Dr. William Davis was gracious enough to accept some interview questions, and as you’ll see below, certainly provided some thoughtful responses to the questions I posed. I ordered Wheat Belly shortly after it became available in the Kindle store and had a hard time putting it down. As someone who dealt with daily hip pain for years, until I removed wheat from my diet in 2009, the book certainly peaked my interest. With friends and family members dealing with heart disease, insulin resistance, arthritis, degenerative nervous system diseases, digestive problems and more, reading Dr. Davis’ book is worthwhile. Knowing something and doing something about it are two different things, though. There’s nothing to lose by giving up wheat (although that means a 100% commitment every day if you’re going to notice a difference), and possibly much to gain. Consider Dr. Davis’ point of view below. Order his book or check out his website for more information, and of course, keep the conversation going below in the comments section after reading the rest of this interview. Enjoy!
TN: Could you provide some background on your expertise and your practice? How did a cardiologist become so focused on nutrition, especially wheat?
WD: A primary focus of my cardiology practice is to understand exactly why an individual develops coronary disease and risk for heart attack. While I was originally trained to do heart procedures like stents and angioplasty, I was deeply bothered by the fact that, in everyday practice, the cause of the disease was rarely uncovered. And I was skeptical that the crude concepts coming from cholesterol testing were sufficient.
Part of the effort I employ to uncover all the causes of coronary disease is something called lipoprotein testing. This identifies causes of coronary disease that are not reflected in standard cholesterol testing. Anyone who witnesses the deeper insights provided by lipoprotein testing will tell you that the most common abnormality—by a long stretch--that leads to heart disease is small LDL particles.
I was also bothered by the number of people with heart disease or risk for heart disease who were diabetic or pre-diabetic when I met them. 80% of the people I meet for the first time have one of these conditions.
In an effort to help my patients reverse diabetes and pre-diabetes and to reduce small LDL particles, I asked them to remove wheat. I did this because wheat has a high glycemic index: Two slices of whole wheat bread, for instance, raise blood sugar higher than six teaspoons of table sugar or a Snickers Bar. Foods that increase blood sugar also trigger formation of small LDL particles. And you know what? After removing all wheat, many diabetics became non-diabetic, pre-diabetics became non-pre-diabetic, and small LDL particles dropped to the floor. In other words, several of the most common conditions that lead to heart disease and heart attack improved dramatically or reversed completely—no drugs in sight.
But it got even better than that. People who removed wheat from their diet also reported substantial weight loss without restricting calories or portions. They reported improvement or complete relief from an astounding list of common health conditions, such as acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, skin rashes like eczema and psoriasis, mood swings, depression, arthritis, leg edema, palpitations, migraine headaches and many others. It became clear that, not only was wheat—“healthy whole grains”—the culprit behind much of the epidemic of obesity, it was also showing itself as many of the most common conditions treated with medication, even medical procedures. All just due to one food.
TN: Sometimes people need to be educated before they can be convinced to change their habits. However, they may not be willing to read an entire book in order to get the education they need to change their habits. What are three things you’d like to tell people to stir enough curiosity and concern that they’ll spend the time doing some reading on this subject?
WD: The first thing to recognize is that what you are being sold called “wheat” is really not wheat at all, at least nothing like the wheat of 1950 that our mothers and grandmothers had. Modern wheat is the product of extensive genetics experiments conducted during the 1960s and 1970s to increase yield. And these experiments were very successful from the yield standpoint: Modern wheat now yields 10-fold more per acre than traditional wheat.
Modern wheat looks different: It is stocky, with a large seed head, and stands about 2-feet tall, a “semi-dwarf” genetics creation—not the 4½-5 foot tall “amber waves of grain” we all remember. Extensive outward differences are accompanied by extensive genetic and biochemical differences. And none of these were tested for suitability for human consumption; they were just introduced into the food supply and sold to you, no questions asked by any regulatory agency.
The gluten proteins of modern wheat are structurally different from the glutens of 50 years ago. At the very least, they trigger more celiac disease, the intestinal destruction that comes from wheat consumption. They likely underlie much of the increase in inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, as well.
