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Wheat Belly

Any 16 year old with some Biology education will tell you that carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet (along with protein, lipids [fats] minerals, vitamins, fibre and water). Carbohydrates are a group of molecules which contain the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in a ratio of 1 : 2 : 1. They include a range of sugars, including glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose (what we normally refer to as 'sugar'), maltose and lactose as well as well as larger molecules (known as polysaccharides) such as starch, cellulose and glycogen.

All explanations of the process of respiration (the chemical pathway by which energy is released from food) are based on glucose as the starting point. My understanding has always been that humans (as mammals) will always utilise glucose as their primary source of energy and will only resort to other molecules, such as lipids (fats) and amino acids (the products of protein digestion) when glucose has run out or is in short supply. Equally, that people who are very active and require larger amounts of energy need to include larger quantities of carbohydrate in their diet.

In recent years, the issue has always been the form in which such carbohydrates are consumed i.e. sugars v starch and in 1981 the concept of Glycaemic Index (GI) was introduced for guidance. This is a method of ranking different foods according to how quickly after consumption they lead to an increase in blood glucose levels.The reason why this is important is that blood glucose levels need to be kept under control and a rise will trigger the release of the hormone insulin from the pancreas. It has generally been accepted that a gradual release of insulin when needed is preferable to a sudden release of large amounts. Foods with a high GI are those which lead to a sudden and large increase in blood glucose levels and, hence, a rapid release of large amounts of insulin. Many believe that if this occurs on a regular basis it is the underlying cause of type ii diabetes, coronary heart disease (CHD), strokes and possibly much more besides.

For most of my adult life, I have tried to avoid too much food with large amounts of added (extraneous) sugar, such as fizzy drinks and many processed foods. I have not been too fanatical about this and have never felt that a certain amount of sugar has been much of a problem with my active lifestyle.

Certainly, most people consume more carbohydrate than any other food group - potatoes, rice and flour products (bread, pasta and pastries) - these are usually regarded as having reasonably low GIs and therefore a healthy way of obtaining our main source of energy.

So what about wheat? For many years we have been led to believe that whole grain wheat products are an excellent part of a balanced diet - providing a good source of carbohydrate (of low GI), protein, fibre and various minerals and vitamins. Not according to William Davis in Wheat Belly!

More land area is given over to the growth of wheat than any other crop and annual global harvest of wheat ranks third, closely behind maize (corn) and rice.

It has been well documented for many years that some people do have a problem with gluten, the protein found in wheat - in fact, there are a huge number of different proteins in wheat and gluten is the term used to denote wheat protein in general. Coeliac disease is a condition which arises as a result of damage to the lining of the intestine by the consumption of gluten. The symptoms can be very debilitating - though they do vary considerably from one sufferer to another - and it is a notoriously difficult condition to diagnose. More recently, adverse effects resulting from the consumption of gluten are grouped together as 'Gluten or Wheat intolerance'.

My understanding was that dietary issues associated with wheat were all related to gluten. I do not appear to show any symptoms of intolerance so didn't think it was a problem for me - until I read Wheat Belly!

William Davis maintains that the consumption of wheat products is the underlying cause of a huge range of health issues - weight gain, obesity, diabetes, CHD, strokes, osteoporosis, arthritis, skin conditions, brain damage, accelerated ageing ....... Some of these he puts down to the starch content, others to the protein.

He believes that wheat is the world's most destructive dietary agent and that it should have a health warning, much like cigarettes. At present, it is the most consumed grain on earth, constituting around 20% of energy consumption. Bread is universal :

'Give us this day our daily bread'

'Best thing since sliced bread'

'Taking the bread out of someone's mouth'


His argument regarding the starch content of wheat is very interesting. Without going into too much detail, starch is actually a mixture of several molecules - principally amylose and amylopectin - which we digest at different rates. The product of this digestion is glucose, which is then absorbed from the intestine into the blood. Davis maintains that, as a result of very intensive selection and breeding over the last 60 years or so, the actual composition of the starch has changed in such a way that we can now digest it more efficiently and rapidly, thereby giving wheat a very high Glycaemic Index.

Modern wheat is a species with the Latin name Triticum aestivum - and it is this species which makes up the vast majority of the wheat cultivated and consumed around the globe. The history of wheat cultivation appears to go back to about 7,500 BC - the wheat cultivated at that time was Einkorn, a variety which is still grown today. The history of the breeding of wheat is complicated, but can be summarised in the following diagram :

Davis points out that the development of modern wheat has involved breeding for various characteristics which are mostly of benefit to the wheat farmers. It is now a dwarf variety, which is high yielding and disease resistant and the grains are formed in a way that makes harvesting and threshing much easier. It is also incapable of growing without the application of fertiliser and some pesticides. In addition, it has been bred to have a higher gluten content which makes for a much more elastic , pliable dough when making bread.

It would appear that, at no point, had anyone given any consideration as to whether these changes might affect the nutrient content of the wheat, especially with regard to digestion and absorption.

Many people experience a feeling of fatigue shortly after consuming wheat products. I have never really understood why this happens and cannot say that it is something that I have been aware of, in spite of eating plenty of bread (always whole wheat and usually made by me). When I started to read Wheat Belly, I had conversations with two people, both of whom had recent experience of feeling very tired soon after eating some bread. Because of what I had been reading, I did not eat any wheat for several days. However, In the cake tin I did have some chocolate cake (home baked with plain flour) and I had to decide whether to finish it off or put it in the bin. There were about two pieces left and I decided to eat them! Within about 30 - 40 minutes I found myself having to fight to stay awake!

