A review of “Wheat Belly” written by William Davis
Carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals, the effects of low level radiation, electro-magnetic fields, endocrine disrupting substances… It is a wonder that we are surviving at all, no less seeing life expectancy increase, with the various assaults on our health. Now, added to that according to Dr. William Davis M.D., is the health threats posed by modern wheat — yes, modern, everyday “healthy, whole grain” wheat. His book, “Wheat Belly” contains some interesting and convincing arguments and explanations.
Modern Wheat Hybridized
Davis explains that the tritium wheat we eat today is very different from the first wheats, known as einkorn wheat, that was eaten by our ancestors in the Fertile Crescent over 10,000 years ago. Over time, einkorn wheat was hybridized with different wild grasses in order to increase the yield and also make it more resistant to cold. However, the big major change to wheat was brought about during the “Green Revolution” of the second half of the 20th century. At that time, systematic efforts were made to increase yields. In the main, the newly hybridized strains produced greater yields by increasing the size of the head of the wheat. This increased head size tended to bend and then break the stalk, so a dwarf and semi-dwarf strains were developed. Up to 99% of the wheat grown world wide today is of those varieties.
Wheat is a polipoid plant, meaning that when it is hybridized it takes on the sum total of chromosomes of the two original strains. Whereas the first hybridized wheat (einkorn crossed with goat grass) led to emmer wheat, which has 28 chromosomes, modern triticum strains have 42 chromosomes. This hybridization amounts to a hit-or-miss attempt at what is the modern genetic modification. Davis explains: “Genetic modification is built on the premise that a single gene can be inserted in just the right place without disrupting the genetic expression of other characteristics…. While hybridization falls short of the precision of gene modification techniques, it still possesses the potential to inadvertently ‘turn on’ or ‘turn off’ genes unrelated to the intended effect, generating unique characteristics, not all of which are presently identifiable…. Modern wheat, despite all the genetic alterations to modify hundreds, if not thousands, of its genetically determined characteristics, made its way to the worldwide human food supply with nary a question surrounding its suitability for human consumption.” (Davis, pp. 28-30) (Note: This is not just Davis’s theory; it has been documented, for instance here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11118409)
According to Davis, there are two main harmful effects of eating modern wheat.
The first stems from wheat gluten - the protein that wheat contains. The principle form of this protein is gliadin. When gliadin enters the intestine, it can trigger a release of a hormone called zonilin, which has the effect of loosening the bond between the intestinal cells. This, in turn, makes the intestine more permeable, allowing the gliadin to pass directly into the blood stream where as an unrecognized agent it triggers the release of lymphocytes, including T cells. Through this process, the inflammation level of the body increases.
While the most drastic effects of this are in people with celiac, Davis claims that many, many others have the same problems on a milder order.
According to Davis, wheat also has certain other effects. The gluten breaks down into polypetides, which then bind with the same receptors in the brain that morphine binds with. This is why many people (including this writer) report that if they eat a lot of wheat they tend to feel drowsy and cannot concentrate. While Davis doesn’t claim that wheat is the cause of mental disease, he cites one study that showed that patients in a mental institution who were denied wheat showed a decline in symptoms.
The other danger posed by wheat is due to how quickly it raises the blood sugar level. This is measured by the glycemic index (GI). Here are some GI levels for different foods: table sugar - 59; Snickers candy bar - 41; Mars candy bar - 68; white bread - 69; whole grain bread - 72. Yes, according to Davis, the GI of whole grain bread is worse than that of table sugar! (Note: Others give a different GI for whole wheat bread, but they are all pretty high.)
For unknown reasons, wheat tends to increase the visceral fat - the fat surrounding basic organs. An increase in visceral fat tends to produce inflammatory hormones such as leptin, as well as estrogen. Thus, wheat tends to increase the inflammation level in the body. Modern science is now recognizing that the inflammation level in the body is one of the best predictors of heart disease.
Davis cites studies that show that the number of diabetes cases in the US has risen dramatically over the last 50 or so years. (The studies were conducted in such a way as to eliminate a possible increase due simply to better diagnosis or reporting.) This increase coincides with the transformation of wheat through hybridization.
According to Davis, the massive wheat consumption (133 pounds of wheat per person per year in the US, for instance) has led to a whole host of other problems. These include a distortion of the natural pH balance in people, leading to leaching of calcium from the bones, more rapid aging, and damage to the nervous system and brain, possibly associated with alzheimer’s disease. (He does not claim that wheat is the cause of these maladies, but that they exacerbate them.)
Overall, the author presents a credible case that due to its intensive hybridization, modern wheat is damaging to the health of many if not most or even all people. Along the way, he presents a lot of interesting information on both the history of this hybridization as well as on different aspects of human health. I do think that he somewhat overly focuses on wheat and doesn’t consider other assaults on the human organism, especially endocrine disrupting agents as described and explained by Theo Colborn and others.
It might seem that these assaults on the human organism are exaggerated, especially when one considers that life expectancy in countries like the US are increasing annually. This is explained, however, by the vast advances that modern medicine has made in treating different illnesses. Take cancer, for instances, which is overwhelmingly an environmental disease: The American Cancer Institute, which pushes research into genetic factors related to cancer, admits that only 5% of cases are “strongly hereditary”. They estimate that 2012 there will have been 1.6 million people diagnosed with cancer in the US and that in 2008 there were about 12 million people living with cancer. Cancer is now the second greatest cause of deaths. However, the survival rate after first diagnosis is now at 67% vs. 45% from 1975-77. In other words, what is happening is that people may be getting ill more, but modern medicine can keep them alive for longer.
Then there is also another issue: Assuming that Davis is correct about the dangers of modern hybridized wheat, what then is the solution? Alternative wheats such as einkorn are available, but these are extremely expensive. Part of the reason is that they are niche, specialty items, but surely the fact that their yield is less per acre must have a lot to do with it. In any case, a return to production of einkorn would greatly exacerbate the global hunger problem under the present system. If Davis is correct, then the only way that a return to production of einkorn wheat would be possible without starving tens of millions (more) to death would be through putting much more resources into food production than is done at present. This could only be done if (1) there were a much more even distribution of wealth; and (2) if the vast resources used for military as well as planned obsolescence and other wasteful practices were turned to real production.
That’s not going to happen under capitalism, whose basis is production for immediate profit and the anarchy and destructiveness of the “free” market.