Wheat Belly and Grain Brain #7
In the fourth chapter, the book continues its habit of constant conjunction of wheat with dangerous things and obesity. Wheat is “like drinking the Kool-Aid at a Jim Jones revival meeting.” Wheat has a hold on people “not unlike the hold heroin has over a desperate addict.” Wheat is the “Haight-Ashbury of foods, unparalleled for its potential to generate entirely unique effects on the brain and nervous system. There is no doubt: For some people, wheat is addictive.”
Addiction is something I treat daily. The biological basis of addiction is pretty well-established. Alcohol is a perfect example of a substance that has the potential to addict some people while others do not suffer from addiction to it. There are many components to the modern understanding of substance addiction, but only two are the key here for establishing whether wheat can even be considered addicting. Luckily, they relate well enough to alcohol.
The first key component to addiction is tolerance. Tolerance means that there is a steady increase in the use of a substance to get the same effect that a smaller dose of that same substance used to give. Most of us have known someone who started drinking a small amount of alcohol and over a period of time ratcheted up their consumption of alcohol dramatically, setting up a cycle of use, toxicity, guilt, abstention, withdrawal and re-use. Everyone knows someone who started smoking one cigarette occasionally and ramped up to smoking a pack of twenty cigarettes a day. This is easy enough to do with alcohol, tobacco or drugs as there is no easily defined limit to how much someone can consume; but we certainly don’t see people who ate wheat products as a child who have ramped up their consumption of those products 10-fold over the course of their adult lives.
Oxygen is a substance that we use regularly, that can be life-threatening in overdose and has severe withdrawal symptoms that begin nearly immediately upon stopping its use; but nobody thinks oxygen is addicting because we never need more of it than we can get unless something has gone wrong with our lungs. So if you want to establish that something is addicting, you first have to establish clearly that that substance is capable of generating tolerance. The book, of course, makes no attempt to establish that wheat causes tolerance.
Instead, once again we get the author’s anecdotal experience with his patients, none of whom are given a name. Nothing is described about the details of any of the patients’ medical circumstances or what they were eating prior to the development of these symptoms. It is possible that certain food substances may in fact be something close to classically addicting, creating dependence or tolerance, but this book doesn’t even scratch the surface in trying to establish that wheat is one of those substances. Nor is there any other literature describing this in the peer-reviewed scientific journals.
The other key component is harm. The addicting substance has to cause short-term or prolonged harm. Again, we see this with alcohol, cigarettes, street drugs, gambling and other addictions. But nobody wakes up in another town with gashes all over their body and an emptied bank account because they ate a bowl of Grape Nuts. The book fails spectacularly to make the absurd case that wheat is dangerous.
The closest that the book gets to establishing the case that wheat is addictive is when it references a study from the June, 1995 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition written by Dr. Drewnowski and colleagues from the University of Michigan. The study looked at whether pre-treatment with naloxone, a drug that blocks opioid receptors that drugs like Percocet and morphine work on would affect eating. Wheat Belly says:
At the University of Michigan, binge-eaters were confined to a room filled with food for one hour. (There’s an idea for a new TV Show: The Biggest Gainer.) Participants consumed 28% less wheat crackers, bread sticks and pretzels with naloxone.
The study says something different. For example, the book accurately quotes the title of the study in the footnotes: “Naloxone, an opiate blocker, reduces consumption of sweet, high-fat foods in obese and lean female binge eaters.” That title certainly doesn’t seem to fit with what the book claims. Looking at the study further, the researchers in the study took females who were binge eaters and females who weren’t. They did not look in any way at wheat consumption. They were testing what foods were stimulating the brains of binge eaters to overeat. For the women who were not binge eaters, the drug had no effect on their consumption of food. They did note that they enjoyed the food they ate less, as did everyone who got the drug. Even obese women who were not binge eaters had no change in their consumption of food. No group ate a significantly greater or lesser amount of crackers, bread sticks or pretzels. The only foods that showed any significant change were high fat foods that were sweet: chocolate chip cookies, chocolate candy bars, chocolate candies and chocolate cookies. Now two of those can be made with wheat, but I think anyone can see that those are very different foods in the sense of binge eating than are pretzels and breadsticks.
This is a perfect example of how the book misleads. The book states something that is not based on any scientific data as if it is an undisputed scientific consensus. Any reader who finished this chapter without doing extensive research into the sources would think that the book had just proven wheat was addictive simply by the constant conjunction of wheat with addicting substances. Shockingly, Wheat Belly even says:
Crackheads and heroin addicts shooting up in dark corners of an inner city drug house have no qualms about ingesting substances that mess with their minds. But how about law-abiding citizens like you and your family? I’ll bet your idea of mind-bending is going for the strong brew rather than the mild stuff at Starbucks, or hoisting one too many Heinekens on the weekend. But ingesting wheat means you have been unwittingly ingesting the most common dietary mind-active food known.
Yet nobody is afraid of someone traveling to a country where wheat is uncommon and suffering huge withdrawal. Nobody worries about driving under the influence of wheat. You don’t have friends who steal your things to get pita bread. The book is simply creating a mindset of association between wheat and dangerous things and hoping that readers won’t check the references to find out what they actually say.