Is it Wheat Belly or Flour Belly?
Wheat is killing us, claims cardiologist William B. Davis, author of the Wheat Belly Diet. However, Wheat Belly and other gluten-free sources do not tell the whole story, making their argument against gluten misleading and inaccurate.
Gluten is among many proteins in wheat and its relatives (such as barley and rye). Yes, gluten should be avoided by those with Celiac Disease or anyone with a sensitivity or allergy to gluten, just as those with peanut or shellfish allergies must avoid those foods. However, not all of us need to avoid peanuts, shellfish or gluten.
The gluten-free diet should more correctly be a junk-free diet. Every reference to the evils of 'gluten' or 'wheat' is to highly refined foods – like bread, cereals, cookies and pancakes. And all these are made from flour. Not once is there a mention of anyone eating whole grains before they are ground into flour (the hard ‘kernel’ or ‘berry’). Many people do not know what a kernel or berry is. What they look like. Or that you can easily cook them in a pot on the stove.
Very few people eat cooked whole grains. They eat their grains in the form of flour, not whole grain kernels. And flour is a highly refined food, and the main ingredient in just about every prepared food. It is not necessarily the gluten, and it’s not the wheat. It is more likely all the flour-filled junk that is making us ill. These “gluten-free” diet books should more correctly teach us to reduce the refined grains (flour) and other refined food products in our diets. However, no clear distinction is made between whole and refined foods. Davis et al. should educate us about whole grains (the hard kernel) and how different they are from refined grains (flour).
The diet also warns us that our wheat has changed, making it an even greater threat to our health. Yet there is no mention of all the other 'changed' foods we eat today. Through evolution and methods like crossbreeding, grafting and budding, many of our foods today do not resemble foods of the past. Wheat has changed, yes – but no more than apples or oranges. So why isn’t there a Celery-Belly diet or a Pear-Brain diet? These foods have changed too. We don’t know what health problems, if any, are caused by eating them. And that may be because we certainly don’t gorge on them to the extent that we eat flour. Flour is in everything. We eat far too much of it because in their 'flour' form, grains are easy to add to any prepared food.
But more about evolution and grafting later. Right now, let’s look at a major claim of the gluten-free diet . . .
Has wheat changed that much?
Gluten-free advocates claim today's wheat is not the same as the wheat grown hundreds of years ago. It is “Frankenwheat,” says Davis. Although Davis doesn’t directly say it in his book, the reader is led to assume that wheat is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). Wheat is not GMO. But in his book, Davis misleads his readers into thinking it is –
by explaining wheat has been drastically changed due to highly questionable methods (Davis has since tried to change this ‘GMO’ misconception). Many gluten-free advocates also claim these ‘methods’ have increased the gluten (a type of protein) in our modern strains of wheat. However, scientists interviewed on the CBC documentary The War on Wheat https://gem.cbc.ca/media/the-fifth-estate/s40e15 found little difference in the gluten or the other nutrients in today’s dwarf varieties of wheat. University of Saskatchewan researchers Ravi Chibbar, Pierre Hucl, and their colleagues show the overall quality and composition of wheat have changed little over time: https://agbio.usask.ca/news/2015/wheat-research-yields-plenty-of-attention.php. They say modern wheat has similar nutritional composition to wheat grown in Canada 150 years ago.
Many of our foods today have been altered through natural evolution and/or by human intervention (by cross-pollinating, grafting, budding, hybridization, or crossbreeding, which is not genetic modification or GMO). Wheat was created by combining two plants of a similar plant species: Today’s modern wheat is rye crossed with older wheat varieties like Einkorn or Emmer. This would be considered hybridization or crossbreeding. And these processes do not genetically alter a plant because gene splicing is not involved. Grafting and budding – even hybridization or crossbreeding – can also occur in nature, but humans can speed the process up a little because we can create the ideal conditions that are 'hit-or-miss' in nature. However, the controversial method of Genetic Modification (GMO) does require laboratory gene splicing, which can’t occur naturally.
Currently, there is no genetically modified wheat grown commercially at the time of this writing. To date, among the most common modified foods available are 90% of canola, corn, cotton, and soybean crops in the U.S. and Canada, two varieties of papaya, and a very small percentage of squash, alfalfa, and sugar beet crops. The newest additions are the Arctic Apple and one type of potato (both resistant to bruising). More will likely come.
