William Davis, MD, is a preventive cardiologist and the author of Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. He is currently in private practice in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He writes about nutrition and health on his Wheat Belly Blog.
A renowned cardiologist explains how eliminating wheat can shrink your belly . . . and save your health.
Posted on November 16, 2011
Cardiologist William Davis, MD, started his career repairing damaged hearts through surgical angioplasty and stents. “That’s what I was trained to do, and at first, that’s what I wanted to do,” he explains. But when his own mother died of a heart attack in 1995, despite receiving the best cardiac care, he was forced to face nagging concerns about his profession.
“I realized how silly it was,” he says. “I’d fix a patient’s heart, only to see her come back, and back and back with the same problems. It was just a band-aid, with no effort to identify the cause of the disease.”
So he sailed his practice toward highly uncharted medical territory--prevention--and spent the next 15 years examining the causes of heart disease in his own patients. The resulting discoveries are revealed in Wheat Belly, his New York Times best-selling book, which attributes many of our nation’s physical problems, including heart disease, diabetes and obesity, to our consumption of wheat.
He spoke to us this week about how exactly eliminating wheat can "transform our lives."
First of all, what is a “wheat belly”?
I make a lot of arguments about the dangers of wheat, one of which is that it raises your blood sugar dramatically. In fact, two slices of wheat bread raise your blood sugar more than a Snickers bar. Anything that raises blood sugar to a high level will cause accumulation of abdominal fat. We’re not quite sure why high blood sugar leads to belly fat accumulation, but it does. When my patients give up wheat, I see that weight loss is substantial, especially from the abdomen. People can lose several inches in the first month.
You make connections in the book between wheat and a host of other health problems. How did you come up with this theory?
Eighty percent of my patients had diabetes or pre-diabetes. I knew that wheat spiked blood sugar more than almost anything else, so I started to say, “Let’s remove wheat from your diet and see what happens to your blood sugar.” They’d come back 3 to 6 months later, and their blood sugar would be dramatically reduced. But they also had all these other reactions: “I did this, and I lost 38 pounds.” Or, “my asthma got so much better, I threw away two of my inhalers.” Or “the migraine headaches I’ve had every day for 20 years stopped within three days.” “My acid reflux is now gone.” “My IBS is better, my ulcerative colitis, my rheumatoid arthritis, my mood, my sleep . . .” and so on, and so on.
So what is it about wheat that you think causes all these problems?
When you look at the makeup of wheat, it’s almost like a group of evil scientists got together and said, how can we create this god-awful destructive food that will ruin health?
First, amylopectin A, a chemical unique to wheat, is an incredible trigger of small LDL particles in the blood--the number one cause of heart disease on the United States. When wheat is removed from the diet, these small LDL levels plummet by 80 and 90 percent.
I typically think of a “hearth-healthy” diet as one that is low in fat and high in whole grains.
That has been the common wisdom for the last 15 years or so, and in that time we’ve seen an explosion in the rates of small LDL cholesterol, obesity and heart disease in this country. We’ve had a situation where the national advice--to cut fat and eat more whole grains--is advocating a diet that causes heart disease.
You also talk about the “addictive” properties of wheat.
Wheat contains high levels of gliadin, a protein that actually stimulates appetite. Eating wheat increases the average person’s calorie intake by 400 calories a day.
Gliadin also has opiate-like properties in the brain, so it’s not surprising that when some people remove wheat from their diets, they literally go through a period of withdrawal where they feel terrible. Food scientists have known this for 20 years, and they’ve used it to their advantage. If you go up and down the supermarket shelves, you’re going to see wheat flour in the most improbable places---everywhere from Campbell’s soup to granola bars.
Is eating a wheat-free diet the same as a gluten-free diet? I know that’s a major trend right now.
Gluten has negative, inflammatory properties, but it is just one component of wheat. In other words, if I took the gluten out of it, wheat will still be terrible for you since it will still have the Gliadin and the amylopectin A, as well as several other undesirable components.
So you don’t advocate all the “gluten free” products I see at the grocery store.
Unfortunately, when it comes to health, the food industry does not normally know what they’re doing. They’ve come out with all these foods that are gluten free: gluten-free multi-grain bread, gluten-free bagels, etc. Those are made with 4 basic ingredients: corn starch, rice starch, tapioca starch or potato starch. And those 4 dried, powdered starches are some of the very few foods that raise blood sugar even higher than wheat does!
Sounds like all the “fat free” foods that came out 10-15 years ago. People thought “these cookies are good for me because they don’t have fat.”
Perfect analogy. Yes, it’s the same kind of blunder. Just because it lacks one thing doesn’t make it good.
Is there any bread or wheat that’s okay to eat? What about the the health breads and the sprouted breads?
No. They still retain too much of the adverse wheat compounds--leptins, amylopectin A, gluten and gliadin. You might reduce the amount of some of the compounds, but they’re still there.
So what can you eat?!
I encourage people to return to real food: vegetables and nuts, cheese and eggs and meats in all forms, avocados and olives. Get rid of the “low-fat” notion. It’s not necessarily a diet of deprivation. I’ve been doing this for many years myself, and I’ve had cookies and cheesecake, carrot cake, chocolate biscotti--but it means recreating these food using different ingredients. I have recipes in the back of my book as well as on my wheat belly blog.
You advocate real food, but isn’t wheat a “real food?” People have been eating it for thousands of years, why is it suddenly such a problem?
Wheat really changed in the 70s and 80s due to a series of techniques used to increase yield, including hybridization and back crossings. It was bred to be shorter and sturdier and also to have more gliadin, a potent appetite stimulate. The wheat we eat today is not the wheat that was eaten 100 years ago. Wheat has also become a much more central part of the American diet.
What if I remove the wheat, but I’m still eating carbohydrates? So, for example, I stop eating my sandwich every day, and I start eating rice with chicken and vegetables. Will I still have the health benefits? Will I still lose weight?
Most do, yes. Because rice doesn’t raise blood sugar as high as wheat, and it also doesn’t have the amylopectin A or the gliadin that stimulates appetite. You won’t have the same increase in calorie intake that wheat causes. That’s part of the reason why foreign cultures that don’t consume wheat tend to be slenderer and healthier.
Does everyone need to stop eating wheat, or are some people more at risk for these problems than others?
If you ask me, everyone should stop eating wheat. This is the closest I know of to something that will transform your life. There are very few people who don’t have some physical issue that can be helped by this. The physical reach is so far and so wide, that I’m shocked when someone comes back to me and says, “I did it and nothing happened.”