“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.