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Matt Sutherland
2012 January-February

Wheat Belly

At his wit’s end because of his severe reactions to eating wheat, William Davis, MD decided to become the guinea pig in a simple experiment. The question was whether his body would react differently to bread baked from modern organic whole wheat or to bread baked from einkorn, the first cultivated wheat and an original source of our current crop of 100,000 modern wheat varieties. From wheat kernels found in tombs near the Sea of Galilee, we know that humans have been eating the hard-hulled einkorn unchanged for nearly 20,000 years. We have also been crossbreeding wheat and grasses for almost as long. Compared to einkorn, which now is mostly raised for animals, the whole wheat we buy today tends to have stronger and shorter supporting straws, larger kernels, and dramatically higher yields. These huge advancements have put wheat (breads, cereal, and pasta) at the base of the American food pyramid, and we are told to eat six to eleven servings each day.

But as Dr. Davis has learned the hard way, the ubiquity of modern wheat has also created a host of potential problems. Most obvious is that if you are sensitive to wheat, it can be very difficult to find food to eat. Davis also knew that einkorn is sold in health food stores because it lacks the gluten of modern wheat and is said to be tolerated by people with wheat sensitivities. So Dr. Davis’s first goal was to find out if going back to the source would make bread safe for him.

Davis’s plan was to eat four ounces of einkorn bread on one day and four ounces of organic whole wheat bread the next. To begin, he hand-ground two pounds of the einkorn into flour and made a simple dough with water and yeast. He describes the einkorn dough as stickier and less stretchy than any he had seen before. It barely rose after a period of proofing. After baking, Davis nervously prepared for his first bite, but the nutty, denser bread caused him no problems — and a blood sugar test revealed only a modest rise from 84 mg/dl to 110 mg/dl, similar to consuming any carbohydrate. In his new book, Wheat Belly, he writes, “Afterwards … I felt no perceptible effects — no sleepiness, no nausea, nothing hurt. In short, I felt fine. Whew!”

The next day he baked a loaf of modern organic whole wheat bread and repeated the experiment. Before eating the four ounces, his blood sugar registered the same 84 mg/dl; afterward, it spiked to 167 mg/dl. “Moreover, I soon became nauseated, nearly losing my lunch. The queasy effect persisted for thirty-six hours, accompanied by stomach cramps that started almost immediately and lasted for many hours. Sleep that night was fitful, though filled with vivid dreams. I couldn’t think straight, nor could I understand the research papers I was trying to read the next morning, having to read and reread paragraphs four or five times; I finally gave up.”

A preventive cardiologist practicing in Milwaukee, Davis is the first to admit his experiment in no way represents a clinical trial; nevertheless, it set him on a path to learn more about the differences between ancient and modern wheat. His ultimate goal is to answer two questions that go well beyond gluten: Has our rapid crossbreeding of wheat outpaced the human body’s ability to digest the final product? Is twenty-first century wheat a major culprit in our current epidemic of obesity and diabetes?

The Begetting of Modern Wheat

Back in Neolithic times, einkorn was mated with another wheat and begat emmer, another wheat found in ancient tombs and still available in modern health food stores. (In fact, emmer is prized in places like Tuscany, where it’s raised under the name farro.) A big difference between einkorn and its progeny is that einkorn has 14 chromosomes and emmer has 28. Then emmer was mated with goat grass, which has 14 chromosomes and, more important, unique glutenin genes. The progeny of emmer and goat grass was essentially modern wheat, which has 42 chromosones and the gluten that makes modern bread chewy, elastic, and shapely.

In early times, plant hybridization was hit or miss and very gradual, depending on local farmers and local conditions. In the nineteenth century, plant genealogy and sophisticated breeding techniques began earning serious attention; nevertheless, modern wheat remained essentially the same until the mid-twentieth century, when the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (IMWIC) and other wheat research centers set out to combat world hunger. Over the following decades, thousands of new varieties were created to dramatically increase yields. According to World Wheat Facts and Trends, yields in China, now the world’s largest producer, have increased from eight to sixty-five bushels per acre. Some of these advances are attributable to nitrogen-rich fertilizers but also to the development of high-yielding dwarf wheat, with a large head and shorter, stouter straw, sturdy enough to support the extra weight without buckling. Some recent estimates have dwarf and semi-dwarf wheat comprising as much as 99 percent of all wheat worldwide.

According to Davis’s research, personal consumption of wheat has grown along with crop yields. For example, the average American now eats 133 pounds of wheat per year, 26 pounds more than in 1970. Davis again: “In parallel with increased consumption, we also have the silent replacement of wheat from four-foot-tall triticum aestivum with high-yield dwarf strains and new gluten structures not previously consumed by humans.”

Our Experiment in Mystery Wheat

As Davis writes, “The oversight in the flurry of breeding activity, such as that conducted at IMWIC, was that, despite dramatic changes in the genetic makeup of wheat and other crops, no animal or human safety testing was conducted on the new genetic strains that were created. So intent were the efforts to increase yield, so confident were plant geneticists that hybridization yielded safe products for human consumption, so urgent was the cause of world hunger, that these products of agricultural research were released into the food supply without human safety concerns being part of the equation.”

A wheat hybrid, for example, retains approximately 95 percent of its parent’s proteins, while the other 5 percent of proteins are new and may have novel characteristics. Gluten proteins seem especially susceptible to structural changes. One hybridization experiment cited in Wheat Belly created 14 new gluten proteins. Remember, these are individual experiments involving only two parents; over the past 60 years, many thousand such hybridizations have accrued in your breakfast bagel. If Davis is right, such relentless hybridization created almost infinite opportunities for wheat to go wrong.

