Wheat Belly Book Review

“Wheat Belly” (2011) by William Davis, MD is the first of a triumvirate of books that I have read or am reading that take a critical look at the food we eat. The other two books are “Grain Brain” and “Salt, Sugar and Fat”. In these books associations are drawn between our modern diet and modern maladies. They capture the essence of the clash between the advance of technology and the evolutionary legacies of our biology.

Grains and the gluten within them are major players in two of these books. It is put forward in “Wheat Belly” that wheat is not only a problem for people with celiac disease but a scourge underlying many of the metabolic diseases that have reached pandemic proportions in Western countries and increasingly in the rest of the world. Diabetes, Heart disease, Metabolic syndrome, Crohn’s disease and Arthritis are some of the maladies that are attributed to the changes in quality and quantity of gluten in our diet. It does not matter whether you eat whole wheat or processed wheat the concerns raised in “Wheat Belly” are pertinent to both. The concerns about increased appetite and effects on metabolism and cognition are intrinsic to modern wheat itself and do not vary with method of cultivation.

Wheat Belly takes us through the evolutionary history of wheat from an ancient grain to our present day marvel of modern agriculture. Selection by man has become much more invasive over time and culminated in the hybridization efforts undertaken by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico which was focused on increasing yields. Norman Borlaug has been lauded as a driving force leading these efforts being called the “Father of the Green Revolution” and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The dwarf wheat strains derived through his efforts are now predominant in agriculture and are estimated to comprise 99% of wheat cultivated worldwide. Praise for Dr. Borlaug is well deserved for achieving the goals of increasing yields substantially and converting grain shortages into surpluses. However over time the unintended consequences of his efforts have emerged.

A tangent on GMOs.

It is interesting to contrast the perspective of the 1960s and hybridization of plant strains with broad manipulation of genomes through hybridization with today’s debate regarding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) which often only possess a single modified gene. My view is that the whole discussion of GMO’s is muddled with many babies being thrown out with the bath water while valid concerns are overlooked.

One very legitimate GMO concern is the impact of the high concentrations of pesticides used for GM crops engineered for resistance (Yes, I mean you Glyphosate/Roundup/Monsanto). The argument for safety of glyphosate is that the shikimate pathway is not present in humans and animal cells which is a legitimate point. HOWEVER, as an organism we are walking ecosystem comprised of many bacterial and fungal commensal organisms which are sensitive to these compounds (BTW 90% of the cells in our bodies are not human cells). The emerging study of this human microbial ecology called the microbiome and the substantial impact of the microbiome on our health and behavior is a completely legitimate reason to be concerned about the unintended health consequences of  herbicides and pesticides in our food.

Unintended consequences of Modern Wheat

Blood sugar spikes due to efficiency of digestion of wheat carbohydrates. Wheat actually spikes blood glucose levels more than table sugar. Glucose spikes are the drivers of fat accumulation (thus “Wheat Belly”), insulin resistance and Diabetes.

Modification of gluten composition. Majority of protein composition of wheat are gluten family proteins. Modern wheat has a higher protein content which makes the texture optimal for baking. These properties are mainly due to quantitative and qualitative changes in gluten proteins. The most obvious clinical condition related to glutens is celiac disease. “Wheat Belly” puts forward the hypothesis that celiac disease is the tip of the iceberg in wheat related pathology.

Wheat effects on the mind. Wheat consumption as an addiction and even a hypothesis that wheat consumption worsen symptoms of schizophrenia and autism.

Increased intestinal permeability. Gliadin can disrupt the integrity of the intestine leading to immune sensitization to foods as well as autoimmune disease.

The Bottom Line

“Wheat Belly” is a well written book that unlocks the Red Pill for modern wheat and the impact of its consumption. The focus is on the appetite stimulating and addictive properties of wheat and their impact on weight and health. It is a great starting point especially for people who exercise regularly but still struggle with maintaining an optimal body composition. In my opinion wheat is a significant aspect of the problem along with excess carbohydrates in general. The massive low-fat dietary experiment has clearly failed. It is definitely time to reexamine the premises that have so obviously led us in the wrong direction.

It is of interest to everyone to critically examine the connection of increasingly pressing health issues driven by our food. The choices we make impact us as individuals but also reverberate beyond due to the impact on the limited resources of the health care system. To state that the trends in obesity are alarming is an absurd understatement. I applaud Dr. Davis and this attempt to mitigate this crisis. I strongly recommend that you view the documentary “Cereal Killers” (http://www.cerealkillersmovie.com/) as a companion to “Wheat Belly”.

Cancer as a primeval survival program.

In my encounters with cancer biology as a researcher I have always had a nagging feeling that our focus has been somewhat off target. Cancer cells are evolution in action, which is why it is such a difficult disease to treat. There is a great degree of variation within and between tumors. Cancer cells are replication machines that rapidly adapt to their environment. Cancer is on my mind even more than usual because over the past few years friends and relatives have been battling this disease.

A recent paper (See reference below) probes the deep evolutionary origins of the survival program employed by cancer cells. It is a compelling idea and this paper surveys the prior work and extends it. This view characterizes cancer as not only a new species but as a separate kingdom than the ancestor/host organism since it has moved from being part of a multicellular organism to being a parasite that operates at a single cell level.

This characterization rings true in the description of cancer cells as a single celled organism adapted to Pre-Cambrian conditions and pursuing a replication strategy of “any-cost cellular survivalism.”  This perspective is consistent with the capacity of cancer cells to survive and even thrive in conditions of hypoxia (low oxygen). This has many implications for the treatment of cancer because the primary therapeutic strategies like radiation and chemotherapy resemble the harsh environmental threats faced by our ancient ancestors when this survival program arose.  So it is no wonder that many cancers remain viable after treatment and the surviving lineages often become even more robust after such challenges.

In the original context this survival program could provide an escape hatch or lifeboat for a single cell from the constraints of being part of a multicellular organism. Basically the cell adopts an “every cell for itself” mentality when the going gets tough as a strategy to insure cellular survival. As multicellular organisms further evolved the control mechanisms to inhibit the defection of cells became stronger but not insurmountable.  In the ancient aquatic environment it was possible for the survivalist cell to make a go of it on its own. However the current endgame of cancer is the death of the host it is overrun by unchecked proliferation of the cancer cells. With some notable exceptions being the rare cases of cancers becoming a transmissible disease as is the case for a facial cancer in Tasmanian devils or being selected as a standard laboratory strain like HeLa cells (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrietta_Lacks).

In order to implement this strategy as a heuristic replicator the cancer cell jettisons regulatory programs required for good citizenship in a multicellular organism. Rapid mutation rates and genomic instability allow the cancer cell lineage to quickly explore configurations for optimal survival and replication as a parasite.

The Implications

This view of the cancer cell as an artefact of evolutionary history is both encouraging and discouraging. This perspective is consistent with the limited success that we have achieved in decades long “War on Cancer”. Our current paradigm to challenge cancer cells with harsh regimens also wreaks havoc with the rest of our body. However it is heartening that there are aspects of this survival program that may expose vulnerabilities of cancer which could be exploited to derail the survival program. For example, low oxygen levels appear to drive more aggressive tumor behaviors including metastasis. A focus on increasing oxygen levels in the core of tumors is a promising avenue for further research.


Bioessays 34:72-82 (Mark Vincent, 2011).