27: Wheat Belly and The Meaning of Reality

This week on Dana’s Low Carb For Life, we talk about the most important nutrition book of the season, and question reality. So stick around!

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Links for Episode :
Wheat Belly
Track Your Plaque
the Heart Scan Blog

300 Low-Carb Slow Cooker Recipes
Grace Island Cheese Crisps


Hey, Gang! Welcome to episode 27 of Dana’s Low Carb For Life. This show I only have two segments, instead of my customary three, because the first one runs kinda long, but I thought it was important enough that I didn’t want to cut it. I have gotten some feedback from listeners regarding low carb lunch box ideas, so I promise we’ll get to those next week. This week, I want to tell you about the book I’ve just read, and also talk about the nature of reality.


But before that, I should tell you that as I record this it is Labor Day, 2011. Since I went low carb on the day after Labor Day 1995, that makes this long weekend my official 16th anniversary of low carbing. Woo-hoo! Since I’m about to turn 53, that means I’ve been low carb for just over 30% of my life now. Remember that the next time you hear or read someone say, “Oh, that diet is good for quick weight loss, but no one can eat that way long term.” Uh, folks? Here I am. And quite honestly, I’m enjoying myself. I’m certainly enjoying myself more than I did when I had nasty blood sugar swings, energy drop-outs, and constant, gnawing hunger. And I have to say that a rib eye steak and a glass of red wine beats a bowl of whole wheat pasta with fat free sauce any day of the week.


Then, in the Mark Your Calendars department, our friend Jennifer Perry, a couple of years ago, declared the second Sunday in September to be Beefmas, to be celebrated by feasting on beef. No, this is not an official holiday, but then neither was International Talk Like A Pirate Day, and look how that’s caught on! So remember, next Sunday is Beefmas. Whether it’s steak, prime rib, burgers, or short ribs, start planning your feast of beef!


Okay, let’s move on. In a little while, I’ll talk to you about what the word “real” might mean. But first I want to let you in on the thing that’s been obsessing me for the past week, has delayed the writing and recording of this podcast, and is changing my personal version of a low carb diet. Those of you who read the blog already know about this, so please bear with me; the rest need to hear this.


I have read a big ol’ pile of nutrition books in the past 33 years. I generally learn at least a little something from each one, or at the very least am reminded of a point I may have forgotten. But in his new book Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist from Milwaukee, and author of Track Your Plaque, and the Heart Scan Blog has written a book in which the majority of the information is new to me. I am agog. And excited – I am a big nutrition geek, after all; it’s thrilling to have this sort of stuff presented to me, and presented in such a readable form.


But I am also frightened. Why frightened? Because the size of the problem Dr. Davis has limned in this groundbreaking new book is staggering in its scope and implications. And the stuff causing it is not only near-universal, but widely seen as the most wholesome and beneficial of foods.


Ironically, I had it in my mind that I needed to write a review of Wheat Belly today, when I got an email from a reader, thrilled with my low carb whole wheat bread recipe. I’m glad she likes it, and the book, but… sigh.


Of all the foods low carbers give up, perhaps the group most missed is “foods made from wheat” – bread and pasta, particularly. New low carbers, especially, are forever searching for a version of these foods that will allow them to have their sandwiches and mac-and-cheese, while maintaining the benefits of their low carbohydrate diets. For years, I kept low carb bread from Natural Ovens of Manitowoc in my freezer, most of it to be consumed in the form of late-night grilled cheese sandwiches. Low carb tortillas were a staple; in the summer, particularly, I pretty commonly ate wrap sandwiches, and they were de rigeur on long car trips. And while I never quite trusted Dreamfield’s, I have answered repeatedly readers’ plaintive inquiries as to whether it’s really low carb, or, as they fear, too good to be true. (Too good to be true. Sorry.)


