“Wheat Belly”: it’s belly up.

Cardiologist Dr. William Davis’ book Wheat Belly often comes up in conversation in my social circles.  Most are highly complimentary of Davis’ take on things and most people seem quite willing to fall into the “wheat is evil” trap.  I read Davis’ book when it first came out. I revisited it again when McLean’s interviewed Dr. Davis “On the evils of wheat” (2011).

I, of course, am always skeptical. And I make no apologies for that. As soon as something is labeled “evil” (anything) my eyebrows raise, my mouth purses and my gray matter readies itself to step onto the soapbox.  Fortunately for my friends, I don’t  usually launch into lecture mode. Instead, I satisfy myself with an offhand, dismissive comment and carry on eating snacks and drinking wine (not good ‘agvocacy’ protocol, I know).

Anyway, when I was at the Ag Awareness Summit a few weeks ago, Wheat Belly came up again.  It is one of those popular food/diety resources that people seem to be leaning on these days.  The book has had quite a shelf life and, no doubt, Davis is benefiting from some royalties.

But, for those of you that are interested in a more critical look at this book and Davis’ take on things, I invite you to review a few sources.  Take, for example, Pete Bronski’s evaluation of it. Bronski has a blog entitled No Gluten, No Problem. As he confesses in his post “Wheat Belly Busted“:

“If I had read this book at another time in my life, I likely would have been none the wiser. I would have …peeked at the citations…and been satisfied. [But] I read this book at precisely that moment in my life when I was best equipped with the knowledge I needed to critically evaluate it.”

Pete passes those insights onto you by going through the book’s citations and analyzing Davis’ interpretation of the science he references. And guess what? Davis gets a lot of it wrong. According to Bronski:

“Those of us in the gluten-free community want to agree with Wheat Belly because Davis’ message resonates with us. But it’s an overly simplified message, at times built on tenuous claims.” (By the way, Pete Bronski and his wife Kelli have published a couple of gluten-free cookbooks and Pete has a co-authored a guide on gluten-free nutrition and training)

Melissa McEwen (who has a degree in agriculture) comes at Wheat Belly from a slightly different (yet, just as critical) perspective in her blog entry.   I like, in particular, how she challenges Davis’ theories on the “unique evils of modern Dwarf wheat” and society’s romanticism of ‘old’ wheat varieties:

“God forbid we criticize the wheat of the old days, the wheat of the Bible, the wheat are our ancestors supposedly “thrived on.” Sorry folks, I’ve seen skeletons from “thriving” ancestors, peasants from 1600 Swedish or farmers from 1500 Britain and I’m here to say that these toothless pock-marked stunted people were not exactly thriving.”

McEwen’s analysis is detailed, well-written and she takes Davis to task on some of his anecdotal theories.  She challenges us to “…hold ourselves to a higher standard and not embrace every book that comes out that tarnishes a food we don’t like or espouses a low-carb diet.”  

This skeptical mind couldn’t agree more. So what does the evidence say?

“…a study published in the July 1, 2012, edition of the Journal of Nutrition examined 45 other studies and 21 randomized-controlled trials and reported that individuals who regularly consumed whole grains, versus those who never or rarely consumed whole grains, had a 26 percent lower risk of Type II diabetes, a 21 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and consistently had less weight gain during an eight to 13 year period” (link).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged that enriched grains, not vitamin supplements, are the number one source of folic acid for women of child bearing age and named this achievement in May 2011 as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the last decade” (link).

So, our takeaway for today’s blog? If you are celiac or gluten-sensitive, of course you are going to avoid wheat.  But there are lots of health benefits from consuming whole grains, if you can tolerate them. Folic acid, vitamins, and other nutrients provided through enriched, whole grains are good for the body! Most importantly, eat a healthy, well-balanced diet including lots of vegetables.  

Hmmmm…oddly, this sounds like something our grandmothers / mothers used to tell us to do.  

Other resources:

Dr. Ravi Chibbar, Professor & Canada Research Chair in Crop Quality in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Saskatchewan, talks Dwarf wheat varieties, explaining their development and benefits. AgWest Bio Blog (February 2013)

Heather Mangieri, a nutrition consultant and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides insights on the topics in this Scientific American online article “Most people shouldn’t eat gluten-free” (March 11, 2013)

A VERY detailed (and evidence-based) response to Davis’ book and his points here by Julie Jones, PhD, St. Catherine’s University, St. Paul, MN.

