"Wheat Belly" Review - Understanding the Chromosomes of What We Eat
A review of Dr. William Davis's book, Wheat Belly
I have heard many arguments which go back and forth about whether or not wheat is good for you. The general compromised consensus is that processed wheat is out, whole grains are in. However, Dr. William Davis thinks otherwise. In his book Wheat Belly he writes not only about how wheat can affect your health, but the consequences wheat can have on your immune system, mind, skin, and other areas of your body.
Of course, the book is gaining popularity due to its title and hook to catch the audience with promises of weight loss. However, as you venture further into it, it becomes much deeper than just a way of losing excess fat, or visceral fat (fat which characteristically gathers around the middle and acts as an energy storing agent. Davis writes: “When visceral fat accumulates, the flood of inflammatory signals it produces causes tissues such as muscle and liver to respond to less insulin.”), but rather a means of explaining not just our own ancestral dietary history, but that of the plants which we consume.
He explains how humans, when we reproduce, create a combination of each parent’s 46 chromosomes. However, plants do not. Plants instead add the parents’ chromosomes together. For example if plant A with twelve chromosomes pollinated with plant B that has fourteen chromosomes, the result would be a hybrid plant with 26 chromosomes. This is important because, as Dr. Davis explains, when we first began eating grains, we were eating what was called einkorn, which, as agriculture took hold, was blended and bred with other grasses and became emmer, which evolved and altered further throughout the millennia until we have what we call dwarf wheat. Not only does this show how this grass has evolved far faster than we humans have, but wheat takes on a separate and more interesting roll than other plants. When two types of grass are bred together (pun intended), not only do the chromosomes add up, but the offspring of the two is likely to create new gluten proteins that was not present in either parent beforehand. Davis says, “Analyses of proteins expressed by a wheat hybrid compared to its two parent strains have demonstrated that, while approximately 95% of the proteins expressed in the offspring are the same, 5% are unique, found in neither parent. Wheat gluten proteins, in particular, undergo considerable structural change with hybridization.” He writes about other experiments where fourteen new gluten proteins were found which neither parent harbored.
The result of all this alteration of grains leaves our bodies struggling to process it. This does not just apply to those suffering from gluten sensitivities or Celiac Disease. For diabetics, Davis claims that gluten raises blood sugar higher than a candy bar. The explanation is that wheat and similar carbohydrates are complex, thus taking longer for the body to go through and release the energy stored in side. Simple carbohydrates are those foods which give you the quick bursts of energy which are generally short lived. He defines “complex” as repeating chains of glucose, resulting in multiple units of sugar structures, vs. the simple carbohydrates which only has the one or two units of sugar structures – sucrose (glucose + fructose). On top of this 75% of the glucose units is amylopectin, which digests into glucose by the remaining quarter of the chain, amylose. This occurs in other carbohydrate foods, but does not act the same as it does in wheat, as it often depends on its source for an instruction manual. The amylopectin-digesting structure, amylose, is not digested very well itself and often finds itself settling in the colon, undigested. It too is dependent on its source as to how it acts, and is least digestible in beans, which is why legumes have the wonderful link to flatulence. The result of the undigested amylose in the colon is the absorption of the glucose into the blood steam and spiking blood-sugar levels.
The famous part of wheat, gluten, is compiled of two primary families of proteins – gliadins and the glutenins. The former is what triggers the immune response in celiac disease. Glutenins are similar to amylopectin in that they are repeating structures, polymers. The book tells about Dr. Christine Zioudrou who found that gluten, when applied to stomach acid, degrades to a polypeptide mixture. She then isolated the strongest polypeptide and applied it to rats and found that the polypeptides not only broke the blood-brain barrier, but would fix themselves to morphine receptors, very much so like opiate drugs do. These polypeptides were named by Dr. Zioudrou as “exorphins”.
Her findings meant that gluten acts as a drug essentially, causing the consumer’s brain to release the feel-good chemicals upon consumption and also causing the consumer to crave more, thus becoming addicted to gluten. Gluten even responds to morphine-blocking drugs such as naloxone and naltrexone, just like opiates.