Accordingly, in several of my books I have included yeast bread recipes. I have also used modest quantities of wheat germ and/or wheat bran, the lower-starch fractions of the wheat kernel, to give a wheaty flavor to crackers, pancakes, and the like. Too, for a while I added a little vital wheat gluten – the protein fraction of wheat – to various baked goods, because it does make them hold together better. These recipes have proven to be very popular with readers.


All of this seems logical, even inevitable. We have heard since childhood that bread is the very “staff of life.” Husbands pride themselves on being good “breadwinners.” We show friendship by “breaking bread” together. Religious ceremonies, most notably the Christian Eucharist, center on bread as a symbol, and every Christian sect has learned to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread*.” It is, perhaps, possible to accept that we, with our damaged carbohydrate metabolisms, simply cannot tolerate most baked goods, the way some people cannot eat nuts, or shellfish. It is a very different thing to accept that these seemingly ancient foods, with so much inbuilt emotional pull and symbolism, are quite simply hazardous, even toxic.


Still, awareness that gluten, the protein that makes wheat the versatile stuff that it is, may not be good for us has been growing rapidly. The demand for gluten-free foods is exploding. The number of complaints that are now suspected of being tied to gluten consumption is daunting. Has this always been so? Are we just noticing that the most common of foodstuffs is toxic? Or has something changed?


Both, it seems.


In Wheat Belly, Dr. Davis identifies two major problems with the ubiquitous consumption of wheat products. One is the fact that wheat, whether it’s in the form of Wonderbread or sprouted 100% whole wheat bread from the health food store, spikes blood sugar like nobody’s business. It’s not just a major source of carbohydrate in the diet, it’s also one of the most rapidly absorbed. I am going to assume we can take it as read that big ol’ carb loads and blood sugar spikes are bad, leading to weight gain (wheat belly), diabetes, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, messed up LDL/HDL ratio and LDL particle size, and all that other stuff you and I have been talking about all these years. Lots of blood sugar, bad. Got it.


It’s the part about gluten that’s really got my head spinning. I’ve known for thirty years or more that there was an illness called celiac, or celiac sprue, caused by gluten sensitivity, resulting in terrible intestinal trouble. I had become aware, over the past few years, that the list of health problems being attributed to gluten was rapidly expanding. I knew that there was suspicion that it was involved in or even to blame for a number of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and even, possibly, juvenile-onset diabetes. I also have some friends with an autistic child who functions far better on a gluten-free diet. Certainly it would be impossible for anyone paying even cursory attention to the world of nutrition not to notice the growing ranks of the gluten-free, and the growing arrays of gluten-free foods to serve them.


I have also known for 16 years that, owing to their carb load, grains, whether whole or refined, are not my friend.


But I did not connect the two. Some people were gluten sensitive; I was carb sensitive, but I’d never shown any signs of celiac – my guts work just fine, thank you (I’m sure you wanted to know that) – so gluten didn’t seem to be a concern.


I had no idea that the list of health problems attributable to gluten was so long and so frightening. Among the health conditions Dr. Davis links to gluten are:


* Schizophrenia. May as well start with the Big Casino, huh? Turns out that taking wheat products away from institutionalized schizophrenics reduced auditory hallucinations, delusions, all that stuff that makes schizophrenia the terrible illness it is. Adding wheat back caused the symptoms to reassert themselves. There are even some reports of complete remission with the removal of wheat from the diet.


* Autism. Research is preliminary, but in a Danish study of 55 autistic children, removing gluten from the diet reduced formal measures of autistic behavior.


* Liver diseases, including chronic hepatitis and biliary cancer.


* Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the most common cause of hypothyroidism.


* Lupus


* Asthma


* Inflammatory bowel disease


* Crohn’s disease


* Seizures.


* Several forms of cancer, including bowel cancer.


* Ataxia – loss of balance and coordination. Indeed, apparently half of all patients with otherwise unexplained ataxia test positive for celiac markers – aka gluten sensitivity. This involves progressive, irremediable brain damage.


