Americans love food demons, and our newest one is wheat. The top-selling diet book of the moment is Wheat Belly, in which a Wisconsin-based cardiologist blames the humble grain for everything from dandruff to dementia. The author, Dr. William Davis, advises to never let the stuff cross your mouth; the inclusion of healthy whole grains at the top of the USDA’s food pyramid is “among the biggest health blunders ever made in the history of nutritional advice,” he writes. He also compares wheat to Muammar Gaddafi and heroin. Wheat Belly and its requisite upsell Wheat Belly Cookbook have sold some 300,000 copies.
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Americans have been down on carbs since the Atkins diet craze over a decade ago. More recently, there’s been a rise in animosity toward gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Some people with a severe wheat allergy or celiac disease are genuinely gluten-intolerant, but there have been questions as to whether the spike in sales of gluten-free food is more a fad than a reflection of a genuine health concern.
Granted, wheat shows up in all sorts of places it shouldn’t, through additives such as malt, modified food starch and dextrin. But as with almost every other kind of food category, there is good wheat and bad wheat. A slice of 100% whole wheat or other whole-grain bread contains necessary fiber, B vitamins and protein. On the other hand, a pretzel is mostly refined flour and salt with little nutritional value. We don’t all need a gluten intolerance to understand this.
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According to Davis’ patients, following the wheat-belly diet has helped them lose weight, cure Type 2 diabetes and feel better overall. Great! However, eliminating any huge category of food from one’s diet, whether it’s sugar, meat or alcohol, will usually get similar results. But it’s not a sustainable way of eating, and most people gain back the weight. Successful diets follow the same old advice: Eat less overall and move more. That hasn’t changed.
Davis writes, “You don’t have to wait for a large-scale clinical trial to know whether this is relevant to your health situation.” That does not boost confidence in Davis’ science; it just reassures us that we shouldn’t wait for science to buy the cookbook. Not that you need anything more than common sense to guide what you put into your mouth. As Michael Pollan wrote in Food Rules, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Wheat is a plant, and that book was a best seller too.