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LOSE THE WHEAT, LOSE THE WEIGHT, AND FIND YOUR WAY BACK TO HEALTH
WILLIAM DAVIS, MD
FLIP THROUGH YOUR parents' or grandparents' family albums and you're likely to be struck by how thin everyone looks. The women probably wore size-four dresses and the men sported 32-inch waists. Overweight was something measured only by a few pounds; obesity rare. Overweight children? Almost never. Any 42-inch waists? Not here. Two-hundred-pound teenagers? Certainly not.
Why were the June Cleavers of the fifties and sixties, the stay-at-home housewives as well as other people of that era, so much skinnier than the modern people we see at the beach, mall, or in our own mirrors? While women of that era typically weighed in at 110 or 115 pounds, men at 150 or 165 pounds, today we carry 50, 75, even 200 pounds more.
The women of that world didn't exercise much at all. (It was considered unseemly, after all, like having impure thoughts at church.) How many times did you see your mom put on her jogging shoes to go out for a three-mile run? Exercise for my mother was vacuuming the stairs. Nowadays I go outdoors on any nice day and see dozens of women jogging, riding their bicycles, power walking—things we'd virtually never see 40 or 50 years ago. And yet, we're getting fatter and fatter every year.
My wife is a triathlete and triathlon instructor, so I observe a few of these extreme exercise events every year. Triathletes train intensively for months to years before a race to complete a 1- to 21/2-mile open water swim, a 56- to 112-mile bike ride, and finish with a 13- to 26-mile. Just completing a race is a feat in itself, since the event requires up to several thousand calories and spectacular endurance. The majority of triathletes adhere to fairly healthy eating habits.
Then why are a third of these dedicated men and women athletes overweight? I give them even greater credit for having to cart around the extra thirty, forty, or fifty pounds. But, given their extreme level of sustained activity and demanding training schedule, how can they still be overweight?
If we follow conventional logic, overweight triathletes need to exercise more or eat less to lose weight. I believe that is a downright ridiculous notion. I am going to argue that the problem with the diet and health of most Americans is not fat, not sugar, not the rise of the Internet and the demise of the agrarian lifestyle. It’s wheat—or what we are being sold that is called “wheat”.
You will see that what we are eating, cleverly disguised as a bran muffin or onion ciabatta, is not really wheat at all but the transformed product of genetic research conducted during the latter half of the twentieth century. Modern wheat is no more real wheat than a chimpanzee is an approximation of a human. While our hairy primate relatives share 99 percent of all genes found in humans, with longer arms, full body hair, and lesser capacity to win jackpot at Jeopardy, I trust you can readily tell the difference that 1 percent makes. Compared to its ancestor of only forty years ago, modern wheat isn't even that close.
I believe the increased consumption of grains—or more accurately, the increased consumption of this genetically altered thing called modern wheat—explains the contrast between slender, sedentary people of the fifties and overweight twenty-first-century people, triathletes included.
I recognize that declaring wheat a malicious food is like declaring that Ronald Reagan was a Communist. It may seem absurd, even unpatriotic, to demote an iconic dietary staple to the status of public health hazard. But I will make the case that the world's most popular grain is also the world’s most destructive dietary ingredient.
Documented peculiar effects of wheat on humans include appetite stimulation, exposure to brain-active exorphins (the counterpart of internally derived endorphins), exaggerated blood sugar surges that trigger cycles of satiety alternating with heightened appetite, the process glycation that underlies disease and aging, inflammatory and pH effects that erode cartilage and damage bone, and activation of disordered immune responses. A complex range of diseases results from consumption of wheat, from celiac disease—the devastating intestinal disease that develops from exposure to wheat gluten—to an assortment of neurological disorders, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, curious rashes, and the paralyzing delusions of schizophrenia.
If this thing called wheat is such a problem, then removing it should yield outsize and unexpected benefits. Indeed, that is the case. As a cardiologist who sees and treats thousands of patients at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and the myriad destructive effects of obesity, I have personally observed protuberant, flop-over-the-belt belly fat vanish when my patients eliminated wheat from their diets, with typical weight loss totaling 20, 30, or 50 pounds just within the first few months. Rapid and effortless weight loss is usually followed by health benefits that continue to amaze me even today after having witnessed this phenomenon thousands of times.
I’ve seen dramatic turnarounds in health, such as the thirty-eight-year-old woman with ulcerative colitis facing colon removal who was cured with wheat elimination—colon intact. Or the twenty-six-year-old man, incapacitated and barely able to walk because of joint pain, who experienced complete relief and walked and ran freely again after taking wheat off the menu.