* Dementia. Doesn’t get any scarier than that. Again, gluten sensitivity can cause permanent brain damage. Gluten ataxia can progress to dementia.


But why this apparent increase in gluten sensitivity? Is it just a fad? After all, people have been eating wheat for millennia, but dementia, for example, has only started accelerating recently.


Turns out that we’re getting more wheat than we did, thanks to the big push for everyone to eat lots of Healthy Whole Grains! There’s also increased awareness, and research into the effects of gluten on the body. But that’s not the whole problem.


I was floored by the opening chapters of Wheat Belly, where Dr. Davis explains in detail the evolution of the wheat plant, through deliberate manipulation of breeding, aka hybridization. It turns out that the wheat being grown now, and making up the vast majority of wheat-based foods on the market, is genetically completely different, not just from the original strains of wild grass domesticated 10,000 years ago, but from the wheat commonly grown even 50 years ago. It is, quite simply, a different plant than it was, different from the wheat your grandparents ate, and it has never been demonstrated as safe for human consumption.


Ancient wheat – einkorn, emmer, and the like – weren’t particularly safe for human consumption even as they were. We know that when our ancestors went from hunting and gathering to farming, their stature dropped, their life spans shortened, their teeth rotted, and their pelvises became smaller, causing problems in childbearing (“And Eve’s pain in childbearing will be greatly multiplied.”) Diabetes apparently started with wheat agriculture, too.


But it turns out that unlike you or I, who only have the genes our moms and dads passed on to us – blue eye genes or brown eye genes, you know the drill – when you hybridize wheat you actually come up with genes that were not present in either of the parent species. Specifically, you get 5% unique, novel genes. And the genes controlling gluten proteins are particularly likely to undergo structural change. Multiply that 5% by the tens of thousands of cross-breedings that have taken place to achieve the “Green Revolution” high-yield semi-dwarf wheat that now dominates agriculture, and you have a product with more gluten, and more potentially sensitizing gluten proteins, than has ever existed. The stuff has been great for agriculture’s bottom line; wheat yields per acre have increased dramatically. It’s just that it is potentially far more toxic than wheat originally was. Details.


Please note here that we are not talking about genetic modification, simply hybridizing. Buying non-GMO wheat is no protection. (Dr. Davis did, however, experiment with einkorn and emmer, which are being grown for the health food market. He found he did not react to them anywhere near as badly as he does to modern wheat.) Note, too, that whether a wheat product is refined or whole-grain, whether it’s a donut or whole wheat noodles, makes no difference whatsoever. It all contains gluten. It’s like asking whether a recovering alcoholic would be better off drinking a Mudslide or a glass of red wine.


So that’s it for me. I have, over the past year or so, largely dropped low carb tortillas and bread from my diet, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re completely gone. I won’t be creating any more recipes with wheat germ or wheat bran, and I certainly will not use vital wheat gluten any more. I may well go back and rewrite some of my recipes to eliminate wheat products, especially vital gluten. This will not work with the yeast breads, I’m afraid, but quick breads, cookies and the like shouldn’t be a big problem. I will not be using any low carb specialty products that include gluten or wheat.


Whether you choose to give up low carb bread, tortillas, and other products is, of course, up to you. If you have hinky blood sugar, the low carb varieties of these products are probably better than the high carb kind – you’re getting the toxic gluten, but at least you’re not spiking your blood sugar. I do believe that there is a role for “bridge foods” – low carb substitute foods that help people through what is, after all, a big damned change. But I hope that if you choose to use bridge foods containing wheat or wheat products that you will keep it in the back of your mind that they are not foods to rely on. They are only a crutch, to be used until you can lay them down and walk without them.


