is limited research on the activities of opioid receptors, there is no research on any “withdrawal-like” symptoms associated with the removal of wheat.

When the main stream gets a hold of a diet, food corporations will try to cash in.  Result: products like “the Paleo cookie” and similar items that stray away from the original concept of the diet.  This is a health halo trap that many people could easily fall into.  Gluten-free products made with rice starch, tapioca starch, potato starch or corn starch are marketed and are often lacking in fiber and have more calories when compared to their counterpart.  These don’t contain gluten but can still contribute to a spike in blood sugar. Davis reminds us to eat real foods to avoid this trap.

Enough about what I can’t eat… What can I eat?

So if you eliminate all foods containing wheat, what is left for you to eat?  As Davis says “I’ll see you in the produce aisle”: fruits and vegetables are a great source of carbohydrate, nutrients and fiber.  He does give advice on what to eat in moderation (certain fruits, vegetables, legumes etc.) and provides sample recipes, using meats, eggs, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

The good, the bad and the ugly truth about Wheat Belly

This diet has some very good points about it.  A carefully planned wheat-free diet of meats, nuts, fruits and vegetables can provide all the nutrients you need.  The ultimate downfall of the diet is that it is impractical, unnecessary, and unachievable.  The average American would struggle to eliminate an entire food group, especially one as abundant as wheat.

Wheat does contain healthy nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals.  Although you can find all of these nutrients elsewhere, a diet that does not have the correct substitutions could provide a person with nutritional deficiencies. Other criticism against this diet state that it is essentially a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate diet, and that wheat is not the culprit.  Other theories claim that weight loss alone could alleviate the multiple diseases Davis claims wheat alone has a direct effect on.

Disease is dependent on multiple causes besides one particular food.  Although he briefly mentions an overall healthier lifestyle, these factors cannot be over looked. Health entails physical activity, mental health, social health, financial health and other aspects all in addition to nutrition or the elimination of a particular food group.

There are plenty more examples on the negative effects of wheat that can’t be covered in a short blog.  Davis’ book is a good read to provoke questions about this staple food.  Whether you eliminate wheat or still choose to consume it, it is an interesting area of nutrition that is gathering much attention.

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