Tea Time With Jesse

Six of One, Half Dozen the Other

Thinking About Books – First They Came for the Corn…

Posted by middlerage on October 21, 2011

…then they came for the wheat. A look at Wheat Belly by William Davis.

A couple of years ago, Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, was all the rage. Trendy books don’t normally interest me, but a friend loaned it to me and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It is a literary book that contemplates what we eat, and how, through a combination of evolution and modern industry, we eat what we eat. One of the book’s central points is that our diet is dominated by corn. Corn that has been hybridized into a deviant, over-domesticated Frankenstein, and then broken apart into its constituent parts and added to everything. Maybe all of this corn in our diet, especially the high-fructose corn syrup, is to blame for America’s obesity epidemic.

Flash forward to the present and there’s a new sheriff in evil, over-domesticated-food town, and its name is Wheat Belly authored by cardiologist William Davis. Its central point is …(and to make a point I’m going to copy ‘n’ paste the above, replacing ‘corn’ with ‘wheat’)…our diet is dominated by wheat. Wheat that has been hybridized into a deviant, over-domesticated Frankenstein, and then broken apart into its constituent parts and added to everything. Maybe all of this wheat in our diet, especially the gluten, is to blame for America’s obesity epidemic.

Except that Wheat Belly is not nearly as literary and a lot more “tabloidy” than Omnivore‘s Dilemma. So why am I reading it? Let me establish my cred…I swear I heard about it on an NPR show. I looked on the usual NPR websites to see if I could find a link to the piece and prove I’m not a National Enquirer reading idjit, but I had no luck – you’ll have to trust me. (And to judge by the New Age-ey infomercials offered during PBS pledge drives, maybe invoking public radio is not as cool as I think.) To be fair, Wheat Belly is not meant to be a literary exploration of food culture, ala’ Omnivore’s. It is meant to be a self-help book for dieting, and this is what it is. Like all such books, it has the content of a pamphlet that has been padded into a full blown book. It repeats itself and has the usual, “but if you just try it, you’ll be amazed!” quality to it. Well. Now that I’ve managed to insult the book, NPR, and PBS, I will say that the book is very interesting, and I am enjoying it.

Davis’ contention is that wheat has a particular combination of complex carbohydrates that are very easily digested by the stomach (more so than other grains), and as such, two pieces of whole wheat toast have a higher glycemic index than two tablespoons of sugar. More shockingly, it doesn’t matter if you are eating whole grain wheat or white flour.  Davis has looked into wheat research and believes that, in the last 50 years, hybridization has produced a wheat grain that is not your father’s Buick. He also explores other  research that suggests gluten (a major component of wheat and is a protein not a carb) is easily converted into an “exomorphin” that has the unique ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and bind with opiate receptors. This in turn makes you want to eat more wheat leading to a cycle of eating even when you don’t want to. Here, the author invokes his tabloidy side and pushes statements like “Wheat is the Haight-Ashbury of food,” and “Wheat products are Jim Jone’s Kool Aid.” However, it makes for fascinating reading, and he warns that giving up wheat is like going through withdrawal because of the exomorphin effect.

Which gets to the rub – why give up wheat? His theory is that the blood sugar ups and downs of eating carbohydrates, especially modern Frankenstein wheat, packs on the visceral fat, hence Wheat Belly (as in “beer belly”). The fat on your butt and thighs is not good for you but is a minor player, while visceral fat (aka belly fat, gut fat, pot belly) is a horse of a different color. Like a good scientist, Davis admits when science doesn’t have the answers. He admits we don’t know why, but not all fat is equal. For some reason, belly fat causes a whole lot more problems than just being in the way. It is linked to inflammations all over the body, including arthritis. It is linked to heightened amounts of arteriosclerosis and heart damaging plaques. It does not seem to come so much from eating too many burgers – like the flabby thighs and arms – but rather comes from the insulin-strapping cycle of over-indulgence in carbohydrates.

At the end of the day, a rose by any other name is still a low-carb/Atkins diet (how’s that for swinging multiple clichés in a small room?).  Davis mostly advises an Atkins style diet requiring one to give up ALL wheat products, PLUS other gluten containing grains including rye and barley. This means, (GASP! )no beer. Arghhhh. The book tries to accomplish too much by being both an anti-wheat theory and an anti-gluten theory. Celiac disease (allergy to gluten) is a major problem for those who suffer from it, and the gluten that causes celiac disease may also be the culprit in arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. But if you don’t really suffer from gluten intolerance than some of his advice is over strident. Other than giving up wheat (and wheat like grains), Davis advocates a rather yippee diet – eat all you want! Or rather, eat all you want of cheese, nuts, meat, fish, and flax seed which is the only gluten free grain. Well, that is cool, I’ve read elsewhere that calorie restriction is ineffective. Any diet that says ‘eat all you want’ is probably onto something.

Interestingly, Davis pays homage to Jerrod Diamond of Guns Germs and Steel fame, because Diamond has recently come out with the interesting statement that the agricultural revolution (10,000 years ago) may be the worst thing to happen to humans since…errr…sliced bread (pun intended). Yet, Davis never mentions Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. It is an odd exclusion.

In the final analysis, despite my criticisms, the book is interesting enough that I will likely buy it. I am currently borrowing it from the library, but the book is new and popular and has many holds on it. No renewals allowed.

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12 Responses to “Thinking About Books – First They Came for the Corn…”

  1. Mark Leisher said

    He lost me at “no beer,” but there may be something to this.