In later chapters, Davis writes about how wheat can alter the body’s pH, which balances at 7.4, and has no room to falter. Grains are the only plants which generate acidic by-products, which threaten to throw off that balance, and wheat, he claims, is the one of the most potent sources of sulfuric acid. As a result, this eats away at the health of the bones and joints, causing arthritis – more specifically, osteoarthritis, which is the loss of cartilage in the joints. Due to the rise in blood sugar when glucose is consumed, Glycation occurs which is an irreversible modification of proteins in the joints, body tissues and bloodstream. Joint cartilage is “uniquely susceptible to glycation…cartilage cells are extremely long lived and are incapable of reproducing. Once they're damaged, they do not recover.” Cartilages that become glycated are abnormally stiff, which causes it to become brittle and eventually to crumble.
The topic then shifts to heart disease, and explains how small LDL particles are more often than not the cause of heart disease. Very low-density lipoproteins, or VLDL (essentially how the liver bouquets various proteins and fats (mostly trigylcerides)), are stored in the liver and released into the bloodstream. From VLDL particles come the small and large LDL particles. It depends on the changes which occur in the bloodstream as to what VLDL will be converted to – large or small LDL. Eating wheat can actually determine the size of the LDL particle, and it is usually the small, heart-disease –causing LDL particle that is picked.
Small LDL particles aren’t very well recognized by the liver unlike the large LDL particles which are disposed of through the liver. The result is the small LDL particles stay in the blood stream longer and cause atherosclerosic plaque. White blood cells which respond to the inflammation of this atherosclerosic plaque, take up the small LDL particles, which enhances the growth of said plaque. “Small LDL particles are formed when there are plentiful carbohydrates in the diet; carbohydrates also increase blood glucose that glycates small LDL. Foods that increase blood glucose the most therefore translate into both greater quantities of small LDL and increased glycation of small LDL.”
Dr. Davis has far more to say about the effects of wheat, moving on to how it affects the mind, causing encephalopathy, the symptoms of which are similar to stroke – loss of control over one side of the body, speech problems, or inability to see clearly. He summarizes a Mayo Clinic study which had thirteen patients that were freshly diagnosed with celiac disease and dementia. They performed frontal lobe biopsies on each, of which their brains “failed to identify any other pathology beyond that associated with wheat gluten exposure”. Before the biopsies, the most common symptoms were the inability to perform simple math, memory loss, confusion and changes in personality. Due to the progressive impairment of brain function, nine of the thirteen died. “Yes,” Davis writes. “fatal dementia from wheat.”
From here he moves onto the effects of wheat on the skin, claiming that it causes oral ulcers, cutaneous vasculitis, acanthosis nigricans, erythema nodosum, psoriasis, vitiligo, Behcet’s disease, dermatomyositis, icthyosoform dermatoses, and pyoderma gangrenosum.
Because wheat is can be inflammatory, Davis suggests that hair loss can be attributed to wheat as well. The follicle of the hair becomes inflamed and thus the skin rejects the hair, causing general hair loss. Though he does stress that hair loss can be due to a great many every-day occurrences as well.
After this mounting evidence of the evils of wheat, William Davis wraps up Wheat Belly with suggestions on how to avoid wheat and its relatives, reminding the reader that just because it is a wheat alternative, does not mean it is any better. He expresses that many starches which are used in gluten-free products are just as harmful, such as potato starch, rice starch, tapioca starch, and so on. He even is so kind as to include an example of a seven day meal plan and a section of wheat-free recipes to get the reader excited and more comfortable about the possibility of a wheat-free life style.
I sped through the book quickly, for the first time in a long time very enthralled in the reading material. While the content was well researched and made sense, I would have liked for there to be a less biased viewpoint, a book that educates the reader as to both sides of the picture so that the reader can make an informed opinion. Without both sides of the debate, the information is essentially just propaganda. However, the point against wheat was very well made, propaganda aside, and I have found myself inspired to try the gluten-free life style to see if I myself, can shed my own wheat belly.