Wheat is not Genetically Modified
Practically all our foods today, including wheat, were changed by nature (known as evolution) or by humans. Our early carrots were purple, red, yellow, and white until the familiar orange colour was developed by Dutch growers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Oranges didn’t exist until we created them: we crossed a pomelo (it resembles a grapefruit) with a type of tangerine. Tomatoes and potatoes have changed, and so has celery (it was once a thin, herb-like plant – not the thick-stalked plant of today). The crab apple is the only true apple, and today there are many varieties of apples as well as pears, that didn’t occur naturally. Humans created them. Should we stop eating these as well as wheat?
Opioids in wheat: Are we drugged by our foods?
Poppy seeds contain the alkaloids morphine and codeine. Apple seeds have cyanide. Arsenic is in rice and broccoli. Gluten breaks down into exorphins, opioid-like compounds with similar mechanisms as morphine. Studies have been done about the possible affects these compounds can have on healthy individuals, as well as those with Celiac Disease. But the research is still all speculation (as indicated by frequent use of the words "could", "may" and "possible" throughout the studies). The mechanics aren't fully understood, just as we do not really understand what risk we are taking by chewing apple seeds or poppy seeds. Everything in moderation is the key to good health, but we are not being moderate with our intake of wheat. The problem is more "glutton" than "gluten."
Is ‘wheat’ the problem or is it the volume of ‘flour’ we eat?
Unless you are one of few who have a true gluten sensitivity (Celiac Disease) it’s likely not the gluten, it is the amount we are eating that is affecting us. Humans are able to digest a small amount of gluten (it is simply a composite of protein) and there may even be reasons we should include a small amount of gluten in our diets that we do not yet know of. Gluten may be present to protect the plant from being overeaten, but perhaps also to provide humans with a protective property. (Food for thought: At one time, we believed phytates were “bad” for us. Phytic acid (becoming ‘phytates’ during digestion) is the storage form of phosphorus in plant tissue and it can inhibit our absorption of minerals like calcium. However, it is now suspected very small amounts in our diet may have benefits, including lowering the risk of certain cancers.)
If we had always eaten wheat only as whole wheat ‘kernels,’ we would never have been tempted to gorge ourselves on it, and therefore never been affected by the natural compounds in wheat that can make us feel ill. After all, few of us can (or do) eat bowls and bowls of cooked whole grains: they are inconvenient to prepare and too heavy and bulky to add to breads and pastries to keep them light and fluffy. Sadly, most people aren’t even aware you can eat whole grain kernels, or how to cook them! However, when wheat is ground into flour, it can be conveniently added to many of our foods. Today, we are eating far too much wheat in the form of flour.
Many inaccuracies in the gluten-free diet . . .
There is much misinformation in the gluten free books, as they attempt to build a strong case against not eating wheat. Only those knowledgeable about nutrition can recognize these errors which question the diet’s overall credibility. And unfortunately, the average person is not knowledgeable about nutrition. Therefore, the information is not questioned. Here are only a few of those inaccuracies . . .
Ameolpectin A is simply a type of starch found in many foods. One claim is that wheat contains amelopectin A, a very quickly-digested starch. It reads as though wheat is the only grain that has this blood-sugar-elevating type of starch. But it isn’t clarified or even mentioned that all grains and several other plant foods have amelopectin A. It is simply a type of starch. Your healthy bowl of gluten-free quinoa you are eating because you’ve stopped eating wheat is also rich in amelopectin A. But according to ‘gluten experts,’ wheat is the only guilty grain.
Many other foods contain 'antinutrients' as well as wheat. It is also not explained that all grains – not just wheat – create phytates which block the absorption of important nutrients like calcium. Advocates also say wheat contains other ‘antinutrients’ such as lectins. Foods with high concentrations of lectins include beans, cereal grains, seeds, nuts, and potatoes. They may cause digestive problems, or more serious health complications if consumed in excess when they are uncooked or improperly cooked. But again, only wheat is mentioned, failing to educate that many other foods contain it too. We are also not told that cooking (and especially presoaking) can reduce the lectins, phytates and other ‘antinutrients’ in foods. So can eating smaller amounts (which many of us do not know how to do). By the way, fibre – essential for good health – and antioxidants (disease fighters) are also considered ‘antinutrients' because large amounts can interfere with the assimilation of certain nutrients or impede physiological processes in our bodies. So . . . perhaps we should stop eating fibre and antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies?