Extraordinary as these results may sound, there is ample scientific research to implicate wheat as the root cause of these conditions—and to indicate that removal of wheat can reduce or relieve symptoms entirely. You will see that we have unwittingly traded convenience, abundance, and low cost for health with wheat bellies, bulging thighs, and double chins to prove it. Many of the arguments I make in the chapters that follow have been proven in scientific studies that have been available for one and all to review. Incredibly, many of the lessons we learned in clinical studies decades ago, but somehow never percolated to the surface of medical or public consciousness. I’ve simply put two and two together to come up with some conclusions that you may find startling. ¬¬¬
IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT
In the movie Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon's character, possessing uncommon genius but harboring demons of past abuse, breaks down in sobs when psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), repeats “It’s not your fault” over and over again.
Likewise, too many of us, stricken with an unsightly wheat belly, blame ourselves: too many calories, too little exercise, too little restraint. But it's more accurate to say that the advice we've been given to eat more “healthy whole grains” has deprived us of control over appetites and impulses, making us fat and unhealthy despite our best efforts and good intentions.
I liken the widely accepted advice to eat healthy whole grains to telling an alcoholic that, if a drink or two won’t hurt, nine or ten may be even better. Taking this advice has disastrous repercussions on health.
It's not your fault.
If you find yourself carrying around a protuberant, uncomfortable wheat belly; unsuccessfully trying to squeeze into last year's jeans; reassuring your doctor that, no, you haven't been eating badly, but you're still overweight and pre-diabetic with high blood pressure and cholesterol; or desperately trying to conceal a pin of humiliating man breasts, consider saying goodbye to wheat.
Eliminate the wheat, eliminate the problem.
What have you got to lose except your wheat belly, your man breasts, or your bagel butt?
WHEAT, THE UNHEALTHY
The scientific physician welcomes the establishment of a standard loaf of bread made according to the best scientific evidence. Such a product can be included in diets both for the sick and for the well with a clear understanding the effect that it may have on digestion and growth.
Morris Fishbein, MD,
Editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, 1932
IN CENTURIES PAST, a prominent belly was the domain of the privileged, a mark of success, a symbol of not having to clean your own stables or plow your own field. In this century, you don't have to plow your own field. Today, obesity has been democratized: Everybody can have a big belly. Your dad called his rudimentary mid-twentieth-century equivalent a beer belly. But what are soccer morns, kids, and half of your friends and neighbors who don’t drink beer doing with a beer belly?
I call it wheat belly, though I could have just as easily called this condition pretzel brain or bagel bowel or biscuit face since there's not an organ system unaffected by wheat. But wheat's impact on the waistline is its most visible and defining characteristic, an outward expression of the grotesque distortions humans experience with consumption of this grain.
A wheat belly represents the accumulation of fat that results from years of consuming foods that trigger insulin, the hormone of fat storage. While some people store fat in their buttocks and thighs, most people collect ungainly fat around the middle. This “central” or “visceral” fat is unique: Unlike fat in other body areas, it provokes inflammatory phenomena, distorts insulin responses, and issues abnormal metabolic signals to the rest of the body. In the unwitting wheat-bellied male, visceral fat also produces estrogen, creating “man breasts”.
The consequences of wheat consumption, however, are not just manifested on the body's surface; wheat can also reach deep down into virtually every organ of the body, from the intestines, liver, heart and thyroid gland all the way up to the brain. In fact, there's hardly an organ that is nod affected by wheat in some potentially damaging way.
PANTING AND SWEATING IN THE HEARTLAND
I practice preventive cardiology in Milwaukee. Like many other midwestern cities, Milwaukee is a good place to live and raise a family. City services work pretty well, the libraries are first-rate, my kids go to quality public schools, and the population is just large enough to enjoy big-city culture, such as an excellent symphony and art museum. The people living here are a fairly friendly bunch. But . . . they're fat.
I don't mean a little bit fat. I mean really, real1y fat. I mean panting-and-sweating-after-one-flight-of-stairs fat. I mean 240- pound 18-year-old women, SUVS tipped sharply to the driver’s side, double-wide wheelchairs, hospital equipment unable to accommodate patients who tip the scales at 350 pounds or more. (Not only can't they fit into the CT scanner or other imaging device, you wouldn't be able to see anything even if they could. It's like trying to determine whether the image in the murky ocean water is a flounder or a shark.)
Once upon a time, an individual weighing 250 pounds or more was a rarity; today it's a common sight among the men and women walking the mall, as humdrum as selling jeans at the Gap. Retired people are overweight or obese, as are middle-aged adults, young adults, teenagers, even children. White-collar workers are fat, blue-collar workers are fat. The sedentary are fat and so are athletes. White people are fat, black people are fat, Hispanics are fat, Asians are fat. Carnivores are fat, vegetarians are fat. Americans are plagued by obesity on a scale never before seen in the human experience. No demographic has escaped the weight gain crisis.
