The last few decades have not been good for wheat.
Some of the world's most popular diets (Atkins, South Beach and the Dukan Diet) have urged followers to ditch bread and other carbs to slim down, while a rising number of celiac and gluten sensitivity sufferers have dropped bread in the name of health.
For cardiologist William Davis, this is no coincidence. The author of the new book "Wheat Belly" (Rodale, $25.99) believes that modern wheat -- including whole wheat -- has become so uniquely destructive to multiple body functions that more than 80 percent of us could benefit from giving it up altogether. Forty to 50 percent of us, he says, could see and feel results almost right away.
His book, which has spent time this fall on The New York Times best-seller list for advice books, posits that when traditional wheat was genetically altered to become semi-dwarf wheat in the last century, it was assumed, without any testing, that the modifications would not change the way it affected those who ate it.
But Davis theorizes that those genetic changes could be responsible for the rise in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity we are seeing today. He further pinpoints unique compounds in wheat such as gliadin, amylopectin A and others as triggers of hunger, sharper blood sugar spikes, behavioral disorders and destructive inflammation.
Though admitting that some of his conclusions are drawn from anecdotal evidence, the Wisconsin cardiologist says he has watched thousands of patients effortlessly lose weight, relieve joint pain, eliminate their need for inhalers and improve their blood numbers with the simple removal of wheat.
But the whole world does not agree. Shortly after Davis' book was announced through Rodale Publishing in late summer, the Grain Foods Foundation, a trade group, launched a campaign to challenge his claims, noting, among other things, that removing wheat from one's diet could result in nutritional deficiencies.
Davis acknowledges this danger, but only if dieters replaced the wheat with unhealthful foods instead of the foods he recommends. And though GFF representatives acknowledged that no human studies were done on the safety of genetically altered wheat, they did reject his mantra that if you "lose the wheat, you lose the weight."
"It's not supported by the literature," says Glenn Gaesser, the director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University and member of the GFF advisory board.
For more on the debate, Davis has responded to the challenges on his blog (wheatbellyblog.com) and the GFF has responded to readers' questions on its blog (sixservings.org).
We recently chatted with Davis about the controversy and tips for those interested in applying his theories to their life.
Q: One of the most surprising statements in your book is that whole-wheat products aren't that much better than white when it comes to blood sugar and certainly not when it comes to appetite stimulation, inflammation and other issues. So if we MUST eat bread, does it not really matter if we go for whole grain or not?
A: This genetically altered form of wheat has been transformed into such a destructive "food" that any amount has the potential to trigger undesirable consequences. For instance, there's what I call the "I had one cookie and gained 30 pounds" effect. ... One day, you go to a dinner party and they're serving some delicious looking bruschetta hors d'oeuvres. You say, "What the heck!" ... Before you know it, the floodgates of appetite have been reopened by exposure to the gliadin protein of wheat, the component responsible for triggering appetite -- and you promptly gain back 30 pounds.
Others go wheat-free, then have a sandwich and suffer a food poisoning-like reaction: diarrhea, cramps, gas for 24 to 48 hours, while others experience asthma, joint pains, sinus congestion or emotional effects like anxiety or rage. This is not a benign grain that "only" causes increased appetite and weight gain, it is incredibly disruptive for health across a spectrum of conditions.
Q: Can someone gain prorated benefits by eliminating some wheat from their diet?
A: You'd think that, with elimination of, say, 80 percent of wheat, you'd obtain 80 percent of the benefit. Not true. Eighty percent elimination leads to something far less, e.g., 30 to 40 percent of the benefit. I'm not entirely sure why this is, but it may be ... due to the overwhelming inflammation-triggering effect of wheat gluten and lectins, or the appetite-stimulating effects of the gliadin protein unique to wheat. But, yes, even reduction does yield benefits, just not as dramatic as elimination.
Q: What about whole barley, brown rice and even spelt?
A: Those are three different foods with different implications. Barley is a potential gluten exposure, so it can introduce inflammation and autoimmune implications in the susceptible.
Brown rice is immunologically benign, but it is a carbohydrate; when consumed in more than small quantities, it provokes higher blood sugars which, in turn, provoke glycation, or glucose-modification of proteins, the process underlying diabetes, atherosclerosis, cataracts, kidney disease, etc. I generally advise most people to limit brown rice portion size to no more than a half-cup to avoid these effects.
Spelt is one of the evolutionarily older forms of wheat, along with kamut, emmer and einkorn. They are better, since they lack the most destructive proteins. ... However, the older forms of wheat can still trigger many of the same phenomena as modern wheat, just not as severely. They are better ... but they are not good.
Q: So what would you advise be done on an agricultural level?
A: The first order of business is to raise awareness and just allow it to be an issue of individual choice. It also might be a good idea to resurrect some of the older forms of wheat but from when? One hundreds years ago? A thousand? We don't have any clinical studies on this yet.