End of Week Reading: Wheat Belly

Quick note: Pickles & Honey is finally on Facebook! I still feel like I have no idea how to use FB, but I’m making sure to keep it updated with my latest posts (and puppy photos, of course).

As part of my Culinary Nutrition Expert program, I’m reading a handful of books and watching a few documentaries (some required, others we choose from a suggested list), and writing about my thoughts on them. Since they’re likely books and films that you’re either already familiar with or interested in learning more about, I decided I would share these thoughts with you in a series of posts. This is technically my homework, which might make it the coolest homework I’ve ever done.

Wheat Belly Book Review // picklesnhoney.com

The first book I selected to read was Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis. I chose it because wheat is a very hot topic right now and Wheat Belly has contributed significantly to the anti-wheat/grain/carb movement. I mostly stopped eating wheat (well, gluten) a year and a half ago, when I thought it was contributing to my eczema. Actually, I thought I might have dermatitis herpetiformis, or Celiac Disease. But I’ll address that shortly.

In Wheat Belly, Dr. Davis cites both research and personal anecdotes in stating that wheat is responsible, at least in part, to a whole host of health problems, including everything from obesity (he suggests that wheat is addictive and does not trigger satiation cues) to diabetes to heart disease and expedited aging. One of the more interesting sections of the book was when he talked about the evolution of wheat from ten thousand years ago to today, and how it has really only been in the last fifty years that it’s undergone massive genetic modifications. As he says, the wheat we’re eating today is not the wheat our grandmothers were eating when they were our age. It’s been cultivated to be higher yield and drought, disease and heat resistant, to the point where it would be unable to survive in the wild without human support via nitrate fertilization and aggressive pest control.

Dr. Davis also talks about how our image of tall fields of wheat swaying in the wind is no longer our reality – modern wheat has been cultivated to stand barely a foot tall with heavy seeds to maximize return.  He claims that this has resulted in dramatic changes in gluten content and structure, and changes in enzymes and proteins too. This modern wheat, which has been selectively bred in the laboratory instead of in nature, he says, is what has caused a host of problems for many, including the large increase in the number of people who either have Celiac Disease or some form of wheat intolerance.

Dr. Davis states that perhaps the fundamental problem, however, is that wheat is high glycemic. He gives the example that two slices of wheat bread, for instance, will increase blood sugar more than two tablespoons of pure cane sugar. And it’s our constant wheat consumption (wheat is in everything!) that creates a never-ending rollercoaster of spikes and dips in blood sugar which creates inflammation and fuels disease.

Vegan Doughnuts
The EPIC Dun-Well Doughnuts. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

What did I think of Wheat Belly?

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I thought it was somewhat informational and I enjoyed learning about the modernization of wheat, though I took everything with a grain of salt because I think Dr. Davis oversimplifies quite a bit. The blood-sugar-spiking effects also made sense to me because having not consumed wheat or gluten regularly within the last year, when I do choose to eat it, I can feel the impact a white flour bagel, for instance, has on my body. It’s a small rush and then a small crash, and it makes me noticeably more snacky. That said, I don’t believe this is specific to wheat. The same can be said of a starchy, processed gluten-free bagel, and so I’d say this is more of a junk food thing. Not all carbs are created equal.

The parts of Wheat Belly that I really didn’t like involved what I found to be extremism – a sort of “wheat is evil for everyone, even in small, infrequent amounts.” More extreme, though, was when Dr. Davis started stating that all foods that elevate blood sugar – even fruit – are bad in anything other than the smallest of servings. We’re talking no more than two strawberries in one sitting. That seems like alarmism to me, and it’s not a mentality I want to take on for myself, nor would I wish it upon anyone else.

I went through a phase last summer when my allergies were at their peak where I engaged in a strict, exceptionally limited diet in an effort to heal my symptoms. I started to fear food, even “healthy” food like fruit because I  thought it might make my rash flare or my hay fever worse, and while my fears weren’t completely unfounded (it turns out I do have cross-reactions to certain foods during pollen season), that is a terrible way to live. So no, I will not be limiting myself to three grapes or whatever Dr. Davis suggests is the threshold for sending blood sugar into a tizzy.

Gena of Choosing Raw recently wrote an excellent post, Considering Orthorexia, in which she says, “Remember that your body may be more resilient than you think it is.” I’m of the mindset that our food should (mostly) be health-promoting and make us feel good, but part of feeling good is the joy that comes from eating in a way that nourishes our bodies and our souls, giant bowls of summer strawberries included, and the occasional cupcake, too.