Ask the USDA or the Surgeon General’s office and they will tell you that Americans are fat because they drink too many soft drinks, eat too many potato chips, drink too much beer, and don't exercise enough. And those things may indeed be true. But that's hardly the whole story.
Many overweight people, in fact, are quite health conscious. Ask anyone tipping the scales over 250 pounds: What do you think happened to allow such incredible weight gain? You may be surprised at how many do not say they drink Big Gulps, eat Pop Tarts, and watch TV all day." Most will say something like “I don't get it. I exercise five days a week. I've cut my fat and increased my healthy whole grains. Yet I can't seem to stop gaining weight!"
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The national trend to reduce fat and cholesterol intake and increase carbohydrate calories has created a peculiar situation in which products made from wheat have not just increased their presence in our diets; they have come to dominate our diets. For most Americans, every single meal and snack contains foods made with wheat flour. It might be the main course, it might be the side dish, it might be the dessert—and it's probably all of them.
Wheat has become the national icon of health: “Eat more healthy whole grains" we're told, and the food industry happily jumped on board, creating “heart healthy” versions of all our favorite wheat products chock-full of whole grains.
Proliferation of wheat products in the American diet parallels the expansion of our waists. Advice to cut fat and cholesterol intake and replace the calories with whole grains that was issued by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute through its National Cholesterol Education Program in 1985 coincides precisely with the start of a sharp upward climb in body weight for men and women. Ironically, 1985 also marks the year when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began tracking body weight statistics, tidily documenting explosion in obesity and diabetes that began that very year.
Of all the grains in the human diet, why only pick on wheat? Because wheat, by a considerable margin, is the dominant source of gluten protein in the human diet. Unless they're Euell Gibbons, most people don’t eat much rye, Harley, spalt, triticale, bulgur, karnut, or other less common gluten sources; wheat consumption overshadows consumption of other gluten-containing grains more than a hundred to one. Wheat also has unique attributes those other grains do not, attributes that make it especially destructive to our health, which I will cover in later chapters. But I focus on wheat because, in the vast majority of American diets, gluten exposure can be used interchangeably with wheat exposure. For that reason, I often use wheat to signify all gluten-containing grains.
The health impact of Triticum aestivum, common bread wheat and its generic brethren ranges far and wide, with curious effects from mouth to anus, brain to pancreas, Appalachian housewife to Wall Street arbitrageur.
If it sounds crazy, bear with me. I make these claims with a wheat-free conscience.
Like most children of my generation, born in the middle of the twentieth century and reared on Wonder Bread and Devil Dogs, I have a long and close personal relationship with wheat. My sisters I were veritable connoisseurs of breakfast cereal, making our own individual blends of Trix, Lucky Charms, and Froot Loops and eagerly drinking the sweet, pastel-hued milk that remained at the bottom of the bowl. The Great American Processed Food experience didn't end at breakfast, of course. For school lunch my mom usually packed peanut butter or bologna sandwiches, the prelude to cellophane-wrapped Bio Hus and Scooter Pies. Sometimes she would throw in a few Oreos or Vienna fingers, too. For supper, we loved the TV dinners that came packaged in their own tin foil plates, allowing us to consume our battered chicken, corn muffin, and apple brown betty while watching Get Smart.
My first year of college, armed with an all-you-can-eat dining room ticket, I gorged on waffles and pancakes for breakfast, fettuccini Alfredo for lunch, pasta with Italian bread for dinner. Poppy seed muffin or angel food cake for dessert? You bet! Not only did I gain a hefty spare tire around the middle at age nineteen, I felt exhausted all the time. For the next twenty years, I battled this effect, drinking gallons of coffee, struggling to shake off the pervasive stupor that persisted no matter how many hours I slept each night.
Yet none of this really registered until I caught sight of a photo my wife snapped of me while on vacation with our kids, then ages ten, eight and four, on Marco Island, Florida. It was 1999.
In the picture, I was fast asleep on the sand, my flabby abdomen splayed to either side, my second chin resting on my crossed flabby arms.
That's when it really hit me: I didn't just have a few extra pounds to lose, I had a good thirty pounds of accumulated weight around my middle. What must my patients be thinking when I counseled them on diet? I was no better than the doctors of sixties puffing on Marlboros while advising their patients to live healthier lives.
Why did 1 have those extra pounds under my belt? After all, I jogged three to five miles every day, ate a sensible, balanced diet that didn't include excessive quantities of meats or fats, avoided junk foods and snacks, and instead concentrated on getting plenty of healthy whole grains. What was going on here?
