As a low-carb practitioner, I was eager to read and review the book “Wheat Belly,” written by cardiologist Dr. William R. Davis. Judging by the book’s title, it was clearly written to attract the diet and weight-loss crowd—and it did not disappoint. I received a full explanation of the evils of high-glycemic index carbs such as wheat and the insulin-spiking action that leads to the unsightly accumulation of abdominal “Wheat Belly” fat (the unhealthiest kind of body fat). I also learned how to get rid of it and keep it off.
What I most appreciated about this particular part of the book was the unearthing of the science about exactly why wheat, among all the most commonly eaten carbs, is so unbelievably unhealthy. I should also disclose that I have partnered and worked with Dr. Davis for several years. I am one of the Track Your Plaque “guinea pigs” he acknowledges in the back of the book, so I am writing with firsthand knowledge on the powerful effects of wheat and other carbohydrates on the heart.
Here are just a few of things the book espouses.
What is wheat?
What we call wheat today is a genetic monster, a “Franken-food.” It has 42 hybridized and genetically engineered chromosomes, three times the number of the natural “einkorn” wheat our ancestors ate. Those extra genes produce proteins designed to fight off diseases, bugs, and fungus. They also make the plant immune to pesticides and make wheat grow faster and with higher yields. You and I eat all those proteins with every sandwich and noodle! Oh, and did I mention much of this was done before FDA oversight or approval was required for genetically altered animal and plant products?
Wheat is a super-carbohydrate. The glycemic index of whole-grain bread (72) is higher than table sugar (59). The reason behind this counter-intuitive finding has to do with amylopectins, the structures that comprise the carbohydrate portions of plants. The lower-glycemic index carbs like beans contain amylopectin-C, which are the hardest to digest. Amylopectin-B is found in foods like potatoes and is easier to digest. Wheat, however, is largely Amylopectin-A, the easiest to digest of the amylopectins and is readily converted to glucose, causing blood sugar to rise rapidly.
It has been well-established that the wheat protein gluten triggers the debilitating auto-immune response we know as celiac disease. Dr. Davis offers two new perspectives on the issue of wheat proteins. First, like most diseases, you only test “positive” if some number on a blood test is in the upper or lower end of the “reference range.” For example, my Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (the gold standard for diagnosing blood sugar disorders) came back at 194. The cut-off for a diagnosis of diabetes is 200. We now recognize this as new condition called “pre-diabetes” and a clear warning sign that you are on your way toward becoming a full-fledged diabetic. Ten years ago, my doctor would have simply told me I was still in the normal range. How many “pre-celiacs” are walking around today that have been told, on the basis of a “negative” blood test, that they are fine, while in fact they are suffering the same debilitating effects of full-blown celiac disease but simply at a slower rate or with less severe symptoms? Secondly, what about the effect of all those additional proteins that “Franken-wheat” produces? There are no blood tests or recognized (yet) disease conditions regarding these proteins.
The remainder of the book goes through a literal “head to toe” review of all the ways wheat can potentially damage or degrade your organs, your skin, the aging process, and even brain function.
Wheat and your heart
The obvious wheat-heart health connection is the effect that wheat has on blood sugar and on the development of diabetes. Diabetes and pre-diabetes are major risk factors for developing heart disease, so anything one can do to reduce blood sugar is a no-brainer. But wheat has a more insidious effect on your blood chemistry, one that has recently been implicated in a large of people number (up to 90 percent of Dr. Davis’ patients) with coronary artery disease.
LDL cholesterol is the so-called “bad cholesterol” that causes arterial plaque and ultimately heart attacks (as well as many strokes). Yet, we all need cholesterol to survive. It is used to maintain cell integrity and to manufacture vitamins, hormones, and other elements essential to life. So, how can something so necessary be so bad?
The answer is that in the world of cholesterol, size matters. Large LDL cholesterol particles efficiently do the life-sustaining job they were meant to do while smaller particles do their damage by squeezing into and staying in places they were not meant to go—like the artery walls of the heart, where they form plaques that block blood flow.
Unfortunately, the “Friedewald Lipid Panel” blood test most of us receive is a relic of the 1960s and tells us nothing about particle size. It is quite possible your doctor may have needlessly prescribed a statin to lower your “high” LDL cholesterol (even though there may be little of the dangerous small LDL). Or maybe he told you not to worry because your LDL is already low (but still dangerous if it is mostly small LDL).
The good news is there are new tests that can tell you what you really need to know—how much of your LDL cholesterol is of the small variety. Even better news is that your diet can have a powerful effect on LDL Particle size. Carbohydrates, especially high glycemic index “super-carbohydrates” like wheat, drive a chain reaction of events that result in the over-production of small LDL particles.
I mentioned earlier I was one the “guinea pigs” in Dr. Davis’ low-carb, wheat-free experiments. In fact, I was a perfect test subject because, up until then, I had been on a low-fat “Ornish” diet and was taking three grams of prescription niacin daily to lower my LDL cholesterol and raise my very low HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). Here are my lipids before doing my own wheat-free test.
LDL cholesterol: 84 mg/dL
HDL cholesterol: 55 mg/dL
Triglycerides: 24 mg/dL
Total LDL particles: 598 nmol/L
Small LDL particles: 290 nmol/L
Here are my numbers after six months on the low-carb, no-wheat diet where I added back a significant amount of fat (including a fair amount of saturated fat) to replace the carbs. Note that I also STOPPED talking the prescription niacin during those six months.
LDL cholesterol: 76 mg/dL
HDL cholesterol: 55 mg/dL
Triglycerides: 26 mg/dL
Total LDL particles: 550 nmol/L
Small LDL particles: 92 nmol/L
Just look at those eye-popping numbers. My LDL cholesterol went down while my HDL cholesterol and triglycerides stayed virtually the same. Most importantly, not only did my total number of LDL particles drop, my dangerous small LDL particles dropped a whopping 68 percent! That was all accomplished with nothing but dietary changes that also allowed me to eliminate one of my prescription meds. Not a bad day’s work for doing little more than giving up bread, noodles, and pretzels (although I must admit I still miss the pretzels)!
I may be a bit biased by my association with Dr. Davis, but as you can see by my numbers I am a true believer with firsthand knowledge and experience. If you want a healthier heart (and a potential cure for type 2 diabetes as well as a number of other ailments), I heartily endorse and suggest giving this groundbreaking book a read. Oh, and the wheat-free recipes at the back of the book are fantastic. Who knew you could make so many wheat-free baked goods? You gotta try the carrot cake and muffins!
The book is available for order online.