Vegan S'Mores Cupcakes // picklesnhoney.com

What are your thoughts on this whole anti-wheat, anti-gluten, low-carb movement? And if you’ve read Wheat Belly, what did you think?

xo
Amanda

Confession: I hadn’t eaten a bagel in something like eighteen months when I started reading this book, but two chapters in, I went and took one from Aaron’s stash, toasted it, smothered it in almond butter, and yes – I enjoyed every last chewy, crunchy bite while I read the next chapter. Maybe it was my own little form of rebellion.

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  1. Gena says

    Hahaha. I love your last remark, Amanda! That’s how I feel when I read these ridiculously virulent anti-wheat books, too.

    I agree that Davis sites a ton of research. But I also think that the book is chock full of cherry picking and selective research. I was also shocked at the number of sloppy generalizations and conflations he made; he so obviously resists emphasizing the very critical distinction between wheat and gluten because it’s much easier to make remarks like “wheat is the devil” than it is to be nuanced. And so many of his conclusions about health deterioration since the introduction of dwarf wheat ignore the fact that many other lifestyle factors have changed in those same decades (more animal protein, for one thing, as well as more sedentary lives). It’s much easier to single out single culprits for all of our health woes than it is to see nutrition for what it is, which is a distressingly complex science. But I can’t trust health professionals who don’t, nor do I ever think that alarmism and vitriol are the answer.

    Also, in spite of the fact that I agree 100% that the new research on dietary cholesterol indicates that it may not be as much of a villain as we once believed, there is still a lot of data to suggest that diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol are correlated with chronic disease. It’s incredible how much Davis’ suggested meal plans resemble the Atkins diet.

    Did you read Ginny’s latest article on grains? I thought it was excellent (and she takes Davis to task).

    So glad the orthorexia piece spoke to you.

    XO

    1. Amanda says

      I agree about Davis cherry picking his research. It felt like he was writing to be a best-seller, which is fine, but I imagine the average person reading Wheat Belly would come away thinking “wheat is evil.” I also found that some chapters read as really academic and others were all “bagel butts” and “muffin tops”, and I wondered if that was a strategic decision – build credibility in the beginning by going over most people’s heads, then talk to them in marketing-speak to get them hooked on the takeaways. And as you said, the meal plan is so similar to Atkins. I jumped on that bandwagon in college for a couple of weeks along with my roommates and it completely messed up my digestion. I shudder thinking about all of the processed meats and sugar-free candy I ate. Gross.

  2. Caitlin says

    thank you for sharing your thoughts on wheat belly. i remember a friend a few years ago started reading it and it scared the crap out of her. from what you have written, i can attest to the fact that when i used to eat gluten, i would often gorge myself on it, without ever feeling satiated. but, on the other hand, it seems like this author really takes this topic to the extreme and over the top. i think anyone who says eating fruit is wrong and unhealthy seriously needs to reevaluate their message. i refuse to live in a world where i can’t eat 3 apples and 1 banana a day and not feel bad about it and think i’m being unhealthy.

    1. Amanda says

      What you said about eating gluten and not feeling satiated is true for me too, though it’s also true for me when I eat the gluten-free equivalent. I think part of it is understanding that processed food is designed to encourage us to eat more. There’s a reason we stop at one or two homemade cookies made with whole grain flour, for example, and can’t put down the bag of Oreos (gluten-free or not). I’m reading more about this in Salt Sugar Fat and it’s really interesting.

      To your point about eating a few apples and a banana in a day and being made to feel guilty – I get so mad when I hear people like Davis saying “no more than two berries” or “a quarter of a green banana”. I understand that some people feel better with less fruit, but to fixate on something like that is missing the point. It’s a big picture thing and there are so many other factors at play.

  3. Lee says

    I think the concept is interesting, but I feel like there is always some book villianizing some sort of food and they go in and out of popularity.

    1. Amanda says

      This is very true. I just had a flashback to Snackwell’s cookies during the whole low-fat (quietly high sugar) craze. Remember those?

      I always come back to what Michael Pollan said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’m looking forward to re-reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma for my culinary nutrition program.

  4. Lisa says

    Your confession made me smile. I am currently sitting on a plane and just ate my first bagel in ages. It was amazing. With Michael’s celiac I have cut my wheat intake considerably and naturally. I only miss it here and there but indulge when I want, for the joy of it!

    1. Amanda says

      That’s a great mentality. My bagel was amazing too. I’m not sure if you ever had Iggy’s when you were in Boston, but this bagel was the size of my head and so chewy. I have really missed the chew. 🙂

  5. I honestly didn’t understand the whole gluten-free fad until my niece came along. She was dangerously underweight at 6 months old and wasn’t at the level developmentally that she should have been at that age. My sister tried a variety of diets under doctor supervision, and nothing worked – until one doctor suggested a gluten-free diet. Sure enough, only one week in she started gaining weight (in ounces – but that was progress!), eventually grew a full head of hair, and so on. The results were amazing, and now it’s clear she has Celiac. So, now I am a believer – although, I feel like diseases such as Celiac wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for how most of our food is produced today.

