W. R. Davis. 2011. Wheat Belly. Lose the wheat, lose the weight and find your path back to health.

I finished reading Davis’ popular book almost a week ago, and I had a few points to share on it, because I am somewhat aware of the buzz surrounding it (on both sides of the equation).

Davis is a cardiologist MD who initially started looking into wheat as a result of his dissatisfaction at seeing pictures of himself being 30 pounds too heavy, having low levels of energy following consumption of wheat, and feeling his blood work (high cholesterol and diabetic blood sugar levels) could look a lot better. This book is the result of his research, his personal experience based on his own dietary modifications, as well as the thousands of patients he has treated and advised over the years, and whose health improved dramatically when following his counsel.

The main thesis of the book is that the constitution of wheat has changed so much (especially in the last 50 or so years) as a result of breeding and genetic modifications (excluding gene splicing, but including chemical, gamma and x-ray mutagenesis), that the high-yield, semi-dwarf variant has become a poison to humans who consume it, causing health problems and disease from head to toe, inside and out. Wheat consumed today is toxic and addictive, inciting those who eat it to crave it – as well as other foods – continuously, with spikes at every two hours. (Coincidentally, this is obviously very good for the grain and cereal business…)

The author explains the plethora of problems whose likelihood increases considerably by wheat consumption, such as irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, arthritis, diabetes, acne, heart disease, hallucinations… and all sorts of others in between.

I find things get a little muddy because he often jumbles different things together (for example, wheat, gluten, corn syrup, rice / potato /tapioca… starches, dried fruits, etc.] and it becomes very difficult to isolate the exact culprit. Although I personally think that he deliberately lumps different things together because their combination ensures a much higher level of likelihood for his claims, I also believe that this is not entirely his fault, because there is no independent research that has been done anywhere to accurately verify many of his claims. So his best bet – and again, I believe he is very aware of this – is to establish correlation. Of course, in measurable science, giving the impression that something is a cause, when it is simply a correlation, is akin to a cardinal sin, but this is usually missed by the masses; and this book is written for the masses.

Scientific reviews critical of this book will therefore continue to appear, for a number of reasons. 3 important ones (and there are others):

  • The lack of evidence – in the strict hard-science sense – supporting some of the claims is missing for some of the claims of the author. And yes, as mentioned, this is the case to a certain degree, and the author is most likely very aware of it. But he has decided that the first hand experiences he has dealt with, combined with numerous scientific studies, together are enough to warrant a book like this. The “no-smoke-without-fire” argument…
  • The grain and cereal industry is huge business. The cereal production for 2014 was estimated at 2 544 million tonnes. Global breakfast cereal alone has a market of around $37 billion in 2015 (based on my estimate of these figures). But it also seems that what is on the decline in the market, especially in the U.S. (where it represented about 50% of the world’s market share in 1980, and about 15% in 2015. see here).I could go on and on here, but I hope all intelligent readers know how the world works: if there is money involved, then large corporations will do whatever it takes (let’s call it lobbying) to ensure that their profits continue to grow. This includes hiring scientists and journalists to produce counter claims. Sadly, like every other aspect of science where there are high stakes (economic, military, geopolitical, etc.) lack of independent objective research is the norm, and makes it quite difficult for the intelligent and independent commoner to decide anything for themselves… (e.g. vaccines, medicines, weapons, news reporting, etc.)
  • Anything that goes against the cultural current of society will obviously be resisted. Unfortunately, most people have this ideal figure of the scientist as an objective researcher, detached from all factors that may influence the results of their research, such as: their own subjective interpretations; indoctrination, ideology and philosophical/political/theological leanings and affiliations; having to fit in in their community of peers; fierce competition for recognition and funding; and the list goes on and on. The sociological work of people like Pierre Bourdieux and Bruno Latour, as well many anthropologists who have looked at communities of scientists and how “science” is constructed should always be kept in mind whenever anyone makes a prescriptive claim, that this is science, while that is not. This very much applies here…
    In other words, at the very least, it could easily be argued that many of the scientists rejecting the claims of the author so vocally are doing so to protect their own convenient choices and lifestyle preferences in continuing to eat wheat. Given the ubiquity of wheat in their diets, they would probably have to rethink their entire daily schedules and that of their families in order to abide by Davis’ recommendations… (not to mention the professional repercussions of having to spend time (and who has time!?) doing original research and trying to publish results that are frowned upon in the “scientific” community…) I think you get the idea.

For what it is and what it intends to do, the book is well worth reading. Instead of blindly calling it a “fad diet” or something of the sort, if nothing else, it can easily be used it to force yourself to question some of your own dietary choices when presented with some interesting correlations (let’s not call them scientific evidence…). And yes, this sort of question (and diet) may be quite difficult, but if I was able to do it (coming from a culture where virtually every meal begins and ends with pita bread…) you probably can as well. And then, up to you to decide what to accept and what to reject.

As in everything else, the point should not be (and is certainly not for me) to convert, but to inform…

As a post scriptum, I would simply like to add that yes indeed, Islam does have a special place for bread (as do many other religions) but I do not think that those teachings would be in contradiction with the advice given by this book and its likes (Mercola’s No Grain diet, Cordain’s Paleo Diet…) should anyone decide to follow such a diet. Although this is certainly worthy of another post (a lengthy article even), here are my main and quick thoughts on the topic for now, to provide some helpful nuances:

    • Some of the narrations about bread seem to give it specificity because it symbolizes divine care and nurture, as a major blessing for humanity in general. As Muslims we are therefore encouraged to give thanks for the great sustenance and bounty that has been provided to us, symbolized by bread.
    • Some of the narrations mentioning bread seem to do so because it serves the dual function of fulfilling the material and physical need of nourishment without compromising the strictest degree of asceticism and detachment from worldly affairs, often associated with spiritual purification.
    • Some of the narrations seem to provide psychological relief for those who cannot afford anything more than bread for themselves and their families, that they are in fact consuming a simple but divine gift.
    • A number of narrations praise the health benefits of bread – so if it were shown that those health benefits no longer occur because of the modifications that were done to the genetic constitution of wheat for instance, then this point becomes moot.
    • A number of narrations specifically mention barley wheat as having a special position. (there are also some that mention rice bread…).

(Of course, one narration can have fall into more than one of these categories…)

Hungry yet?

Happy reading

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