Whole wheat kernels do not have a high glycemic index. Gluten-free advocates mislead us by not explaining that in its whole, unrefined form, the cooked whole wheat berry has a much lower glycemic index (30) than its flour form (70 or more). As do many other grains in their whole, unrefined form – quinoa, barley, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, brown rice, and others. However, after being ground into flour, wheat bread does end up having a higher glycemic index (71). But so does quinoa and all other grains when they are ground into flour or made into bread. Incidentally, a glycemic index is a rating of how quickly your body assimilates a food: 55 or less is low; 70 or more is high. The glycemic index was recently shown to be inaccurate, but it does consistently show most processed, highly refined foods have high glycemic indexes, while their whole food sources will not. Gluten-free diet supporters are quick to warn us about health problems associated with eating lots of high glycemic foods. But why would they not helpfully suggest to eat wheat in its whole kernel form and not as flour?
The ‘facts’ supporting the gluten-free theories are incomplete and the science is sketchy at best. Here’s one example: Eating grains cause breast cancer. There is nothing to support this. We can only surmise this connection came from the findings that being overweight is linked to breast cancer and eating too much food (like wheat flour) can result in being overweight. Therefore, wheat causes breast cancer? Really?
We are listening to the wrong “experts”
Physicians, including cardiologists like Atkins and Davis, are not 'expert' sources for nutrition. Few medical doctors are. Nutrition is not a major part of the curriculum in medical schools, comprising only about 20 hours of their studies. And nutrition shouldn’t be a major part of their studies, because nutrition is not the focus of medical science. Nutrition and medicine are two completely different and separate sciences. Therefore, medical doctors are not always a credible source for nutrition information. The public needs to be aware of this. We must be careful when we consider the information provided by those who are generally not the trained specialists or experts in a field of study.
The book should be called ‘Flour Belly’ not ‘Wheat Belly’
Throughout his book, it is obvious Davis is only referring to altered, processed foods (particularly flour) and not to their original whole food forms. Perhaps Davis should have called his book “flour belly” because it seems that the refined, ultra-processed foods – all of them – are the culprits here. Not wheat in particular. It is unlikely any of his healed patients, or even Davis himself, were eating bowls of whole wheat grain cooked on the stove. That certainly was not what they stopped eating to feel better. Indeed, it was refined flour products they cut out of their diets: the breads, the pastas, bagels, cookies, cakes, crackers . . . and all the other flour-containing food products we are inundated with. Flour is a processed, refined food (yes, even the “healthy” whole wheat flours). Anything made from flour is a processed, refined food. When you pulverize a whole grain (any whole grain) into flour, it loses much of its nutritional value to oxygen, light, and heat (it’s called oxidation).
What if Davis, Perlmutter (the author of Grain Brain) and their patients had always just eaten whole grain wheat berries cooked on the stove like Grandma and our early pioneers did? What if they had never frequently eaten slices of bread, crackers or cookies? Would they have become ill in the first place?
So is it the gluten or the highly processed foods?
The health problems attributed to eating wheat – cravings, schizophrenia, diabetes, appetite stimulation, increased acidity (pH) of the body, asthma, allergies, bowl problems, joint aches, weight gain, addiction, night cravings, etc. – can also be attributed to poor diet and in particular, diets high in highly refined foods.
Davis reports in his book about one of his patients who went on a wheat-free diet to treat her diabetes. But he also instructed her to drop all simple carbohydrates, like sugar (which is a highly refined food). She got better. Was gluten the problem? Was wheat the problem? Were the processed, refined foods the problem? We may be pointing our finger at the wrong villain. We are not getting to the root of the problem and therefore we may never fix our health issues. We are missing the whole point: perhaps we should stop eating changed foods.
We need to get back to eating the way nature intended us to eat. Your body is designed to eat a whole food and do the “refining and processing” itself, as the food travels through the synchronized chain of events of your digestive system. You are not designed to eat a food that is already processed and refined. Refined foods offer few of the nutrients the original food had to sustain life. And they disrupt the ordered steps of digestion, creating confusion and contributing to hormonal imbalance (like the hormone insulin). This leaves the body in a state of continual “distress” if we frequently eat refined foods. And constant stress, with its resultant circulation of cortisol (a stress hormone) and cholesterol (to reduce inflammation and repair the damage from the stress) will eventually snowball into illness and disease.
Today there are tons of gluten-free, highly refined foods to choose from. So we stopped eating gluten, but now we are eating all the gluten-free refined foods. And we’ll probably run into some other health problem in the near future – where someone else (another doctor, perhaps) will come up with a knee-jerk reaction of omitting a food or food group from our diets.
