For the past couple of years, I’ve been making changes to my eating habits based upon Paleo Diet guidelines. I wouldn’t say I was strict about it but since the diet was focused on eating a lot of meat and I loved eating meat, it was something that was easier to follow. This effort also coincided with my interest in gluten-free foods due to a rising popularity of endurance athletes eating gluten free in the weeks leading up to a major race. The primary guideline of eating Paleo-style is eating foods that cavemen ate because the human body had not evolved to consume modern-day food. Common foods on the No-No list are grains, dairy products, legumes and vegetable oil products. The author of the Paleo Diet, Loren Cordain, provides plenty of theories/examples of why these foods shouldn’t be consumed but some of it didn’t make sense to me. Is milk really that bad if it comes from a grass-fed free range cow? What about beneficial probiotics that come from yogurts not jacked up on processed sweeteners. What about sprouting foods like legumes to remove the phytic acid but enjoy the fiber/protein benefits? What about grains…is it really all grains? The example that comes to mind are Asians who eat tons of white rice yet are thin for the most part and seemingly have longer life spans than their Western world counterparts. With all of these questions, it is hard to really pin down what we are eating that we really shouldn’t be eating. I then came across Wheat Belly by William Davis and after reading it, am convinced that one simple thing you can do to live a healthier life is to lay off the wheat.
Dr. Davis starts off the book by referencing how thin everyone looked fifty to sixty years ago despite the lack of mainstream exercise. Fast forward to the present and there are more people working out but they still have a belly. I’m sure everyone knows someone who works out a fair amount but complains about not making any improvement on the size of their waist. Dr. Davis then lays it out that the consumption of grains—specifically modern day, genetically altered wheat is the reason why sedentary people from the fifties are a lot more slender than those in the current day who are active.
Dr. Davis conduced a trial with his patients to see how blood sugar can effectively. Did you know that whole wheat bread (glycemic index of 72) increases blood sugar as much as or more than table sugar (glycemic index of 52)? So that whole wheat sandwich that you think is good for you? Well, it is the equivalent or worse than drinking a can of sugar sweetened soda or a candy bar. The wheat products elevate blood sugar levels, which elevates insulin levels which increases the amount of fat being deposited. After 3 months of Dr. Davis’ trial, his patients that removed wheat from their diet enjoyed improvements such as blood sugar levels dropping from the diabetic range to that of a normal person. In addition, pre-disposed conditions such as bowel problems, sleep issues, lack of energy, and arthritic symptoms all improved or went away. This experience convinced Dr. Davis that what is the culprit.
So why is wheat so bad? This is where there is an intersection with The Paleo Diet. Dr. Davis reviews how wheat today is vastly different from the wheat that our grandparents and prior consumed. The current crop of wheat has been cross-bred over and over again to make it easier to grow, harvest, and consume at a rapid rate. Real wheat used to be tall, “amber waves of grain” as the author puts it. The cross-bred, modern wheat grows to merely eighteen-inches tall with a thick head that makes it easy to harvest in large quanities. Although wheat can now be cheaply mass produced, the human body simply has not been able to adapt to the consumption of modern wheat, thus creating an inflammatory response by the body.
The duration of the book then overviews conditions that wheat contributes to such as being an appetite stimulant, celiac disease, diabetes, heart disease, pH imbalances, accelerated wrinkling/aging, and even some psychological effects on the brain. The chapter on heart disease does a great job of explaining the differences between LDL (historically viewed as "bad"), HDL, cholesterol, and how wheat causes the issues, not LDL on its own. The conclusion of the book details strategies to remove wheat from the diet and even provides a number of recipes as guidance. Although the elimination of wheat falls in line with a Paleo-based diet, the recipes aren’t exactly Paleo in that the author does incorporate non-paleo foods such as dairy and artificial sweeteners (Truvia is used multiple times).
The book itself was an interesting read for me to better understand why Paleo prohibits wheat specifically and the issues with gluten that have made gluten-free products a cash cow the past few years. I’ll be interested to see how nutritionist react and especially wheat industry interest groups as information from Wheat Belly becomes more mainstream. Personally, reading this book was enough for me to try to eliminate wheat from my diet and treat it as a something that should be consumed sparingly.