    1. Amanda says

      I’m so glad your niece is doing well now that gluten has been identified as the culprit. Celiac is a very real disease and unfortunately, I think sometimes that gets muddled with the current gluten-free trend that’s based more on weight loss than absolute necessity.

      1. Thank you. And I totally agree – 100%!

  6. Sometimes you want something the most when someone tells you you can’t have it. o I don’t blame you at all for that bagel 😉

    I haven’t read this bok, purely because I figured his opinions were very extreme and I have a tendency to be a little more relaxed in my approach. But I do find the modernization of wheat interesting and I should probably at least know what he says so I can discuss it intelligently. This is going on the to-read list officially haha

    1. Amanda says

      I know exactly what you mean about wanting things that you tell yourself are off limits! That’s why I try not to do that (at least within the realms of vegan food). I say if you want a bagel, eat a bagel, enjoy it, and move on with your life! 🙂

      Also a good point about at least reading Wheat Belly and other books so you can talk about them intelligently. It’s good to be informed, even if we disagree!

  7. As someone with celiac disease, I find the whole thing downright obnoxious! The anti-wheat extremists make those of us with actual issues seem like crazy people.

    BTW, when I flipped through a library copy of Wheat Belly, it had crumbs through and through, so it seems like everyone’s inspired to indulge while reading. Or, who knows, maybe it was a “healthy” gluten-free bagel they were eating.

    1. Amanda says

      Really interesting to hear your take on it as someone with Celiac disease. That’s too funny about the crumbs in the library copy, although it’s nice to know that others felt the urge to go carb-crazy reading it. 🙂

  8. Emma says

    Thanks for this post Amanda. There’s so much scare-mongering out there about different foods and it’s easy to get sucked into whatever the latest trend is. I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my body but having to deal with a ton of different “diets” being touted as the right one and foods I should be avoiding honestly just makes things harder.
    Now I really want a bagel too!

    1. Amanda says

      Right? As soon as you’re told “no bagels”, that’s all you can think about! I’m with you on still trying to figure out what works best for my body. I’m expecting to make some progress on this during the CNE program, so I will be sure to share anything I think might be helpful along the way.

  9. Haha your little bagel rebellion cracked me up! I make one for Todd in the mornings when we have them and I always steal a little bite. Wheat doesn’t scare me and I have no intolerances to it. But I be sure, just like most things…excluding nutritional yeast let’s be real…I don’t eat it in excess, unlike someone I know (husband). 😉

    1. Amanda says

      Moderation does not apply to nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast on all the things!

  10. Shana says

    It saddens me that so many foods and entire food groups are demonized now. There used to be a general consensus about foods that weren’t so good for us but now even fruit is apparently the devil! I am so fascinated by food, nutrition, and science but I often feel very frustrated with the amount of conflicting information out there. Traditions and culture are being replaced with fear mongering. It’s almost as if food has become a religion and we all have a separate belief systems. Kudos to you for bucking the system and devouring that bagel!!

    1. Amanda says

      Your comment is so spot-on, Shana. Food as religion feels like an accurate analogy to me. I feel like the tendency to demonize food groups is a very simplistic way of addressing dietary issues and doesn’t take into account the whole picture, but it’s more sellable to the general public. I think some people are looking for answers and would like to think that if they do this one thing – eliminating wheat, for instance – then that will be the cure-all, when in reality it’s a lot more nuanced (as Gena commented). However, I do believe the solution doesn’t have to be complicated, with regard to getting back to eating real, whole foods, with minimal processing. But that’s not as shiny and trendy as “new and improved gluten-free paleo no-sugar [insert buzz word]” whatever. 🙂

  11. Hi Amanda! Thanks for posting this review. I have been gluten free for over five years now. I went gluten free because around the age of 20 (over ten years ago now!) I started having near constant, painful bloating and other digestive issues. The bloating was the worst because nothing would make it better. I popped simethicone like it was going out of style, but it didn’t do anything. A few years later I finally stumbled upon the idea that it could be gluten. I (mostly) eliminated it from my diet and saw near immediate results. I was also diagnosed with candidiasis at this time, so that also contributed. It wasn’t until I completely eliminated gluten that I also lost the brain fogginess and felt, well, healthier.

