Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Review (#64 of 2014) Wheat Belly by William Davis, M.D.

Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health
The author is a cardiologist who relies on some clinical studies but mostly anecdotal evidence from himself and his patients. "Wheat Belly" refers to the visceral fat that has developed in Americans in our obesity epidemic. Davis attributes it ultimately to wheat, which has been crossbred and genetically engineered so that it no longer represents that which our ancestors ate. This book is similar to other "carbs are bad" books, or "bad carbs are bad" books, but it focuses more on wheat-- which gets confusing because he often means "carbs" and will conclude a paragraph with "so, avoid high-fructose corn syrup and other highly processed carbs" when he has previously referred to "wheat." If he hadn't focused on wheat, this would be like the 1,000 books on carbs and the industrial food chain that have been published before it in the last 10 years. Read a Michael Pollan book instead.

High-carb foods are high-glycemic foods that make your body produce too much insulin. This makes you feel hungry faster and feeding that hunger leads to even greater caloric intake and your body stores the extra calories as fat. Davis details this process, like many authors before him. He points out that whole wheat products are higher on the glycemic index than pure sugar.But giving up wheat and gluten can lead to eating even more calories.

"Be gluten free, but don't eat gluten free." Gluten-free foods that are based on tapiocha starch, potato starch, etc. are even higher on the glycemic index than whole wheat products. That's possibly why so many people with celiac disease and eat gluten-free are overweight-- they're still getting too many carbs and calories from imbalanced insulin. 

The government's food recommendations from the 1970s encourages us to eat a low-fat diet with plenty of whole wheat products, but it's really carbs that's killing us. I recommend any of Michael Pollan's books on food, as well as a host of earlier (and thus now cheaper) books that deal with this subject; Davis doesn't add anything.

I do not have time to look up all the wheat-specific studies he cites, but other commenters (including ones who are themselves gluten free) have done fact-checking and have pointed out he either misrepresents or exaggerates some studies or flat out states conclusions they did not reach. This is common among books of this genre where junk science or studies with very small sample sizes and very little controls are hailed as "conclusive proof." One study I did look up was this one by the National Institutes of Health on wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Some people are found to have an allergic reaction of asthma and other issues when exercising after eating a meal of whole wheat. This paper only looks at one female who ate a host of other products besides wheat. But Davis is right in that a drug is prescribed that mitigates to the effect rather than change the woman's diet.

One of the scarier studies cited is the relationship of gluten to mental health, particularly schizhophrenia. Davis cites a study done decades ago at an asylum that showed schizophrenics showed marked improvement when wheat was removed from their diet. However, as one researcher critiquing the book's myriad of scientific claims has pointed out (PDF):

"A comprehensive review looking at the connection between gluten and schizophrenia showed that gluten withdrawal resulted in a drastic reduction or full remission of symptoms—but only among a small subset of schizophrenia sufferers. Thus, in a small subset of schizophrenia patients removal of
wheat might be helpful but would not be the miracle cure described by Davis."

Some of the worst ratings for the book come from people who gave up wheat but didn't lose weight as they thought Davis was promising. That's because you're not going to lose weight by giving up wheat/gluten alone, and that message is often lost in this book. You lose weight over time by consuming fewer calories than what you burn. Calories, exercise, and sleep matter. I don't think Davis ever states that flat out, which is sad since he is a physician.

This book is poorly written in some places. Davis makes annoying statements like: "This problem rears its head in more ways than Tiger Woods has mistresses" and "this process is more tightly controlled than the Federal Reserve controls the discount rate." That gets annoying.

Other topics covered in the book include what celiac disease is and how it is often hard to diagnose. Davis also looks at the relationship between chemicals in visceral fat and joint health. He suggests gluten-free diets may help arthritis and joint pain as well as slow down the aging process. This is based mostly on the anecdotal evidence he's seen from his own patients who have heeded his advice.

I don't know why I keep reading these kinds of books; in this case my wife and son recently became gluten-free (with my encouragement) and I wanted to have a better basis on documented benefits.  They are 20% science and 80% marketing. Now Davis can attach his names to the Wheat Belly Diet Cookbook series to follow. 2 stars.

1 comment:

Becky G said...

I think this was a great review! I have been on the fence about cutting Wheat, maybe this book can help me pick a side. I am currently reading a book by Tom Schneider called A Physician's Apology, is his site. He writes about healthy living and how we can take our health care out of the hands of Dr's by living as healthy as possible. Great read.