A review of Davis’ book by Weighty Matters: Musing of an Obesity Doc by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff here.

Brian John vs @Mark_Lynas. It’s Mark for the ‘conversational’ win.

It never ceases to amaze me how low people will go in order to push a political agenda.  Brian John, of GM-Free Cymru, did just that in his open letter to Mark Lynas dated February 10, 2013.  You may recall Mark Lynas’ powerful address to the Oxford Farming Conference in early January where he apologized for assisting in the demonization of GM, a technology that can be used to benefit the environment. It is a technology that Lynas now defends:

“What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.” M. Lynas

As a social scientist, much of my work revolves around the qualitative analysis of interview data and text-based analysis.  Words and language and how they are used to communicate are revealing about people, their circumstances or their position on a given social issue.

Out of curiosity, I took the liberty of using “Wordle” to generate some word clouds to contrast and compare the text in Mark Lynas’ speech (January 3, 2013) with the text of John’s ‘open letter’ to Lynas (posted February 10th). Here are the results:

Wordle ‘word cloud’ of the text of Mark Lynas’ lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference:

Bjohn vs Lynas 2

text of Mark Lynas’ lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference – Jan 3, 2013

Wordle ‘word cloud’ of the text of Brian John’s open letter to Mark Lynas: “Beware the Rise of the Science Stalinist”:

bJohn vs Lynas

Text of B. John’s open letter to Mark Lynas, Feb 10, 2013

Mark’s speech starts with “I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops.”

John’s letter to Mark begins with the ‘Stalinist’ reference and then goes to… “I want to address just one issue arising from your recent high-profile conversion into a GM evangelist.” (From there on, John ‘ties’ into the collective effort of independent reputable scientists to ask for the retraction of a poorly executed study by Séralini and his team; a study that has since been discredited by several food safety organizations worldwide (including but not limited to: Health Canada, European Food Safety Authority, French National Institute for Agriculture Research, CNRS, Inserm, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, National Centre for Scientific Review… check out my previous blog entry)).

So, how about those terms of reference? In his address, Mark uses words like: hope, world, growth, innovation, farmers, think, better.  B. John uses words like (well, once you get past the lists of ‘villains’ and ‘victims’): attacks, zealots, beware, vilification, witches, burning, Rottweilers.

What a marked difference.

Words are powerful.  They are a form of action; they can influence change. As we try to elevate the discourse around the GM debate, the kind of language we use matters. It is a reflection of our intent and our willingness to engage in a thought-provoking and proactive manner. Brian John’s text not only inaccurately represents the facts, but the tone and his choice of words suggest that he is less interested in engaging in constructive dialogue and more interested in purveying rhetoric.

We need to use better words; we need to find a better way.

bias + misrepresentation = politically motivated propaganda

An op-ed, by Rob Wager and me, in the Western Producer (November 22, 2012) You can eat your bugs — and toxins, too was written in response to Alex Atamanenko’s opinion piece “I’d rather eat bugs” from a couple of issues earlier.  Atamanenko heavily leverages the Séralini study which he views as “damning evidence” that “…call[s] into question not only the safety of genetically modified food but the stringency of government regulations and assessments.” Rob Wager and I take Atamanenko to task on his bias and gross misrepresentation of science:


Séralini’s sketchy version of ‘science’:

Séralini’s study was more an exercise in media manipulation than an example of rigorous scientific work. Using a well-constructed public relations strategy and backed by anti-GM organizations, Séralini pushed this study into the media spotlight along with his personal agenda. It’s no coincidence that he launched an anti-GM book and a movie that same week. It appears as if the goal of the study was to “prove” something rather than to objectively “investigate” something.

And what about regulatory oversight?:

Industry manages trials and testing of new crop varieties based on guidelines developed by Environment Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It must adhere to strict science-based protocols. It’s important to note that industry doesn’t pay for “approvals” but bears the cost of all trials and tests.

Final thoughts:

Atamanenko takes a biased position here, misrepresenting good science and promoting poor science. It’s just politically motivated propaganda. We think that Canadian farmers and consumers deserve to know the facts.

Related posts:

I smell a rat” (September 20, 2012)

Outstanding summary of Séralini study by Jay Byrne