Among the most important changes introduced into modern high-yield semi-dwarf wheat is the protein gliadin unique to wheat. The gliadin created by geneticists is a potent appetite-stimulant: You eat more. On average, modern wheat increases consumption by 400 calories per day. While I believe this new gliadin was an inadvertent accompaniment of the new high-yield wheat, I believe that smart food scientists quickly caught on and put it in every conceivable processed food—not for taste, not for texture, but to increase consumption and increase sales. And it worked. Americans now consume more calories than ever before. We are fatter than any other population in human history and we now have the worst epidemic of diabetes ever witnessed. There are certainly other factors involved, such as soft drink and fructose consumption, especially in young people, but the appetite-stimulating property of modern wheat is a substantial contributor.
There’s an easy test of this premise: eliminate all wheat and see what happens. The majority of people experience a dramatic reduction in appetite, a reduction in calorie consumption, followed by weight loss and relief from multiple conditions.
TN: Some people say when you cut out wheat, you’re almost cutting out an entire food group. What is your typical response?
WD: Well, first of all, I don’t think that modern wheat should even be considered food, any more than a creature created in a test tube, exposed to multiple mutation-induced chemicals and radiation, requiring artificial sustenance else it won’t survive, should be considered a creation of nature.
Modern wheat is not a creation of nature. It is the creation of geneticists who never asked whether the dramatic changes in this plant remained safe for human consumption.
It is also wrong to believe that humans somehow require grains. For the great majority of humans on earth, grains were not part of the diet. They were only incorporated in the last 10,000 or so years—a mere blink of time from an evolutionary standpoint. So humans survived successfully for thousand of centuries without grains in any form. Wheat was incorporated only within the last 300 generations of human life on earth.
Dietitians are quick to argue that multiple nutritional deficiencies can develop with elimination of wheat. That is true—if you replace the lost wheat calories with jelly beans, soft drinks, and other junk foods. But if you replace the lost calories with real foods like vegetables, olive oil, eggs, meats, fish, avocados, nuts—there is NO deficiency that develops. There is no deficiency of thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, folates, B12, B6, protein, fiber, flavonoids, antioxidants or any other nutrient.
In fact, I will go so far as to say the claim that grains are somehow necessary for human health is largely a fiction propagated by agribusiness and Big Food companies.
TN: Many people don’t realize how much control their food choices have on them. In your book, you wrote “wheat is an appetite stimulant: It makes you want more—more cookies, cupcakes, pretzels, candy, soft drinks. More bagels, muffins, tacos, submarine sandwiches, pizza. It makes you want both wheat-containing and non-wheat-containing foods. And, on top of that, for some people wheat is a drug, or at least yields peculiar drug-like neurological effects that can be reversed with medications used to counter the effects of narcotics.” For those who need more convincing, how can wheat-containing food be compared to narcotics? How can it have that much of an effect on them?
WD: The research that originally documented the mind effects of wheat came from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Christine Zioudriou and her colleagues were trying to identify the component of wheat that was responsible for the disturbing reports that wheat consumption made the paranoia and hallucinations of schizophrenia worse, based on observations made in Philadelphia and England. They narrowed the effect down to a byproduct of the gliadin protein of wheat, a group of compounds they called exorphins—exogenous morphine-like compounds.
Since Dr. Zioudriou’s original observations, the morphine- or opiate-like activity of wheat exorhins have been corroborated repeatedly. Remarkably, these wheat exorphins that stimulate appetite can be blocked with opiate-blocking drugs of the sort taken by heroin addicts to block their “high.” In fact, a drug company filed its application with the FDA for the drug, naltrexone, an opiate-blocking drug already on the market for heroine addiction. In this company’s clinical trials, people who took naltrexone at low dose experienced 22 pounds weight loss over six months because calorie consumption dropped by 400 calories per day.
Think about this: We trusted geneticists and agribusiness to generate high-yield wheat for us. This new wheat contains a protein, gliadin, that is degraded to exorphins, morphine-like compounds that stimulate appetite. We now have a drug company that would like to sell us a drug to provide the antidote.
TN: When your book was released, there was some pushback from some people or groups. What are the most common objections you get for avoiding wheat?
WD: Beyond the accusation that multiple deficiencies will develop with elimination of wheat, which, of course, is absolute nonsense, defenders of wheat point to the numerous clinical studies that document that, when white processed flour products are replaced with whole grains, there are health benefits. This is true and indisputable. The conclusion is that we should therefore eat plenty of “healthy whole grains.”
But this sequence of logic is flawed. If we replace something bad—white flour—with something less bad—whole grains—and there is an apparent health benefit, the common conclusion is that a whole bunch of the less bad thing is good for us. But the next logical step should have been to ask “What is the effect of no grains?”
