The first chapter of Wheat Belly points out that Americans are fat. We can all agree on this. It’s not debatable. Unfortunately, the book spends a lot of time establishing that there is an epidemic, rather than showing what caused it. Yes, there is an obesity epidemic and yes, it is very bad for people. The question we have is what evidence links this epidemic to wheat consumption?
Instead of explaining this in depth, Wheat Belly uses a lot of misdirection. It hopes you won’t notice that it gives no clear link between obesity and wheat consumption. The first misdirection used is to identify the very small recent uptick in wheat consumption with the obesity epidemic. In reality, wheat consumption peaked in the USA in 1890 at 220 pounds of wheat per person per year. Go back and look at some photos of average people at that time. See if you can find an obesity epidemic. I’ll bet you can’t, because the evidence shows that obesity was quite rare at that time. According to Dr. Caballero from Johns Hopkins University,
Although obesity did not attract the attention of the mass media until recent decades, its prevalence in industrialized countries began to increase progressively early in the last century. By the 1930s, life insurance companies were already using body weight data to determine premiums, having identified an association between excess weight and premature death.
The evidence available to us clearly shows the trend lines for obesity in the US going up right around 1900, just when wheat consumption dropped. There is no significant change happening in the 1970s or 1980s. Yet those are the decades in which the book claims the obesity epidemic started. In fact, the start of the 20th century was the beginning of a huge decline in wheat consumption in the USA, with a drop from over 200 lbs. per person annually down to only around 140 lbs. Yet this is exactly the time when the obesity rates begin to go up. This is a huge problem that the author should have tried to explain, but instead he chose to leave readers in the dark about the issue.
The book absolutely fails to make a convincing case that the cause of the obesity epidemic is eating wheat; in fact, it scrupulously avoids anything like making such a case. It instead relies on the constant conjunction of statements linking wheat with obesity, without ever showing what the actual science says. The actual science shows the exact opposite. The largest studies on diet and nutrition ever published showed that whole grains reduce the incidence of obesity; they are linked to lower rates of heart disease and lower rates of cancers. This evidence is abundantly available, but the book mentions none of it.
Instead of actual evidence, the book relies on anecdotes and personal experience. It reports the results of Dr. Davis’ patients without telling us any details about the patients and diets consumed. The book talks about Dr. Davis’ personal struggles with his weight. He doesn’t give us anything like a comprehensive dietary list, but reading what he ate, it’s not hard to see why he was heavy and diabetic:
… I gorged on waffles and pancakes for breakfast, fettucine Alfredo for lunch, pasta with Italian bread for dinner. Poppy seed muffin or angel food cake for dessert? You bet!
He went on to eat this way for twenty years, drinking “gallons of coffee.” The only time he felt good was when he ate a three egg omelet with cheese. The book suggests throughout that eating a three-egg omelet with cheese is a great way to lose weight and be healthy. But is it?
Eggs and saturated fat like that found in oil and butter are consistently and strongly associated with the development of type II diabetes in many studies. Yet the book is suggesting them as a replacement for a whole-grain breakfast. The book never references the multiple studies that consistently show eggs and other fatty foods as culprits in the development of diabetes. Cheese consumption has been directly linked with obesity. In a study published in the April, 2008 edition of the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Dr. Houston from Wake Forest University showed that in men, cheese consumption was associated with more obesity, more bad cholesterol and higher blood pressure. A study done by Dr. Jenkins, who developed the glycemic index that the book relies on so heavily, in 2012 in Atherosclerosis showed that one egg yolk a day conferred more heart disease risk than ten cigarettes. In the most comprehensive meta-analysis of eggs ever done, published in 2013 by Dr. Li in Atherosclerosis, eggs were associated with a sixty-eight percent increased risk of diabetes.
If you look at global maps of calorie sources, the areas with the lowest obesity rates and the lowest diabetes rates are the places that eat the most calories from complex carbohydrates, and the converse is true as well. When you look at the places with the highest consumption of fat and protein, you also see the highest levels of obesity and diabetes. This alone should make anyone skeptical about the idea that whole grains like wheat cause disease, but it’s even worse than that.
The fact is that eating large amounts of whole grains is associated with less diabetes and lower body weights in many different studies, not one of which the book mentions. It’s not hard to see why someone eating waffles and pancakes covered with butter and made with eggs, noodles made with eggs drenched in a cream sauce made with butter, oily muffins and cakes baked with lots of eggs and topped with butter or frosting and a three egg cheese omelet a few times a week would get overweight and diabetic. Given the author’s stated foods, he was eating almost half a dozen eggs on some days. Not getting this right can be very dangerous to your health. The majority of people in the USA will die of a vascular disease.
The healthiest diets are starchy diets with low levels of fat and low levels of protein. Dr. John McDougall has shown clearly that all large populations of healthy, trim people throughout verifiable human history have obtained the bulk of their calories from starch. If this book leads people to cut out whole grains like wheat from their diet and replace them with cheese and eggs, then even if they have celiac disease or some other documented gluten intolerance, they are harming themselves by following the advice given.