You may find the idea daunting right now. It’s important that you realize that Dr. Davis also lays out excellent evidence for wheat being physically addictive and mind-altering, triggering the same sensors in the brain as opiates. In fact, the same drugs that can be used to block opiate cravings also can block wheat cravings. (I told you this book was full of fascinating information.) This addictiveness is apparently part of the endless hunger caused by a high carbohydrate diet. I had thought it all due to blood sugar fluctuations, but it turns out that we’ve all been a bunch of gluten junkies as well as sugar junkies, with the opiate-like properties of gluten driving our craving for another fix.



I doubt you can get your doctor to prescribe naltrexone to help you go gluten-free. Like addicts of every stripe, if you want to quit you’ll have to go cold turkey, and endure a few uncomfortable days. I’m not saying you have to do this, nor if you plan to do it, when. I just want you to know that the little voice in the back of your head saying “Never eat bread again?” is no different from the voice that says to other people “Never smoke another cigarette?” or “Never take another painkiller?” or “Never have another drink?”


But if you have any of the problems potentially linked to gluten – and I didn’t list ‘em all; you really need to read the book – you owe it to yourself to skip the bridge foods, and go gluten-free. Do not, however, start eating a bunch of processed, purchased gluten-free breads, crackers, cookies, pasta, and other stuff. Why not? Because it’s still loaded with carbs, that’s why not. Generally this stuff is made with rice flour, potato starch, corn starch, and other refined carbs. It’s gluten-free, but it will still cause big, nasty blood sugar swings, and the health problems and obesity that come with them.


Now that I’ve scared the bejeezus out of you, let me assure you that despite the information, Wheat Belly is not a grim read at all, far from it. Wheat Belly is extremely entertaining; Dr. Davis delivers this serious information in a lively and often even humorous fashion. The information itself, however, is sobering. And not one of you can afford to miss it.


Okay, let’s move on to something a tad less worrisome. Let us consider the matter of reality. (“What is reality?” I hear the Firesign Theater fans cry.) Let’s start with a quote from Alice in Wonderland:


When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”


It has long intrigued me how various words are used to denigrate our way of eating, and it’s all a matter of how the person using them chooses to define those words. One I’ve heard over and over again is “moderation” – people are endlessly saying to me “I believe in moderation in all things.” My response is “Sure, so do I – now define “moderate.”“ Of course what they mean is that their consumption of sugar or whatever is “moderate,” while my refusal to eat carby junk is “immoderate.” (You’ll note, too, that for some reason no one says this to recovering alcoholics – “Oh, you should just be able to drink moderately!” Why is that?)


Another one is “fun,” which in many people’s minds seems to be synonymous with “consuming sugar.”


But the one I want to talk about today is “real.” Every autumn, That Nice Boy I Married and I go to a local fundraising banquet. A few years back, a perfect example of the use of the word “real” that I’m talking about came up at this banquet. I was talking to some of the folks at my table, and — if I recall correctly — said no, thanks, I didn’t want any cake, I didn’t eat sugar or flour. I got the usual “Oh, I could never give up sugar!” comments from the folks I was sharing a table with. I replied that I since I could make a great batch of cookies or a cake without sugar or flour, I didn’t really have a problem with giving up the flour-and-sugar-laden kind.


This was when the predictable happened: Somebody said “Oh, I’d just rather have the real thing less often.” Is it unkind of me to mention that the woman who said this was seriously overweight? And a vegetarian?


So far as I can tell, when used this way “real” is defined only as “the version I’m used to.” Yet there was no doubt in my mind, from this woman’s tone and her scowl, that she considered her judgment of my low carb baked goods as “not real” to be a serious criticism. I wonder how she’d feel if, facing a pot of meatless chili, a Garden Burger, or a slice of Tofurky I said “Oh, I’d rather have the real thing?”