Let’s apply the same sequence of logic to another situation: cigarettes. If we eliminate something bad—unfiltered Tareytons—with something less bad—filtered Salems—and there is an apparent benefit . . . then smoking a lot of Salems must be good for you. Obviously, this is ridiculous—but this is the same kind of flawed logic used to justify the “healthy whole grain” message.
If we look at the studies in which wheat grains have been removed, that’s when you witness dramatic weight loss, relief from multiple gastrointestinal phenomena, drops in blood sugar, relief from arthritis, etc. And that is precisely what I’ve witnessed in thousands of people.
Unfortunately, the “healthy whole grain” message is also highly profitable. It allows substantial price markups, since a few pennies worth of commodity products like wheat flour, corn syrup, and sucrose can be crafted, with a little marketing and clever packaging, into cereals, snacks, and convenience foods that cost $2.99, $3.99, $4.99—markups not possible with whole foods like broccoli and salmon.
TN: For people who appear to be fit and healthy, and don’t have any issues with their weight or cardiovascular system, do you still feel they should avoid wheat and other gluten-containing foods? If so, why?
WD: Two reasons.
First, many of the undesirable effects of wheat consumption may not be perceived. For instance, the high blood sugar effect that develops after consuming two slices of whole wheat bread, when experienced repeatedly over time, leads to cataracts, knee and hip arthritis, hypertension, and heart disease. But you won’t feel it.
Second, many of the long-term consequences on brain and nervous system tissue may also not be perceived . . . until you start stumbling and wet your pants. In other words, neurologic impairment from wheat, as well as other long-term consequences, will not declare themselves until it is too late.
The “fit and healthy” are by no means immune to the destructive effects of wheat. Nobody is. You may think that you are healthy and impervious to its effects, but look beneath the surface at metabolic markers like inflammatory measures, hemoglobin A1c (a marker for blood sugars), small LDL particles (the #1 cause for heart disease in the U.S.) and multiple others, and you will find that the “fit and healthy” aren’t so fit and healthy.
TN: What does a typical day of eating look like for you?
WD: Eating wheat-free is not all cardboard and lettuce. It is as varied as any diet. In fact, people who are wheat-free report enjoying food more than during wheat-consuming days, since you eat less and thereby better enjoy what you eat, and taste is heightened with more acute sensitivity to various flavors. The sense of sweetness in particular is increased and many people report previously tasty treats become sickeningly sweet and no longer edible.
I’ll often start with some scrambled eggs or a veggie omelet with cheese and olive oil. If I’ve recently baked one of my wheat-free, nut flour-based recipes for muffins, cookies, or brownies, I’ll have one or two of those with coffee. For lunch, I’ll usually have a salad with green vegetables, walnuts, feta or goat cheese and topped with olive oil and vinegar. If breakfast was substantial, I’ll sometimes skip lunch, since a wheat-free lifestyle means that you are less hungry and do not need to eat as much or as often as wheat-eating people. My wife makes dinner which usually consists of baked fish, chicken, beef or pork, a “pasta” dish of shirataki noodles, a pizza made with my wheat-free flatbread recipe, vegetables like steamed asparagus. For my occasional snacks, I reach for raw nuts like walnuts, pecans, almonds, pistachios, or cashews. Hunks of raw cheese are great, as are some of my baked cookies, brownies, or cupcakes, all made without wheat or added sugar.
TN: Your book is great and I strongly recommend people read the whole thing. For those who aren’t quite ready, what else would you tell someone if you had 60 seconds to ride in an elevator and convince them to eat differently?
WD: You have been part of a grand deception. The wheat you are being sold is not the wheat of 50 years ago. The genetics changes introduced by geneticists that made it to your store shelves in the 1980s has been largely responsible for the increased calorie consumption, weight gain, and epidemic of diabetes experienced by Americans. Incredibly, we are blamed for these problems, accused by our own government agencies of being gluttonous and lazy. No, I say it is the fault of our own agencies, either through ignorance or turning a blind eye to the incredible changes introduced into this plant. Saying goodbye to modern wheat is reclaiming control over weight, impulse, and health. And it works.
TN: Thanks again to Dr. Davis. Keep the conversation going. Share thoughts and comments below.
If you're a member of Life Time, LifeCafe offers a variety of delicious, lower-carb and meals made without gluten, including a variety of salads and shakes. You can also order any wrap or sandwich in a lettuce wrap instead of a wheat wrap or bread. If you are unsure, talk to a fitness professional or a LifeCafe team member.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.