Wheat Belly, by Dr. William Davis

Wheat Belly book by William Davis

Those of us with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity already know too well the obnoxious symptoms we can get from gluten exposure: diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, fatigue, irritability and insomnia.

But would you blame wheat and gluten for the obesity epidemic? What about for heart disease and diabetes?

Wheat: Responsible for Heart Disease, Dementia, Even Acne?

Wheat Belly, the 2011 book by preventive cardiologist Dr. William Davis, argues just that — and more — in a persuasive case that indicts wheat for (seemingly) most of the health ills of mankind.

Not only diabetes and heart disease can be blamed on increasing wheat ingestion, Dr. Davis argues, but irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn and dementia can stem from the gluten habit. Cataracts? Yup. Acne? Check. And weight gain — especially weight gain.

Wheat Belly Traces (and Blames) Modern Wheat Development

As Dr. Davis explains it, increased wheat ingestion in the U.S. (the result, in part, of the government campaign to eat less fat and more "healthy whole grains") has coincided with the increased obesity rate, with its corresponding increases in heart disease and diabetes.

But the problem doesn't end there: promotion of a "healthy whole grains-based" diet also coincided with genetic manipulation of the wheat plant, which over just a few decades changed the familiar "amber waves of grain" into dwarf, stocky brown plants heavy with huge grain kernels that look little like their forebears.

"Fourteen-chromosome wild grass has been transformed into the forty-two-chromosome, nitrate-fertilized, top-heavy, ultra-high-yield variety that now enables us to buy bagels by the dozen, pancakes by the stack, and pretzels by the 'family size' bag," Dr. Davis writes.

As a result of this genetic manipulation, modern wheat contains far more gluten than its ancestors, he says. It also contains far more of other allergenic and immune system-stimulating compounds than ancient wheat.

In addition, wheat is addictive, which leads people who eat it to consume about 350 to 400 additional calories each day, Dr. Davis maintains. Wheat contributes more than any other grain to insulin resistance, the precursor to diabetes, because it causes significant rises in blood sugar. And, it contributes significantly to coronary artery disease by promoting unhealthy forms of cholesterol.

Wheat Belly Backs Up Assertions with Research, Anecdotes

Even for those of us who already avoid wheat and other gluten grains, all this is quite a bit to take in. But Dr. Davis backs up his assertions with plenty of footnoted evidence and anecdotes from his own cardiology practice in Milwaukee, Wis.

When it comes to diabetes and heart disease, he's got years of records on hundreds of patients, and he uses prescriptions for a wheat-free diet throughout his practice to help reverse heart disease.

In addition, his evidence for weight gain due to wheat and subsequent gluten-free diet weight loss also is strong, with several studies backed up by evidence from his medical practice.

The evidence Dr. Davis offers for wheat's effects on the aging process — that wheat, in essence, speeds up aging — is a bit more circumstantial. But I honestly don't have any trouble believing that, either, given all I know about gluten's inflammation-promoting properties.

Overall, the book makes a persuasive case that Americans could significantly improve their health if they'd stop eating wheat, cold turkey.

Bottom Line: Excellent, If You Like Research Books

Wheat Belly goes into a little detail on celiac disease, but it's not intended to be another book on celiac disease. Instead, like the well-written volume Dangerous Grains by Dr. James Braly and Ron Hoggan, it goes well beyond celiac disease to explore some of the other manifestations of gluten sensitivity and wheat/gluten effects on human health.

The book occasionally seems repetitive, which shouldn't seem that surprising; after all, each chapter details yet another disease or condition and then blames wheat for it.

Dr. Davis writes well, with enough anecdotes and stories mixed in to soften the hard science data he's presenting, and he backs up his research with more than 250 references to medical studies.

He also includes an appendix with 28 wheat-free recipes, many of which look intriguing to me from my preferred low-carb perspective (recipes include cauliflower crust pizza and pecan-encrusted chicken with tapenade).

However, another appendix on instituting a wheat-free diet doesn't go far enough or provide enough detail for those of us with celiac or severe gluten intolerance, so I wouldn't rely on it. To be fair, Dr. Davis states up front that people with celiac or who get serious symptoms from gluten should be more careful than he suggests.

The bottom line: Wheat Belly offers a strong indictment of wheat, well beyond its role in celiac disease. If you enjoyed Dangerous Grains or Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, for example, you'll also enjoy reading this book.

Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer.

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