The book “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years. It’s sold close to 3 million copies in 33 countries and is considered the bible of the wheat-free movement, but is it true? Is it supported by scientific fact? A few weeks ago, “The Fifth Estate”, an investigative news program, looked at just that. Here’s what they found, as well as my thoughts on the subject:
An Anti-Wheat Crusader
Dr. Davis makes some huge statements about the dangers of wheat, including:
• Wheat causes 70 to 80% of all known diseases. It has caused more human disease and suffering than all wars combined.
• Wheat today is not what it used to be and should be called “frankenwheat”. Wheat proteins (gluten and gliadins) have been modified by scientists and are now toxic to our brain. We get hooked like junkies.
• Experts who support eating wheat “make frontal lobotomies seem quaint.”
Wow! Do these statements even seem rationale or sane? I can tell you personally, the first time someone handed me a copy of Wheat Belly, I only had to read two or three pages before I put it down. I knew I could not endorse it. There were too many mistruths and inconsistencies.
Is Wheat Toxic?
Joe Schwartz, a chemist from McGill University dedicated to demystifying science and debunking wrong claims, said this about the book: “When you find something in a book that is absolutely wrong, it makes you question everything else that is in there.” He says, for example, there’s no scientific evidence that wheat is physically addictive. As for wheat and disease, Joe says “It’s relatively easy, when you know some science, to cherry pick the data and make it sound much, much more compelling than it is – especially when you can convey yourself as the knight in shining armour who is going to save the population from the clutches of this unholy alliance between big pharma, big food, the agriculture industry, and academic scientists who somehow want to undermine our health.” He goes on to say that Dr. Davis “takes a smidgeon of scientific fact and explodes it into a whole blob of nonsense”.
Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (Grains Innovation Laboratory) have been studying wheat for more than 100 years. Wheat, they say, has been modified over time to produce higher yield crops. When they compared the genetic profile (including the proteins – gluten and gliadins) of 37 different varieties of wheat grown in Canada since the 1800’s, however, they reported that the wheat of yesterday is very similar of the wheat of today. Today’s wheat, for all intents and purposes, is your grandparent’s wheat – “frankenwheat”, it is not!
Why Has “Wheat Belly” Been Such a Huge Phenomenon?
At this time no medical scientist or health organization endorses a gluten-free or wheat-free diet (unless you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or have a true wheat allergy). Who is endorsing the diet? Celebrities! Their food choices are the staple of morning television talk shows. Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, has over two million followers on twitter where she promotes her gluten-free lifestyle. Does this make sense? Timothy Caulfield, a health policy professor from the University of Alberta wrote a book called “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.” He says there’s a trust issue going on. People don’t know who to trust for health advice. In addition, going gluten-free has become a form of self-expression or identity. People say “I drive a Prius, I recycle, and I’m gluten-free”.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a family doctor and professor from the University of Ottawa, says this about the success of Wheat Belly “We want to believe in magic. The truth is not easy to sell. Truth is not sexy. The inconvenient truth of healthful living is that it does require effort.” People don’t want to hear that. They want easy answers.
A leading health scientist from Stanford University, John Ioannidis, says “Enough is enough. Dr. Davis cannot claim to have science on his side. This is one example where a big claim is made, practically on thin air.” Scientists are being drowned out by celebrities and pseudo-science in the war on wheat. Scientists, he says “have lost the rock-star battle. The public has not been used to listening to science. They have been used to listening to movie stars and no numbers, just big claims, big quotes.” Where are we without the science? He says “I don’t think we’re left with anything. I don’t think we can have a meaningful, rational life and expect to make any progress.”
The Bottom Line and My Advice…
• I don’t endorse or recommend the book “Wheat Belly”. The advice and information provided is not based on good science.
• People with celiac disease must avoid gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley. A series of blood tests and a biopsy are required for proper diagnosis. About 1 to 2% of the population is impacted by this disease.
• Some people do not have celiac disease, but appear to be sensitive to gluten. Symptoms can be similar to celiac disease, such as bloating, cramping, and diarrhea. There is no test for gluten sensitivity at this time. If celiac disease has been ruled out (as well as other conditions like irritable bowel), consider taking gluten out of your diet and then introducing it gradually, while keeping a food diary to monitor symptoms. About 6% of the population appears to suffer from this condition.
• If you want to learn more about gluten, read the book “Gluten Freedom” by Dr. Alessio Fasano. He’s the founder of the Center for Celiac Research. This center has been studying gluten and its impact on health for almost 20 years. Although we still have much to learn about gluten (it is a protein that no one completely digests), Dr. Fasano does not believe that everyone should or must avoid gluten or wheat. Ongoing research will tell us more.
• Lastly, while I don’t support omitting grains from your diet, it’s important to choose 100% whole grains and to choose less processed grains (like wheat berries, steel cut oats, barley, and quinoa) more often. In addition, many people’s diets are heavy on grains and low on fruits and vegetables – a better balance is required.
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