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Book Review: Wheat Belly

by | Dec 14, 2011

I had no idea what to expect from Wheat Belly, the new book by Dr. William Davis. Several of you had asked me about it so I picked it up, not knowing much about the author or its content.

Davis is apparently a medical doctor who treats patients for heart disease and other ailments using a wheat-free diet. Though this isn’t particularly revolutionary I was immediately intrigued by the first chapter of Wheat Belly, which gives a detailed explanation of how modern wheat is different both physically and genetically from the wheat “our grandparents grew up eating.”

How interesting!

He explains that selective breeding and genetic manipulation to increase wheat yield have dramatically changed the chromosome number of modern wheat compared to earlier versions grown before the 1950s. This, he claims, fundamentally changed the molecular properties of wheat and we are supposedly not yet adapted to the new product.

I haven’t gone through all the plant biology to determine if any of these claims hold water, but the premise is fascinating. If modern wheat were really a primary cause of the health issues plaguing Western society, not only would gluten be off the hook (once I started reading I thought this was going to be another gluten-free diet book), but all other grains would be back on the table, even older versions of wheat.

Had Wheat Belly gone on to further explore the differences between modern and traditional wheat and, most importantly, how they affect people differently, then this could have been a groundbreaking book. Unfortunately, that isn’t what this book is really about.

Davis doesn’t present a shred of evidence that modern wheat has a worse (or even different) impact on human health than pre-industrial wheat. The only anecdotal case he makes is that he personally found a farmer who grows traditional wheat, made a loaf of bread, ate it himself and seemed to be fine. This is not science.

Instead the rest of the book focuses on how his patients have benefited from removing wheat (presumably modern) from their diets, a premise that is much easier to swallow but brings us right back to Dr. Atkins. Wheat is the most abundant refined carbohydrate, and refined carbohydrates are almost certainly the biggest contributor to human health problems on the planet. Is it any wonder that eliminating the major one—not to mention the ingredient that is most often paired with sugar—would make people feel better?

When push comes to shove, the bulk of Davis’ argument is not about modern wheat at all, but about the Glycemic Index (GI) of foods (he’s sure to point out that the GI of wheat is even higher than sugar). His prescription is not just wheat elimination or even gluten elimination, but removal of all grains, sugars and starchy foods like potatoes and even beans.

Haven’t I heard this somewhere before?

To his credit, Davis promotes a relatively healthy diet. He discourages the use of gluten-free flour substitutes because for the most part they are just another form of unhealthy food. Though these ingredients can obviously play a role in the lives of people with serious gluten sensitivities, I agree that they do not qualify as health food just because they do not contain gluten. But extrapolating from processed carbohydrates to nutritious whole foods like beans and potatoes that most of us can eat without increasing risk of disease or obesity is less than helpful.

But all my criticisms aside, I think there are some valuable messages in Wheat Belly worth considering. Gluten (and maybe just modern wheat, who knows) is known to be one of the most inflammatory substances consumed by humans and many people would likely benefit from cutting it out. Davis recommends eliminating wheat for 4-8 weeks to see if there is an improvement in symptoms.

If you regularly struggle with any of the following issues, a temporary gluten-free experiment may be worth it for you:

  • fatigue
  • depression
  • arthritis
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • autoimmune problems
  • attention deficit disorder
  • hair loss
  • bone loss
  • anemia

And there are probably many more. The nice thing is that while eliminating gluten for 4-8 weeks does take some effort, it is still a relatively simple, non-invasive way to troubleshoot health problems and potentially improve your life dramatically. If nothing improves, you can always go back to your bagels and Cheerios. It is important to keep in mind though, that many symptoms require an extended period without gluten before improvement is seen.

To summarize, I really wish Davis had done a better job of convincing me that it is modern wheat and not processed foods in general that is particularly problematic in the Western diet. From that perspective, this book is just another Atkins diet with a better title. That said, I do think Davis does a good job of illustrating how many ways patients could benefit from a temporary wheat elimination. The prescription is easy and harmless, and definitely worth trying if you have health problems you and your doctor can’t seem to solve.

Grade: B-

What did you think of Wheat Belly?

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Eco-Atkins Diet May Be Healthier Alternative for Weight Loss

by | Jun 10, 2009
Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Collards, Carrots and Lentils

A new study published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that both weight loss and risk factors for heart disease can be improved following a vegan version of the low-carb, high-protein Atkins diet.