The Case of Wendy

In his book, Davis tells the story of Wendy, a 36-year-old mother of three, who had “lived with constant cramping, diarrhea, and frequent bleeding, necessitating occasional blood transfusions. She endured several colonoscopies and required the use of three prescription medications to manage her disease, including the highly toxic methotrexate, a drug also used in cancer treatment and medical abortions.”

Wendy actually went to see Davis for heart palpitations, but once Davis realized that everything was okay with her heart, their conversation turned to Wendy’s other health issues. As it turns out, Wendy’s ulcerative colitis wasn’t responding to treatment, so her gastroenterologist was advising the removal of her colon. Even though Wendy had tested negative for celiac, Davis strongly suggested that she eliminate wheat from her diet. Wendy reluctantly agreed.

She returned three months later to say, “First I lost 38 pounds. And my ulcerative colitis is nearly gone. No more cramps or diarrhea. I’m off everything except my Asacol (an aspirin derivative). I really feel great.” A year later without wheat and gluten, Wendy was completely off her meds and fully cured.

Despite ongoing research, Davis remains at a loss to explain Wendy’s condition and her remarkable improvement upon the elimination of wheat and gluten. He writes, “Wendy’s experience highlights the many unknowns in this world of wheat sensitivities, many of which are as devastating as the cure is simple.” Over the years, Dr. Davis writes that he has recommended a wheat-free diet to more than 2,000 patients for reasons as diverse as acid reflux, cyclic cramping, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, lethargy, rashes, rheumatoid arthritis pain, asthma, and most commonly, obesity and diabetes. Why the wheat-free diet is so helpful remains unclear, but in the vast majority of cases, he says it is.

Celiac “Lite”

Take irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and acid reflux, two conditions affecting between 5 and 20 percent of the population, depending on how they are defined. Because of the cramping and abdominal pain, as well as loose stools, IBS sufferers are often given endoscopies and colonoscopies. If no apparent pathology is found, doctors may prescribe antidepressants to frustrated patients. Yet Davis refers to both of these conditions as celiac “lite.” He explains that numerous studies have looked at the relationship between celiac disease, IBS, and acid reflux, because more than half of celiac sufferers experience IBS symptoms, and upwards of 19 percent have acid reflux. What really interests Davis and other researchers is that 75 percent of celiac sufferers experience relief from acid reflux upon wheat elimination. And while Davis is quick to say that conclusive research doesn’t exist to quantify wheat and gluten’s role in IBS and acid reflux, he has “personally witnessed complete or partial relief from symptoms of IBS and acid reflux with gluten removal from the diet many hundreds of times” with his patients.

The Wheat Belly Phenomenon

Dr. Davis’s largest worry has to do with our growing consumption of modern mystery wheat and our growing epidemics of obesity and diabetes. He believes the two are directly connected. Why? In part, because wheat has a high glycemic index (72). As you probably know, the glycemic index is a measure of the effect that carbohydrates have on blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion, such as wheat, release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream, which triggers a release of insulin from the pancreas to move the sugar into cells. Over time, spikes of blood sugar and insulin lead to insulin resistance and ultimately to diabetes — and Davis believes that wheat is a major contributor. (Davis sees little difference between modern whole wheat and the wheat in white bread. As far as the metabolism is concerned, wheat is wheat.)

Davis also says that these blood sugar and insulin spikes from wheat also trigger the growth of an insidious kind of fat called visceral fat, which accumulates in the liver, kidneys, pancreas, large and small intestines, heart, and the abdomen — hence the name wheat belly. (Researchers don’t quite understand why our bodies choose to store visceral fat in the belly, as opposed to the buttocks or calves, say, but so it does.) The important difference between buttock fat, for example, and visceral fat is that buttock fat represents the straightforward equation of excess calories over caloric expenditure. Metabolically, it’s stable and relatively inert. Visceral fat is different and much worse. As Davis writes:

“[Visceral fat] is uniquely capable of triggering a universe of inflammatory phenomena. Visceral fat filling and encircling the abdomen of the wheat belly is a unique twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week metabolic factory. And what it produces is inflammatory signals and abnormal cytokines, or cell-to-cell hormone signal molecules, such as leptin, resistin, and tumor necrosis factor. . . . As visceral fat increases, its capacity to produce protective adiponectin diminishes (for reasons unclear). The combination of lack of adiponectin along with increased leptin, tumor necrosis factor, and other inflammatory products underlies abnormal insulin responses, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. The list of other health conditions triggered by visceral fat is growing and now includes dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, and colon cancer. This is why waist circumference is proving to be a powerful predictor of all these conditions, as well as of mortality.”

And the story gets worse. Ultimately, Dr. Davis’s greatest fear is not the glycemic rebounding or even the insidious belly fat. What worries Davis are the mystery proteins that may pass intact into our bloodstream and create the kinds of havoc that Wendy experienced.

What’s a Belly to Do?

Of course, there are a lot of things to worry about — plastics to pesticides to GMOs — and excessive worry may be more hazardous to our health and well-being than whatever we choose to eat. But another way to see our situation is to realize that we are all participants in an ongoing living experiment. Dr. Davis’s worries may or may not be overblown, but he makes a good case to shift our attention and perhaps to try something new. As an adventure in creative eating, do what I did: spend a month without wheat — and keep track of how you feel. Or change the wheat you eat. For example, Elisheva Rogosa is an organic farmer in western Massachusetts who spent many years in the Middle East researching ancient grains. She founded the Heritage Wheat Conservancy and grows einkorn and emmer on her farm. Farmers like Eli hold the seeds of the original wheat of our forbearers — and they allow us to take a step back in time.