Dr. William Davis, Wheat Belly Author, Talks About Going Grain-Free

William Davis, M.D.
William Davis, M.D., Wheat Belly Author. Photo Courtesy of William Davis, M.D.

This is the second part of my interview with William Davis, M.D., author of Wheat Belly Total Health. In this interview, Dr. Davis discusses his take on the benefits of a grain-free diet for overall health. Click here to read the first part of my interview with Dr. Davis, in which he discusses the role that he believes grains play in IBS.

Dr. Davis is a cardiologist who has written extensively about wheat-free living.

His books include

  • Wheat Belly Total Health
  • Wheat Belly
  • Wheat Belly 30-Minute (or Less!) Cookbook.

He also hosts the blog wheatbellyblog.com.

Q. How would you respond to the critics of grain-free diets who cite the health benefits from whole grains in terms of fiber, heart health, and blood sugar stabilization?

"These are complete fictions. In fact, in many instances the opposite is true: grains, even whole, disrupt bowel health despite the presence of fiber, contribute to causing heart disease, and send blood sugar sky-high. Let's take each issue, one by one. First of all, the protein, gliadin, from wheat (and related proteins from rye, barley, corn, and perhaps oats) cannot be fully digested by the human gastrointestinal tract, but are broken down into small protein pieces, or peptides. These peptides possess opiate-like properties. In the human brain, they cause mind "fog," reduce the ability to concentrate, and exert peculiar effects on the susceptible, such as depression in people prone to depression, or behavioral outbursts in kids with ADHD or autistic spectrum disorder.

But these same opiates also slow intestinal function, just as prescription opiate drugs like morphine and Oxycontin do. This effect can be partly counteracted by increasing cellulose fiber-essentially wood fiber intake through such things as high-fiber breakfast cereals or bran muffins. This provides the appearance of regularity and healthy bowel movements for some, while others struggle with constipation, sometimes to severe degrees, due to the dominant effect of gliadin-derived opiates.

Some of the worst constipation you will ever see, called obstipation, that makes people miserable because they can only move their bowels every several weeks and causes habitual reliance on laxatives, can be relieved within days of banishing all wheat and grains from the diet. There are indeed healthy fibers required for bowel health, but not the cellulose fibers of grains. These are the prebiotic fibers discussed above that nourish bowel flora that come from vegetables, small servings of legumes such as chickpeas, and from some unusual sources that mimic traditional sources that are somewhat difficult to come by, therefore provided by the strategies I provide in the discussions cited above in my book and blog.

A common misconception about grains comes from this flawed logic: If white flour products are replaced with whole grains, there is a reduction in heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, and weight gain. What such studies do not show is that whole grains are necessary for heart health or other aspects of health, as these studies do not compare whole grain consumption with no grain consumption. But here is how wheat and grains substantially increase heart disease risk: The most common cause for coronary heart disease that leads to heart attacks is an excess of small LDL particles (not included in a standard cholesterol panel, but requiring more advanced analyses), often hinted at in a standard cholesterol panel as lower HDL cholesterol values and higher triglyceride values.

By a long stretch, an excess of small LDL particles is the most common and powerful cause for heart disease. What foods cause an excess of small LDL particles? Only three groups of foods: grains, sugars, and an excess of carbohydrates from starchy legumes or excessive fruit intake--that's it. It has nothing to do with fat intake or saturated fat intake. Remove grains and you will observe dramatic reductions in small LDL particles, e.g., 1800 nmol/L down to zero. This is how you remove/reduce heart disease risk, not by cutting fat, not by taking cholesterol drugs, not by following a "balanced diet"-these are all marketing messages or crude misinterpretations of the science, not a path to genuine and powerful heart health.