Okay, I admit that Splenda is not “real,” if by “real” we mean “naturally occurring.” Of course, a fair number of “natural” sweeteners don’t actually occur in nature, either; the only seriously concentrated sugar I know of that occurs naturally is honey. Table sugar is, of course, a seriously refined food — in chemistry class, my professor used sugar as an example of a highly purified compound. Sure doesn’t occur that way in the “real” world. Maple syrup is concentrated to 40 times the sugar content of the sap that comes out of the tree. Agave nectar is no more “real” than high fructose corn syrup, being made in much the same way — enzymes converting more complex carbs into fructose. And I have recently discovered that my local health food store is carrying “organic” corn syrup. I wonder if that’s real, too?


And xylitol, erythritol, inulin, and fructooliogosaccharides are as “real” as sugar is, again for values of “real’ that mean “occurring in nature.”



How about the rest of the ingredients in my cookies or cakes? Butter and eggs, baking powder or soda, vanilla, chocolate, or spices, all of those are the same as in the “real” variety. The other big swap is for the flour; I usually use nut meal and vanilla whey protein powder. How are these not “real?” I would venture that almond meal is more “real” than white flour, since it’s simply shelled almonds ground up into powder, and hasn’t been either refined or “enriched.” Further, almond meal is arguably part of the evolutionary human diet, since almonds are edible raw, while wheat is toxic eaten raw, and has been so heavily hybridized over the past century or so that it’s dramatically genetically different from the wheat that even our great-grandparents knew. Is it more “real” than my almond meal?


I don’t know why vanilla whey protein wouldn’t be at least as “real” as flour. And certainly both almond meal (or hazelnut meal, for that matter) and vanilla whey protein have more flavor than flour, since white flour has exactly zero flavor.


But apparently my baked goods aren’t “real” because they’re not what the general public is accustomed to. I’m sure the same is true of my hash browns – made of those unreal turnips instead of those ultra-real potatoes – or the shirataki I eat, made of those synthetic konjac roots, instead of the oh-so-real enriched white flour, or perhaps my pureed cauliflower, which obviously must have come out of a lab, instead of mashed potatoes – even instant mashed potatoes.


It gets even odder when you think of processed, packaged stuff. I’m no fan of soda, the sugary or the diet kind, but I confess that I smirk a bit when people scornfully say about diet soda, “Oh, I only drink the real stuff.” Yeah, ‘cause there’s a Coca-Cola spring out there where little woodland elves bottle the “real” thing. I’ve heard people refer to “real” ketchup (as opposed to no-sugar-added ketchup) and “real” barbecue sauce, instead of the stuff I make with no added corn syrup. And I’d bet a fair sum that somewhere out there, there is a person who would tell you that Oreos and Chips Ahoy are “real” cookies, while the ones I make are somehow not “real.”


(Flashing back to that “real” cake I didn’t care to eat, I find it very hard to imagine that it was made from scratch, with no mix and no artificial ingredients, and butter in the frosting instead of margarine or shortening. We’re talking cake for a catered banquet for something like 400 people. And I’m damned certain that the color in the frosting didn’t come from beets and blueberries.)


The use of the word “real” in some ways mirrors, is the flip side, of the common refrain that we should eat “whole foods” – from people who define “whole foods” as boneless, skinless chicken, lean muscle meats, and fat free dairy. It’s subtle code for “I’m right, you’re wrong.”


We here in the World of Low Carb have our own definition of real: meat, eggs, and cheese, nuts and seeds, butter, coconut oil, olive oil, lard and bacon grease. Process low carb product should, for the most part, be kept to a minimum, in preference of “real” food, which in this we’ll define as as “stuff you’d recognize in its raw form.” (Pretty sure that couldn’t be said of a Garden Burger. On the other hand, I have all the ingredients of a Grace Island Cheese Crisp in my kitchen.)


Anyway, the next time someone scornfully dismisses your low carb alternative as not being the “real thing,” reply “Define “real.”“


Or better yet, ignore them.


