For years it was long believed that whole grains were good for health. Recent studies find this is not true. You know all those foods we were told to eat, all those “healthy whole grains” we were advised were better than white flour products? Well, let me let you in on a dirty little secret of agribusiness: It ain’t the same wheat. It is not the wheat of our grandmothers’ day because it was changed.
Wheat was changed in the 1960s and 1970s by agricultural scientists. They hybridized various strains thousands of times. They mated wheat with other grasses (wheat is a grass). They subjected wheat seeds and embryos to the process of mutagenesis, the use of chemicals, gamma rays and x-rays to induce mutations. These methods pre-dated the methods of genetic modification, and were crude, imprecise, and unpredictable and, in many cases, worse than genetic modification.
Many varieties of wheat that we eat come from plants that are no longer tall, but are short and stocky and high-yielding. Changes in outward appearance were accompanied by internal genetic and biochemical changes. One crucial change: new forms of the protein gliadin. Gliadin, when digested in the human gastrointestinal tract, is degraded to small peptides that can bind to the opiate receptors of the brain – yes: opiate receptors, like morphine or Oxycontin. Gliadin-derived peptides, however, don’t make us high, nor do they provide pain relief; instead they may only stimulate appetite and cause us to eat more.
Remember this: “According to a nationwide survey: More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette”? In the mid and latter 20th century, the national discussion went from gushing about the pleasures and health benefits of smoking, to studies documenting the health damage caused by smoking, to executives denying any wrongdoing to Congress, to uncovering concealed documents demonstrating the industry’s knowledge of the adverse health effects of smoking decades earlier.
Dr. Davis believes we are reliving the tobacco experience with wheat in its place. He thinks that smart food scientists stumbled on the potential appetite-stimulating effect of the gliadin protein in wheat 25 years ago. How else do we explain why wheat can be found in so many processed foods, from tomato soup to licorice? In 1960, you would have found wheat in bread, rolls and cake – obvious places that make sense. Go up and down the food aisles in your local supermarket in the 21st century and you will find that huge numbers of canned, packaged, and frozen foods contain wheat in some form: licorice, taco seasoning, frozen dinners, breakfast cereals, salad dressings – you’ll be hard pressed to find processed foods that do not contain wheat. Is wheat that necessary for taste or for texture? I don’t think so. It’s put there for one reason: to stimulate your appetite and increase sales.
By putting wheat in nearly everything, the food industry ensured that you come back for more. Just as tobacco manufacturers increased nicotine content of cigarettes to help ensure addiction, so adding wheat to processed foods might help create an addiction to all things wheat. Not only could that add up to a lot of calories and a lot more food consumed, it could add up to a lot more weight. Alongside these changes in wheat, we have observed a nationwide increase in weight. An explosive surge in diabetes has followed the rise in obesity. We are now in the midst of the worst epidemic of diabetes ever experienced by humans, and rates are continuing to climb and are threatening our children and grandchildren’s health.
The gliadin protein of wheat ensures that wheat products, such as whole grain or white breads, bagels and muffins, are addictive: They generate a need for more… and more, and more. Gliadin may act like an opiate with its own form of euphoria and its very own withdrawal syndrome when you remove wheat from the diet.
In Dr. Davis’ opinion, the inadvertent transformation of wheat gliadin into a potential potent appetite-stimulant, recognized quickly by observant food scientists, brought us here, to this overweight, diabetic situation that now plagues Americans and much of the rest of the developed world, all while we are advised to eat more “healthy whole grains.” No doubt, many people profited handsomely – and continue to do so – from this message, but the public has paid the price, both out of their pocketbooks and their health.
Studies suggest that replacing white flour with whole grains may contribute to minor reductions in weight and conditions like colon cancer, heart disease and diabetes, but it does not necessarily follow that whole grains are better than no grains.
What should have been asked in the next logical progression is: What are the effects of no grains? We have to look elsewhere for those answers.
The notion that whole grains are good for health is therefore based on a simple blunder in logic. While grains, especially wheat, do indeed provide inexpensive calories on a large-scale for the world’s diet, their consumption invites compromises in health.
Since the first edition of “Wheat Belly” was published, William Davis, MD has often had to answer questions from both inquiring minds and critics. Here, he reveals his answers to the questions he hears the most.
Why would someone lose weight by removing wheat from the diet? Isn’t it just a matter of losing the calories from wheat products?
Dr. Davis: No, and in fact I encourage consumption of high-calorie foods such as fats and oils.
Won’t nutritional deficiencies develop if we eliminate grains like wheat, especially fiber and B vitamins?
Dr. Davis: Provided we replace the lost calories of wheat with healthy foods, there is no deficiency of any nutrient that develops. If we replace wheat with vegetables, meats, eggs, nuts and other healthy foods, there is no nutrient that cannot be obtained in equal or greater measure from other foods, including riboflavin, vitamin B12, folate, magnesium, vitamin C and zinc. With the right dietary choices, fiber intake, likewise, can stay the same or can even increase with wheat elimination.
In fact, when we get rid of wheat, we also decrease our intake of a powerful “anti-nutrient” factor called phytates that can decrease absorption of several essential nutrients..
The truly beneficial fibers in food are the so-called “viscous,” or soluble, fibers that are digested by bowel flora to fatty acids, a process that enhances bowel health and may protect against colon cancer. The fibers of wheat are, in contract, insoluble fibers with a structure identical to that of wood; insoluble fibers from wheat are therefore insoluble and do not provide the same range of benefits as, say, the fibers in certain vegetables, garbanzo beans, or sweet potatoes.
What if I don’t need to lose weight? Does this way of eating still provide benefits?
Dr. Davis: Yes, absolutely. Losing weight may simply be a by-product of regaining health and control over appetite. There are many other facets of health regained minus wheat.
For instance, people who get rid of wheat may experience relief from acid reflux, the bowel urgency of irritable bowel syndrome, joint pains in the fingers and wrists, migraine headaches, anxiety, depression, disrupted sleep and low energy.
That’s just a partial list. I would classify the elimination of wheat as the most powerful tool for reclaiming health that I have ever witnessed. If there is no need to lose weight at the start, weight can be maintained simply by eating a healthy amount of calories, such as those from fats, oils, and proteins.