We just don’t get it. We did the same thing with carbohydrates. Dr. Atkins told us carbohydrates (carbs) were bad. But it’s really what we did to them that made them ”bad.” If we had left carbs in their natural state, we wouldn’t have a problem with them. Atkins told us to stop eating many healthy fruits and eat one of his bars instead. But he should have been telling us to stop eating ultra-processed, refined carbs (like his bars, which contain about five different kinds of sugar) and instead focus on eating whole foods . . . like an apple.
Going gluten-free isn’t getting to the root of the problem
Feel better when you cut 'gluten' from your diet? Of course you do. It's not all in your mind. Perhaps you were one of those unfortunate few (1% of the population) who do have a severe intolerance to gluten. But most likely, it was because by eliminating gluten, you automatically cut out all the crap (ultra-processed, refined foods) from your diet. That’s where the flour (like wheat flour) was. Be honest now: it wasn’t only whole wheat kernels, cooked on the stove-top that you were eating and chose to eliminate. You must have been eating breads (yes, whole wheat too!), crackers, bagels, cookies, sports bars, granola bars, breakfast cereals, donuts, breaded fish and breaded chicken . . . the list goes on. These are all refined foods.
Now you are focusing much more on vegetables and other healthy, whole foods, and yes, that’s a good thing. But you haven’t really solved or are aware of what the real root of your health problem actually was. Because you still haven’t recognized the difference between whole and refined foods. Wheat Belly and Grain Brain haven’t taught you that! Therefore you may not continue to feel better forever, especially if you decide to eat the myriad of gluten-free products (highly, processed and refined) on the shelves of every food store . . . or if you follow the recipes in the gluten free diet books, which contain ingredients like stevia, sugar-free vanilla syrup, wheat-free low-carb crackers, prepared mustard, vinegar, and almond milk. These are all highly refined foods, by the way.
The less we tamper with or change a food (like grinding whole grains into flour), the more nutrients the food retains. And the more nutrients you get, the less risk you have for diseases and disorders like digestive (gut) issues. This doesn't mean you must avoid all ultra-processed foods — it just means you need to understand what and which they are so that you can put them in the proper place and perspective (infrequently) in your diet. Try to source what the original, whole form of any food was and, more often, eat the whole form instead.
For example, eat an orange more often than drinking orange juice, or snack on
fresh, whole coconut more often than baked items made with coconut oil and coconut sugar.
Cook any whole grain the way you would cook rice: one part grain to two parts water. Bring both the grain and water to a boil on the stove. Reduce the heat and simmer until all the water is absorbed. Before cooking them, you can choose to soak your grains overnight to help reduce those "antinutrients" like phytic acid.
Gluten is simply a natural, protective element in wheat that should be eaten in moderation
Every plant on this planet contains natural toxins or other protective elements to prevent its extinction. It's nature's design. These protective elements or “natural pesticides” spare the plant from the elements, insects, diseases and being overeaten. Wild animals know by instinct and intuition not to overeat any plant. But humans have lost their ability to use their instinct and intuition in this way: we’ve cultured it out of ourselves.
Nutrition specialists are always advising us to choose from a wide variety of food. Not just to ensure we get a wide variety of nutrients, but also to ensure we aren’t overdosing ourselves with any particular nutrient or perhaps a natural toxin from a particular food. Sadly, we humans (and domesticated animals) gorge ourselves on many things that we should not be overeating – and that includes wheat with its own ‘protective’ element: gluten. We need to be more disciplined in minimizing our consumption of this highly nutritious food. Just as we keep our consumption of broccoli or rice (both high in arsenic), cauliflower (has nicotine), lettuce (contains goitrogens), peas and tomatoes (have naturally occurring MSG), and all other plants in balance. But we have no worries here, because who overeats vegetables? However, we aren’t doing that with flour. We like our sandwiches! And wheat, in the form of highly refined flour, is in far too many prepared foods today.
Gluten-free advocates blame gluten, when it’s more likely the ultra-processed, refined foods and our gluttony of them that are to blame for poor health. Avoid, or drastically cut back on eating flour, refined sugars (like stevia and coconut sugar, as well as table sugar) and other processed foods, especially those gluten-free products which are also highly processed (to his credit, Davis agrees with the latter in his book).
If you haven’t been diagnosed with Celiac Disease or a genetic inability to digest gluten, there’s no need to omit whole wheat kernels from your diet. Just use your common sense and limit them (as we can’t with flour because it’s everywhere in our diet). There is so much we do not know about our food supply: how foods truly work in our bodies and the many nutrients we haven’t even discovered yet. And we may never know it all. So it’s only wise to be sure we do not unnecessarily omit any food or food group from our diet. It’s the best assurance we will get everything we need to sustain life. Wheat (or any grain) supplies many necessary vitamins, minerals and other properties that we should not ignore. Small amounts of grains can be beneficial.