That’s it for this week! We’ll keep the Low Carb Voices question going: What’s the best low carb lunch box food? Especially interested in ideas for kids, and – given this week’s podcast – ideas that don’t involve any wheat products. If you’ve got an idea to share, or a question, a recipe, an idea for a low carb treat – really, anything to share with the low carb community, call (412) 385-DANA, that’s (412) 385-3262, and let us know!


If you have any friends you think might like the show, please steer ‘em to the show page at Dana’s Low Carb For Life, and if you like it, how about leaving a review at Itunes? We’d love it.


Don’t forget to check out the blog at Hold the toast.com, and join my facebook fan page at Dana Carpender’s Hold the Toast Press – lots of great folks there; it’s a fun ongoing conversation.


And of course, 300 15 Minute Low Carb Recipes is now available at Amazon.com, or order through CarbSmart.com along with your other stuff. If you’ve already got it and you like it, go review it!


That’s it! Remember, till next week, stay low carb for life!



7 Replies to “27: Wheat Belly and The Meaning of Reality”

  1. Wonderful! Found it through Wheat Belly FB page. I shared on FB! The 5% wheat gene info was disturbing!

  2. wow… its really scary to think that wheat can be so dangerious. I am SO glad I found this blog & your Podcast because I was going to buy a bread machine to make my own low carb breads at home using your recipes. I just made a batch yesterday with my friend’s machine, which I borrowed before buying my own, to experiment and it came out very tasty (it was your Heart-y Bread recipe). But! that batch will be my first and the last!!! I am really into health books and medical studies ever since going on reduced carb to now really low carb. Since finding your recipe book, I thought I could at least have some tasty bread every now and then but it will be no more! I also have Hasimoto’s disease and I don’t want to worsen it in anyway. I didn’t miss breads or pasta or rice(although I am Asian decendant) for the last month that I went on ‘striving for 20g carb or less’ quest and I will not miss it in the future knowing this. Thank you for sharing this vital VITAL information. I am going to a bookstore to get a peek at the Wheat Belly. I also appreciate your willingness to alter your recipes in light of this new knowledge.


  3. Loved the “Wheat Belly” book. My family is now wheat/gluten free thanks to you. Appreciate all you do for us. The book was a real eye-opener.

  4. I am reading Wheat Belly right now. I have already made the decision to eliminate wheat and I’m am not even 1/2 way through the book. Alarming, what the food industry is capable of.

  5. I have been gluten free for several years now. I found out accidently I need to avoid gluten when I started a low carb diet. I just felt better and eventually put 2 and 2 together. Now I no longer have acid reflux, carpal tunnel and arthritis. All from grains.

    No offense meant to Dr. Davis, but although I enjoyed his book and recipes, his book is not a good place to start for going gluten free. And I question his true knowledge of grains. For example he lumps chia seed in with other non-gluten grains with some warnings. The truth is chia is a seed oil, not a true grain, and it is entirely suitable for gluten intolerants, whereas grains like oats (even gluten free oats) may not be.

    A book that helped me tremendously is Living Gluten-Free for Dummies by Danna Korn (please get the revised edition). No, it’s not a “low carb” book like Wheat Bellies, but it will give you any information at all you ever wanted to know about gluten free living. I follow a low carb diet, but this book is invaluable to me. I so highly recommend it to anyone who needs to avoid gluten.

    Avoiding gluten changed my health around 100%. One needs to really get educated to know what one is doing. I am sorry to say Wheat Belly did not do that for me although I found it an entertaining read.

    Dana if you truly go gluten free, your health can only improve. I just can’t say enough about the changes in my health.

    Great podcasts and website. Regards, Joyce

  6. p.s. I forgot to add depression to the list of my previous symptoms. I have to chuckle. Just goes to show how much it improved!

  7. Hear, hear! I so agree ! I have been eating wheat free for several months now and love my cauliflower pizza crusts, almond meal and cocoa powder “muffin In a cup” and so may other non-wheat treats that I indulge in without guilt! What a way to live 🙂

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