The last issue--that grains are necessary for healthy blood sugars--is laughable. Look at any table of glycemic index (in health textbooks, online listings, etc.) and you will see that the foods with the highest glycemic index values are all grains. Glycemic index (and its related concept, glycemic load) describe how high blood sugar goes over the 90 minutes after consuming a food. You will see that many grain-based foods, even whole grain bread, raise blood sugar higher than nearly all other foods, including table sugar. A diet rich in "healthy whole grains" is therefore guaranteed to result in problems with blood sugar over time that, in turn, leads to resistance to insulin, pre-diabetes, and type 2 diabetes. You can test your exposure to high blood sugars from grains by having your hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) run, or even measuring fingerstick blood sugars before a meal and 30-60 minutes later when the blood sugar peak occurs. You will typically see HbA1c values in the pre-diabetic range (e.g., 5.7% and higher) or 30-60 minute after-meal blood sugars that are very high, e.g., 150-180 mg/dl, even in non-diabetic people. Compare this to a blood sugar after eating 3 eggs or after eating a pork chop: 90-100 mg/dl."

Q. Ironically, I started reading your book while sitting in the ambulatory surgical waiting room at a premier heart hospital. I was surrounded by people who were hunched over waiting to have pacemakers put in or cataracts taken out. How do you personally deal with the fact that wherever you go you are surrounded by people who are, in your opinion, compromising their health by eating grains?

"It compels me to continue doing what I am doing and educate people about how far wrong conventional dietary advice has gone. I am reminded over and over about the power of this lifestyle in my daily encounters with people who have reversed rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, seborrhea, eczema, fatty liver, hypertension, diabetes and pre-diabetes, depression, anxiety, asthma, migraine headaches, some forms of seizure, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and on and on, not to mention enjoy substantial weight loss. These are not small matters: these are life-changing transformations that free people from disability, chronic pain, prescription medications, and medical procedures. The reward is to witness so many people turn their lives around, even after decades of struggle.

But it also makes an important point: sometimes the biggest obstacle to health are the doctors and the healthcare system, trapped in a way of thinking that blames the patient, bad luck, or flawed genetics for so many health problems, when the real culprit is in your kitchen cupboard, condoned by all "official" providers of dietary advice, while they continue to believe that drugs and procedures are the only solutions to health."

Q. Any thoughts as to how people can stay disciplined to remain grain-free in light of such strong cultural pressure?

"Once you accomplish this change in lifestyle and endure the first week of opiate withdrawal syndrome-yes, there is a 5-day period of nausea, headache, fatigue, and depression when you stop taking in the gliadin-derived opiates-any re-exposure, whether intentional or inadvertent, causes most of us to get sick. Most commonly, people experience bloating, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea. Many also experience joint pain, mind "fog," and emotional effects such as anger or anxiety with any wheat/grain re-exposure. If you had a problem previously relieved by wheat- and grain- elimination, such as eczema or migraine headaches, you will re-experience these issues. If you had an autoimmune condition, such as the hand disfigurement and pain of rheumatoid arthritis, or a neurological condition, such as the disability and loss of bladder control from cerebellar ataxia (in which the cerebellum of the brain is damaged), reversed with wheat- and grain-elimination, your disease can return and persist for months after wheat/grain re-exposure. In other words, re-exposures are simply not worth it.

You will also, more than likely, look in the mirror and see changes that cannot be explained by weight loss alone: you will lose facial edema, you will lose the bags around the eyes, your eyes will look larger, chin contours will be sharper, not to mention that you will have more energy, be more flexible, have less or no joint pain and stiffness. In short, you will look and feel better. Understanding just how profound the health changes you've experienced are, while watching the people around you struggle, is reminder enough for most people following this lifestyle.

By the way, anyone undertaking wheat/grain elimination who desires to soften the misery of the first week's withdrawal process can find several strategies discussed in detail in Wheat Belly Total Health, as well as the new Wheat Belly 10-Day Grain Detox to be released in November, 2015."

Click here to access the first part of my interview with Dr. Davis, in which he discusses his views on the relationship between grains and IBS.