The “Eco-Atkins” diet focuses primarily on soy, nuts and wheat proteins (gluten) to increase the amount of vegetarian protein in the diet. Carbohydrates were restricted to 130 g/day, which is on the higher end of most low-carb diets. All starchy foods such as bread, baked goods, potatoes and rice were eliminated. Carbohydrates were provided in the form of whole, intact grains (barley and oats) and low-starch vegetables.

In a small (47 participants), short-term randomized controlled trial, this diet lowered bad LDL cholesterol by 20%, without negatively impacting good HDL cholesterol (statin drugs improve cholesterol levels by 30%). The diet also substantially lowered blood pressure and other markers of cardiovascular disease, such as triglycerides and apolipoprotein B.

The original meat-based Atkins diet has been shown to be effective for temporary weight loss (after 1 year the effects of the Atkins diet are diminished), but cardiovascular risk factors such as LDL cholesterol and blood pressure are not substantially improved under the traditional Atkins regimen.

Interestingly, a traditional Atkins-style diet based on animal protein was not used as a control in this study, so a true comparison of the diets cannot be made using the present data. Instead the researchers chose a control diet representative of a typical high-carb, low-fat vegetarian diet that included eggs and dairy products. Both diets tested in this study represented a 60% decrease in total calories.

Because of the study design, we cannot conclude that this diet is more effective than the Atkins diet for health, though you would predict it would be if future studies made this comparison. On the other hand, it does seem that a plant-based high-protein diet is more effective at improving health than a high-carbohydrate lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, at least in the short-term in a highly controlled environment.

This study took place over the course of 4 weeks, and all the food was provided for the particpants by the researchers. Thus, compliance in the program was very high. It is not clear if the participants would have had the same level of success if they were instructed to provide their own food to comply with the dietary programs.

Despite this, satiety levels were notably improved in the high-protein group and it would be expected that the increase in satiety would encourage greater compliance in a free living situation.

A small four week study, however, tells us very little about the effectiveness of this diet. While it is possible to improve risk factors such as cholesterol and blood pressure in such a short period of time, disease outcome is the true measure of a successful diet. Also, this study did not test the feasibility of the Eco-Atkins diet in the long-term, and it is likely many dieters would object to a strictly vegan regimen.

Interesting points raised by this preliminary study include:

  • Plant-based, high-protein diets may be more effective at improving cholesterol and other cardiovascular measures than traditional lacto-ovo vegetarian diets.
  • Short-term weight loss is primarily determined by the number of calories consumed, not macronutrient content.
  • Low-carb diets that include intact whole grains and plant-based protein can be effective at improving both weight and cardiovascular risk factors in the short-term.
  • Plant-based high-protein diets can increase satiety compared to high-carb vegetarian diets.

However, many questions must be addressed before this diet can be recommended to individuals trying to improve cardiovascular measures and lose weight.

New questions:

  • Can the Eco-Atkins diet be maintained in the long-term by normal individuals?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet continue to improve cardiovascular risk factors including weight loss after 4 weeks?
  • What would result from this study if beans and lentils were used instead of soy and gluten?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet improve disease outcome?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet extend life?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet affect quality of life?
  • Can these effects be attained through other diets that include some animal protein, more whole grains or more fat?
  • Is the effectiveness of the Eco-Atkins diet affected by an individual’s level of insulin resistance?
  • Can adding fish further improve the results of the Eco-Atkins diet?
  • Can a further reduction in carbohydrates improve the results?
  • Will you get these same results if the study is NOT funded by the soy industry?

In summary, the results of this study are interesting and encouraging, especially for those of us who think both carbohydrates and meat should be limited in a healthy diet. I very much look forward to future studies exploring this idea.

What concerns me most is the lack of marine omega-3 fatty acids (fish) in the Eco-Atkins diet, which could potentially improve cardiovascular measures even further. Fish is also important for cognitive health and may lower cancer risk.

I am also worried that a strictly vegan diet would not be feasible in the long-term for many Americans. Moreover, it is not necessarily the healthiest option available. Vitamin B12 deficiency is a particular concern, but could be addressed with supplements. Generally, however, I do not recommend relying on supplements for optimal nutrition.

Finally, this study was funded by a company that makes soy and gluten products. Personally I would have prefered to see these protein sources used in combination with other things such as beans and lentils. Many people question how much soy can be safely consumed and gluten intolerance is more common than ever, so wouldn’t it be interesting to know if there were safer alternatives? It really annoys me to see science being influenced by industry funding.

What do you think of the Eco-Atkins diet?

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