wheat

It's all about the wheat. Or is it?

| During the last visit to my doctor in late August, he told me about a book he had been reading, Wheat Belly by cardiologist Dr William Davis. I bought a copy of the book and a companion cookbook.

Wheat Belly cookbook
The Wheat Belly Cookbook (with perhaps a nod to Rachel Ray?)

The crux of Wheat Belly is that genetic changes in wheat over the last half century cause the body to metabolise it differently, producing numerous undesirable effects. The most egregious effect, according to Davis, is weight gain and accumulation of visceral fat on the belly, hence the title Wheat Belly. In essence, wheat is addictive and almost toxic to the body. The solution, is to eliminate wheat completely from one's diet.

That's easily said. It's less easily done. Practically everything has wheat in it. Virtually all processed food — anything in a box, bag, or a can — is suspect and is banished from the table. Nevertheless, I have spent the past five weeks following the strictures in the diet. I would see for myself.

After reading both books, I formulated three major reservations.

1. The book makes what I consider exhorbitant claims. In addition to the claims about weight gain and belly fat, Davis spends 12 whole chapters implicating wheat in diabetes, hypertension, schizophrenia, autism, attention deficit disorder, dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, and colon cancer. That's just a sampling of conditions and diseases caused by or worsened by wheat, according to Davis.

We've witnessed what happens to people who take the brave leap and do the opposite of what conventional advice tells us. Weight and health are transformed. A long list of health conditions diminish or disappear. Most typically, people experience relief from acid reflux, bowel urgency, joint pain, and mental "fog." Many diabetics become nondiabetic. People suffering for years with the pain and deformity of inflammatory and autoimmune conditions experience markedly reduced symptoms or even outright cure. Depression lifts in many, while anxiety and paranoia disappear in others. The food obsessions of bulimia and binge eating disorder can dissipate with days. And, of course, pounds of fat, mostly from the inflammatory visceral fat of the abdomen, the infamous 'wheat belly,' shrink sufficiently to allow you to dust off the 'skinny jeans' you saved in the back of the closet or comfortably wear the several-sizes-smaller dress or trousers from 20 years earlier.

— Cookbook introduction

2. The principle argument is to eliminate wheat to eliminate your wheat belly.

Eliminate wheat in all its myriad forms and pounds melt away, often as much as a pound a day. No gimmicks, no subscription meals, no special formulas, no 'meal replacement' drinks or 'cleansing' regimens required.

— Wheat Belly, chapter 5

But when you read carefully, you find that Davis eliminates not just wheat but almost every other source of carbohydrate. Other grains? No. Legumes (like beans)? No. Root vegetables? No. Thus, the no-wheat diet is really a no-carbohydrate diet. He rails against the US Department of Agriculture's campaign to eat "healthy whole grains," advice that he considers "pure fiction." He allows that once you have lost your wheat belly you might add a small serving of a low glycemic-index food to your diet once in a while. Say no more than 1/4 cup of yam. Or two (two!) strawberries.

What you are left with is unprocessed meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy; vegetables that grow above the ground; many kinds of nuts. Even "gluten free" foods often use starchy thickeners (carbohydrates) so they are banished as well. In short, you shop the perimeter of the grocery store: no boxes, no bags, no cans, no prepared dishes.

The pressing question is therefore: Is it the wheat, or not? If it's the wheat, why eliminate all the other things?

3. Another problem is that we can find places in the world where they eat lots of wheat but are not plagued by obesity. Consider the French whose idea of breakfast is a cup of coffee and a baguette. Consider the Italians whose cuisine is famous for pasta. Maybe it's not the wheat. Or maybe it's not just the wheat.

Overhyped? Yes, but...

Despite finding the Wheat Belly book deeply flawed, I did find attractive that it seems to build its explanation on actual science: genes, chromosomes, metabolic proteins, etc. Possibly ….

Most approaches to being overweight treat it as a character flaw. Well, if you just had more will power! Will power has never been my problem — I will match anyone for persistence and delayed gratification! Too many doctors, the buttons of their lab coats near popping, blithely tell you to lose weight, as if it were that simple.

Or treat it as simple arithmetic: calories in minus calories out equals weight gained or lost. Yet, everyone knows someone who can eat vast quantities of food and remain skinny as a rail, whereas others of us have only to inhale the smell of an everything bagel to gain five pounds.

Or treat it as an effect of a mysterious "set point," the deus ex machina of being overweight. I have lost count of how many times I have tried to reset my set point, all to no avail.

So, with healthy skepticism I set about to eliminate wheat from my diet.

My results

In the preceding weeks I have followed the guidelines laid out by Davis. Frankly, I haven't followed many of his recipes because when you think about it, most are simply variations of no-carbohydrate, no-gluten. You don't need a cookbook to breakfast on something like scrambled eggs and sliced tomatoes.

Weight

Pounds lost: 3.

All three of those lost pounds have happened in the past week. Until that point, zip, nada, nil.

I have been waiting for all those extra pounds to just melt away. Ain't happening, no how.

Health

Diabetes May 12 October 1  
Glucose 190 96 60 day average
A1C 7.5 5.8 Less than 6.0 is considered non-diabetic

Obviously the impact on my diabetes is dramatic. Since May (the prior A1C test) I have gone from "high risk of developing long-term complications" to "non-diabetic." Based on my daily test results and my reduced need for insulin, I had expected improvement, but not that great. Dee-lighted!

As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. While the diabetes is vastly improved, both total cholesterol and "bad" cholesterol (LDL) have increased. There were modest improvements in triglycerides and "good" cholesterol (HDL), but they both leave great room for improvement.

I attribute the backsliding to increased consumption of cheese. Frankly, I found the wheat belly diet so restrictive that I craved food that could be really chewed, and I often settled for a chunk of cheese. Probably not a wise choice.

What next?

I'm going to add back into my diet limited quantities of root vegetables, squash, beans, and other sources of carbohydrates. I've gotten quite used to avoiding things with wheat and see no reason to change that, but I see no reason to be fanatical about it.

I see my doctor again next week, and I'll be interested to hear his recommendations.

Last updated on Apr 29, 2016

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