Davis has an explanation for this. His contention is that the starch content of modern wheat is substantially different from what it was 60 years ago - it now contains a much higher proportion of Amylopectin A, which is very easily digested and leads to a rapid rise in blood glucose levels. This stimulates the release of high levels of insulin which quickly removes the glucose from the blood - which then causes us to feel very tired. If this happens on a regular basis, the insulin also triggers the conversion of glucose to fat, much of which is laid down around various organs (visceral fat) and around the abdomen. Hence his title 'Wheat Belly' though he points out that instead he could have chosen 'Bagel Bowel', 'Biscuit Face' or 'Pretzel Brain', on the basis that there is not a single organ system that is unaffected by wheat. It is not really understood why more fat is deposited around the abdomen than anywhere else.

He points out that there are many active people, including some top athletes, who are heavier than they would like to be and are puzzled as to why they find it so difficult to lose that extra bit of weight - especially from around the abdomen. This applies to me. Davis suggests that this is entirely due to the inclusion of wheat in the diet and those extra few pounds will only be lost if it is eliminated.

Moreover, he maintains that this layer of abdominal fat produces various molecules (called cytokines) which are released into the blood and send bad 'signals' around the body. These have been linked to the development of diabetes, high blood pressure, CHD, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia and cancer of the colon. In addition, the fat layer acts as a large endocrine gland (hormone secreting glands) and produces oestrogen, which stimulates breast development - hence 'man boobs'.

As far as putting on weight is concerned, he explains that, when some of the wheat proteins are digested, they form short peptides (partly digested proteins) called exorphins. It is now fairly clear that these can latch on to opiate receptors in the brain, which can then stimulate appetite and cause a feeling of hunger. Thus, it becomes a vicious circle - the more wheat is consumed, the more we want to eat, triggering raised sugar levels and increased insulin production, followed by more deposition of visceral and abdominal fat. He further suggests that the effects of the exorphins leads to an addiction to wheat products and withdrawal symptoms when it is eliminated from the diet. Much as I enjoy bread, pasta and other foods containing wheat, I would have to say that I have never felt compelled to eat them and so do not believe that the addiction issue is one that has affected me. Davis is also convinced that the consumption of wheat and the effects of the exorphins are linked to schizophrenia and autism.

With regard to other effects of wheat consumption - especially in relation to the gluten content - it becomes rather complex and for detail and a good understanding it would be necessary to read the book.

He is convinced that many auto-immune conditions are the result of wheat - type 1 diabetes (there is some evidence that this might be a response to casein, the milk protein), rheumatoid arthritis and vitiligo.

Research is providing a better understanding of the process of ageing - it appears to result from the production of certain molecules, known as AGE (Advanced Glycation End-products). These lead to deterioration of organ function and seem to cause cataracts and macular degeneration. Davis suggests that the formation of these molecules is much greater when blood sugar levels are raised on a regular basis.

For efficient functioning of metabolism (body chemistry) pH is very important. Ordinarily this needs to be slightly alkaline and the consumption of foods the lower the pH (i.e. make it more acidic) can be detrimental. In general, animal products fall into this category but are counteracted by the inclusion of plenty of fruit and vegetables. Amongst plant foods, wheat appears to be the exception and should be avoided for this reason.

In a chapter devoted to the possible effects of wheat on the brain and nervous system, Davis proposes a link between wheat and such conditions as cerebellar ataxia, peripheral neuropathy, impaired memory and dementia.

Finally, a chapter linking wheat to various skin conditions, such as acne, psoriasis and others. He also implicates it in certain types of hair loss.

He points out that in many of these cases, doctors are often unsure as to the underlying cause and therefore uncertain as to the best treatment. He thinks it's quite straightforward - ditch the wheat!

So where does all of this leave us? Much of what William Davis has to say is in line with many others who advocate low carbohydrate diets for weight loss. Proponents of such diets claim that a higher proportion of protein and fat in the diet cause the body to carry out a process called ketogenesis, which leads to an increased respiration of fats instead of carbohydrates. Certainly, these diets seem to work quite well for some people.

However, Davis is clearly going further than this. In addition to eliminating wheat altogether, he also suggests that we should refrain from eating any grains containing starch and he lists an alarming number of foods which he thinks are best avoided or at least only consumed in modest amounts. This list includes potatoes, rice, quinoa, pulses, oats and dried fruits. He also advises that sugary fruits should be restricted. For the complete list of what he suggests we should and should not be eating, you will need to consult his book.

Personally, I have very much taken note of all that William Davis has to say in Wheat Belly. As a vegan it is rather more difficult to follow his recommendations when he advocates consuming plenty of meat, eggs and cheese. However, I have cut down considerably the amount of modern wheat in my diet - indeed I am close to eliminating it altogether - and I do think that this is helping me to lose a little more weight. I have not eliminated other grains and carbohydrates and continue to eat rice, quinoa, potatoes etc. and still eat plenty of fruit.

Although it is not entirely clear, there is an implication that older varieties of wheat probably do not cause health issues to the same extent at Triticum aestivum (modern wheat). Such varieties include Einkorn, Emmer, Khorasan, Rye, and Spelt. I have been making bread from such flours and have not experienced the sudden feeling of fatigue after consumption. Pasta is generally made from durum wheat, which I have also continued to include in my diet. I have based some of these decisions on the fact that many authorities are of the opinion that Glycaemic Index is of little relevance to anyone who is fit and healthy and of an acceptable weight. In addition, I am unaware of any adverse effects resulting from the consumption of gluten.

No doubt I will continue to experiment with my diet - but I do recommend that you read Wheat Belly and draw your own conclusions.