Sure, I had my suspicions. I couldn't help but notice that on the days when I'd eat toast, waffles, or bagels for breakfast I'd stumble through several hours of sleepiness and lethargy. But eat a three-egg omelet with cheese, feel fine. Some basic laboratory work, though, really stopped me in my tracks. Triglycerides: 350 mg/dl; HDL ("good"
cholesterol: 27 mg/dl. And I was diabetic with a fasting blood sugar of 161 mg/dl. Jogging nearly every day but overweight and diabetic? Something had to be fundamentally wrong with my diet. Of all the changes I had made in my diet in the name of health, boosting my intake of healthy whole grains been the most significant. Could it be that the grains were actually making me fatter?
That moment of flabby realization began the start of a journey, following the trail of crumbs back from being overweight and all the health problems that came with it. But it was when I observed even greater effects on a larger scale beyond my own personal experience that I became convinced that there really was something interesting going on.
LESSONS FROM A WHEAT-FREE DIET
An interesting fact: Whole wheat bread (glycemic index 72) increases blood sugar as much or more than table sugar, or sucrose (glycemic index 59). (Glucose increases blood sugar to 100, hence a glycemic index of 100. The extent to which a particular food increases blood sugar relative to glucose determines that food's glycemic index.) So when I was devising a strategy to help overweight, diabetes-prone patients reduce blood sugar most efficiently, it made sense to me that the quickest and simplest way get results would be to eliminate the foods that caused their blood sugar to rise most profoundly; in other words not sugar, but wheat. I provided a simple handout detailing how to replace wheat-based based foods with low-glycemic whole foods to create a healthy diet.
After three months, my patients returned to have more blood work done. As l had anticipated, with only rare exceptions, blood sugar (glucose) had indeed often dropped from diabetic range (126 mg/dl or greater) to normal. Yes, diabetics became nondiabetics. That's right: Diabetes in many cases can be cured—not simply managed—by removal of carbohydrates, especially wheat, from the diet. Many of my patients had also lost twenty, thirty, even forty pounds.
It's what 1 didn't expect that astounded me. They reported that symptoms of acid reflux disappeared and cyclic cramping and diarrhea of irritable bowel syndrome were gone. Their energy improved, they had greater focus, sleep was deeper. Rashes disappeared, even rashes that had been present for many years. Their rheumatoid arthritis pain improved or disappeared, enabling them to cut back, even eliminate, the nasty medications used to treat it. Asthma symptoms improved or resolved completely, allowing many to throw away their inhalers. Athletes reported more consistent performance.
Thinner. More energetic. Clearer thinking. Better bowel, joint, and lung health. Time and time again. Surely these results were reason enough to forgo wheat.
What convinced me further were the many instances in which people removed wheat, then permitted themselves a wheat indulgence: a couple of pretzels, a canapé at a cocktail party. Within minutes, many would experience diarrhea, joint swelling and pain, or wheezing. On again, off again, the phenomenon would repeat itself. What started out as a simple experiment in reducing blood sugars exploded into an insight into multiple health conditions and weight loss that continues to amaze me even today.
A RADICAL WHEAT-ECTOMY
For many, the idea of removing wheat from the diet is, at least psychologically, as painful as the thought of having a root canal without anesthesia. For some the process can indeed have uncomfortable side effects akin to withdrawal from cigarettes or alcohol. But this procedure must be performed to permit the patient to recover.
Wheat Belly explores the proposition that the health problems of Americans, from fatigue to arthritis to gastrointestinal distress to obesity, originate with the innocent-looking bran muffin or cinnamon raisin bagel you down with your coffee every morning.
The good news: There is a cure for this condition called wheat belly—or, if you prefer, pretzel brain or biscuit face.
The bottom line: Elimination of this food, part of human culture for more centuries than Larry King was on the air, will make you sleeker, smarter, faster and happier. Weight loss, in particular, can proceed at a pace you didn’t think possible. And you can selectively lose the most visible, insulin opposing, diabetes creating, inflammation-producing, embarrassment-causing belly fat. It is a process accomplished with virtually no hunger or deprivation, with a wide spectrum of health benefits.
So why eliminate wheat rather than say sugar, or all grains in general? The next chapter will explain why wheat is unique among modern grains in its ability to convert quickly to blood sugar In addition, it has a poorly understood and understudied genetic makeup and addiction properties that actually cause us to overeat even more, has been linked to literally dozens of debilitating ailments beyond those associated with overweight; and has infiltrated almost every aspect of our diet. Sure cutting out refined sugar is probably a good idea, as it provides little or no nutritional benefit and will also impact your blood sugar in a negative way. But for the most bang for your buck, eliminating wheat is the easiest and most effective step you can take to safeguard your health and trim your waistline.