    I don’t think wheat is the devil as the author suggests; it just doesn’t jive with my system. As you point out, simple carbs in gluten free bagels, for example, are no better for us than a plain bagel; they have very similar effects on our blood sugar. I love that you also point out that food is not just for physical nourishment, but also for the nourishment of our soul. There is nothing better than enjoying food and indulging from time to time. Everything in moderation! 🙂

    I have read that the grains in Europe, for example, haven’t been tweaked like ours here in the United States. So when we went to Paris last summer, I had to have a bite of my husband’s croissant. I did have a kind of “reaction” a few hours later (as security alarms started going off in the Louvre and we were told to evacuate–perfect timing!), but who knows if it was that, or the espresso or yogurt I had. I’m not blaming the croissant.

    1. Amanda says

      I really enjoyed reading your take on the anti-wheat/gluten trend, especially as someone who is gluten-intolerant. I find it so fascinating that some people (yourself included) see immediate improvements to a whole range of symptoms when they eliminate it – everything from digestive issues to brain fog to headaches, joint pain, etc. I think that’s also one of the reasons it’s so hard to pinpoint it, because it shows up in so many forms.

      1. 🙂 Thanks for facilitating so many wonderful discussions on your blog.

  12. Erin says

    This is the type of critical thinking we all need to do!
    Unfortunately, author’s of these type of books can easily disguise their personal beliefs as scientific facts by all the citations they use in their book. And knowing the difference between a credible source opposed to mumbo jumbo is highly important into finding out if the book is garbage or truthful. Also, when the reader doesn’t have a trained eye for how statistics work, cause and effect, and correlation research, they can be easily swayed to believe the authors stance on whatever it is they are promoting. Thus, fear tactics supported by illogical findings and bias research can really persuade the buyer/reader into believing there is only one option/way/lifestyle to be healthy.

    1. Amanda says

      Well said! I completely agree, Erin.

  13. Kait says

    *deep breaths* This post was a little tough to read. One of the very first questions my dietician asked me was about which foods I felt were good and bad. My answer came far too easily and it was one of the more defining (and quite frankly depressing) moments in my journey because I realized how much of the proverbial kool aid I had drank. I so appreciate your honest response to this…my food blog reading habits changed drastically after “the question” was asked and I realized I needed to take a break from certain authors who are amazing people but who have very set views in food as good or bad. Its a way of thinking I no longer appreciate and that definitely does not benefit me (although I know for some, all-or-nothing thinking is exactly what they need). I love that you return to Michael Pollan’s work as it has been my guide through the ups-and-downs. I truly believe that every body is different in its nutritional needs (e.g. I’ve found that I feel weak without a little protein at every meal) AND that more plants are a good thing, regardless of what the rest of one’s diet looks like. I know this isn’t necessarily “the vegan way” but its something I’ve had to come to realize for myself. Its why yesterday I “allowed” myself to enjoy a bagel and tea latte for breakfast, and a doughnut sundae for lunch, and a beautiful kale salad + green juice for dinner. I’d definitely be interested to see how my body reacts to GF and think I will do it one day (well, month)…but for now I’m happy to indeed eat mostly plants. 🙂 xo

    1. Amanda says

      That’s a really interesting question about which foods are “good” and “bad”, and while I don’t like the idea of categorizing food as either (and I try not to put that mindset on anyone reading my blog), I do this in my own head to a certain extent. Good for you for identifying certain authors whose views on food were no longer serving you and removing them from your reading list.
      As far as removing gluten, I only realized I felt better without it (most of the time, I reintroduced it recently) after doing the Crazy Sexy Diet plan a couple of years ago. BUT, I think that has way more to do with the focus on whole foods, tons of veggies and water, and limited sugar than anything else for me. Like you said though, each body is different and you have to find what works for you. xo

      1. Kait says

        Its an eye-opening question for sure! I think we all do it to some extent, especially if we’re part of the healthy food world where we’re constantly learning how bad this and that are for us. It creates quite a conundrum for me because objectively we do know some ingredients (e.g. HCFS) are bad for our bodies – so I balance that by not even thinking of such things as food. Also, I think this review itself is a good example of how you don’t do it on the blog. I promise there was supposed to be a compliment in there somewhere… 🙂

        I never did GF on CSD but the scientist in me is so eager to experiment and see..but I’m also terrified because I don’t want to potentially give it up (and know that I will if it makes me feel crappy…same goes for soy..I love my tofu and tempeh). So we shall see…when I gave up meat I said I could never live without dairy and look what happened there!

        BTW – I’m loving these posts/reviews. I really do trust your input on these books because you take the time to process and be critical and don’t just trust the purported science as its presented in the book. So thank you for that!

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