But wait . . . cavemen
didn’t eat wheat!
If you choose to believe humans never did and therefore shouldn’t eat wheat or any grain, fine, don’t eat grains. You'll live. However, there is some evidence whole grains were consumed long before the "agricultural era." According to Peter S. Unger (Professor and director of the Environmental Dynamics Program at the University of Arkansas) in Scientific America (2017/2018), people along the shores of the Sea of Galilee ate wheat and barley during the peak of the last ice age, more than 10,000 years before these grains were domesticated. And Paleobotanists found starch granules trapped in the tartar of 40,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth with the distinctive shapes of barley and other grains. So there is nothing 'new' about grain consumption.
Our foods, including our grains, have greatly evolved and changed since prehistoric times. Therefore, it is difficult to determine what we actually ate. But it’s possible humans occasionally chewed on grains, grasses, as well as leaves, fungi, moss and tree lichen, or whatever was handy if they were hungry and food was scarce.
We can benefit from the many nutrients and other properties our 'modern' versions of grains offer: Magnesium, the B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, copper, zinc, selenium, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and fibre to name just a few. And because they are a rich source of fibre, whole grains have been identified as valuable contributors to healthy gut microbiota. Grains act as prebiotics which feed probiotics. We just have to remember to eat them in their whole form, in small amounts. And, of course, we can choose to soak and/or cook these modern versions of grains to better assimilate their nutrients.
The debate that humans should not eat grains is a long-standing one, supported by credible, knowledgeable experts on both sides of the issue. Since one side of these credible authorities can’t be “stupider” than the other, what it obviously comes down to is this: There are no hard facts to support either side. There are only strong beliefs, based on individual opinions and interpretations of the research that’s been collected so far. And using charisma to convince others helps too! If actual, undisputed hard facts existed, there would be no ongoing debate. It would be a closed case. So look carefully at both sides of the grain debate, to be able to make an educated decision of what you want to believe. Then practise whatever you feel is right for you.
If you do choose to include grains in your diet, eat them in the form they originated as — changed as little as possible: as the whole grain and not as flour. This is just to ensure you get all the known and yet to be discovered nutrients grains offer. You don't have to stop eating 'bread.' Simply try not to eat so much of it and other flour-containing products. We can tolerate small amounts of gluten, but not in the amounts our flour-belly "sandwich culture" is currently getting.
Choose to more often cook and eat the whole kernels of any grain, instead of eating flour or bread. As mentioned earlier, cook whole grains on the stove as you would cook rice: one part grain to two parts water. Enjoy 1/4 to 1/2 cups once or twice daily.
Use your imagination on how to include these highly nutritious whole-grain kernels in your diet. Let these be your daily “bread.”
Eve Lees is a Nutrition Counselor, Health Speaker, Researcher and Health Writer for several publications. Enjoy Eve’s recipes for easy ways to add whole grains to your diet: https://media.wix.com/ugd/d30a77_ffabfdfb484a4ea394c305958908cdd1.pdf
Breakfast of fresh
berries with buckwheat
on a bed of spinach. Click on the link above
for this and more recipes!
Analysis of the Wheat Belly diet book:
Whole grains and insulin activity: https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/137/6/1401/4664772
Natural pesticides in foods: http://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/87/19/7777.full.pdf
No change in wheat's gluten concentration: https://agbio.usask.ca/news/2015/wheat-research-yields-plenty-of-attention.php
CBC documentary The War on Wheat: https://gem.cbc.ca/media/the-fifth-estate/s40e15
The Science of Nutrition, Second Edition, Janice L. Thompson, PhD, FACSM, University of Bristol, University of New Mexico; Melinda M.Manore, PhD, RD, CSSD, FACSM, Oregon State University; Linda A.Vaughan, PhD,RD, Arizona State University.
Understanding Nutrition, Tenth Edition, Ellie Whitney, PhD Washington University; Sharon Rady Rolfes RDN, MS Nutrition & Food Sciences, Florida State University.
Wheat Belly Hyperbole? http://evolutionarypsychiatry.blogspot.ca/2011/10/slam-dunked-and-wheat-belly.html
Criticism of David Perlmutter’s Grain Brain Book: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/this-is-your-brain-on-gluten/282550/