    • middlerage said

      Yeah, that’s a pint of ‘no way’ right there. He’s also anti fruit, downright hostile to bananas and mangoes, and marginally okay with berries every now and then. Very reminiscent of Atkins. I gave his wheat free cereal a try this morning: milled flax seed and coconut milk. It didn’t taste bad, and it didn’t taste good. It just didn’t taste. I had to add sugar.
      I’m not down with vilifying fruit and ALL grains, but I would like to attempt going wheat free while eating all other grains, maybe some quinoa or amaranth. Both of which I tried as was not fond of.

  2. Anonymous said

    Well, as a guy who has been diagnosed with fatty liver (which leads to worse things), I read this with interest. There is no treatment for it, other than, “lose the fat”. I’ll have to learn more about this stuff now, if I can find sources I trust yet can still understand.

    As for the assertion that the neolithic agricultural revolution as the worst thing to happen to humans… I have to call shenanigans. That’s just the sort of ridiculous hyperbole people engage in to get noticed, but in truth it’s just silly. It might be the worst thing to happen to most of the other species on the planet, but about six billion of the occupants of Earth would not be alive were it not for agriculture, and the leading cause of death among the rest would be starvation.

    And no one would be writing, let alone reading his book.

    • middlerage said

      If you read it, I’ll be very interested to get your take.

    • middlerage said

      I forgot to reply to your other comment, which is yeah it seems hard to vilify the ag revolution.
      I think Diamond’s contention is that with agriculture came a lot of ills like war and pestilence. It is interesting to muse that many of our worst diseases are only recent and came from living with domesticated animals or the non-nomadic lifestyle. On the other hand, happy healthy paleolithic people lived to a ripe old age of, what, 30? 40? max.
      Guns germs and steel is one of the few popular non-fictions I had a hard time reading. Not because it wasn’t interesting, but because of the writing style.

      • Jerry said

        I like to joke that it would be easy to demonstrate that water causes cancer. Withhold water from your rats, and none of them will get cancer. A lot of diseases are more common today because people live long enough to contract them. That’s not to say that the open sewers in europe didn’t kill millions and turn the survivors into bacterial hand grenades capable of wiping out entire civilizations, but there wouldn’t have been millions of city-dwellers to kill in the first place without agriculture.

  3. Jerry said

    ^ Didn’t mean to be anonymous…

    • middlerage said

      I would love to lose my belly, and I wonder if this wheat thing is it. He quotes one mother as saying “bread is my crack,” but not me – I like breads and pastas, but for me it is sugar that seems to control my brain. Anyhoo, might be worthwhile giving this wheat free business a whirl.

  4. Switbo said

    My mother always calls Bread, pasta, and rice “The stuff of life” and wouldn’t serve a meal without at least one or two of them. I pretty much agree, but do have to agree that cutting dramatically down on them is the most successful I’ve ever been at losing weight. That said, COMPLETELY eliminating something so central to most meals is not going to be successful long term. And to demonize fruit seems a little extreme. Do we eat too much bread (pasta/wheat product of your choice here)? Most definitely. Should we never have another bite of wheat? No. That’s just not sustainable.

    • middlerage said

      I’m not shilling for him. I just want to say his claim is that once you go wheat free you can never go back, because you get a sort of lactose intolerance to wheat. He did an interesting experiment with himself where he baked a loaf of einhorn bread and a loaf of wheat bread. Einhorn is the original wheat plant and has only 14 chromosomes. Modern wheat is the result of intense hybridization in the last ? years and has 48 chromosomes. The einhorn bread is crumbly and rocky because it has so little gluten. He had no ill effects from eating it, but since he is wheat free he claimed he had a week of gut problems after a bite of the modern wheat bread.

  5. Jerry said

    So reading around, I found this survey of studies that looks over a shit-ton of literature that challenges a long list of assumptions about obesity and concludes surprising things like:

    * Diet and exercise doesn’t work in the long term, even if people maintain their healthy habits. (!) In fact, losing weight can be harmful.
    * The yo-yo effect is far more harmful than just being fat.
    * Fat people live longer than skinny people.
    * In some cases, popular belief is reversed. For instance, it may be that obesity is a symptom of type 2 diabetes rather than a cause.
    * The health care industry is overtreating fat people and undertreating skinny people.

    One other thing of interest – according to these guys, the long-term benefits of losing weight have never been significantly measured because no well-controlled study has managed to achieve long-term weight loss in enough people.

    The conclusion: Focus on health, not weight. Regular aerobic exercise helps you, and it doesn’t matter in the least whether you lose weight as a result – in fact, it may be better to not lose the weight.

    And yet, even if all those conclusions are correct (I’m not in a position to judge that), I still want to lose my belly, get the fat off my liver, and reduce the stress on my knees. I want to be thinner, dammit. I don’t think my knees would show up in any of the studies used for this survey. The bad news is that this survey suggests that even if I regulate my eating and exercise like a madman and lose the fat, it will probably come back. (Most of the study is devoted to the good news – that you can be overweight and healthy, but my brain was exploding by then. I will go back and finish reading later.)

    • Mark Leisher said

      Excellent conclusion! One big reason to lose weight would be to determine conclusively whether you happen to be one of those who can’t keep weight off.

      One of the guys I bicycle with regularly is known as the best beer-belly racer in the state. His body just has a lower weight limit he can’t get past, so he spends his off-bike workouts strengthening legs and feet to handle the weight. He doesn’t bother with intentional weight loss. His biggest problem is a wife who is a serious foody. On occasion he gains and then loses a stone or two.

      I’m one of those oh-so-lucky mesomorphs; I’ve got it easy compared to most people. So I really have no business having an opinion about weight loss 🙂

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