This book, whose author is a preventive cardiologist, puts another big building block in the wall begun by iconoclasts like Dr Robert Atkins and Dr John Yudkin, and thoroughly cemented by science journalist Gary Taubes. Beginning in the late 1960s, Atkins proposed that eating carbohydrates was the main reason for many people's obesity. (Actually, this had been common knowledge since the 1860s if not before - how many of us recall our mothers saying, "If you want to lose weight, avoid starchy foods like bread and potatoes"?). His 1972 book Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution: The No-hunger, Luxurious Weight Loss Plan That Really Works!
urged cutting down on sugars, grain-based foods, and even high-carb fruit and vegetables. Despite arousing immense controversy, Dr Atkins' diet seems to have an impressive track record with tens of thousands of patients reporting weight loss and better health. Coincidentally, 1972 also saw the publication of Dr John Yudkin's blast against sugar, Pure, White and Deadly: The new facts about the sugar you eat as a cause of heart disease, diabetes and other killers in this completely revised and updated edition
. Like Atkins, Yudkin was pooh-poohed and slandered by many who disliked his conclusions. From the 1970s to the present day, medical and government orthodoxy has held that fat - in the form of cholesterol - is the arch-demon of nutrition, and advocated increased consumption of "healthy whole grains". More recently Taubes filled in the picture in his brilliant survey of scientific developments in nutrition and diet, The Diet Delusion
Although their messages have been frantically (and often viciously) resisted by the nutritional "establishment", pioneers like Atkins, Yudkin and Taubes made it clear that most people today (especially in the "West") eat far too much refined carbohydrate and not nearly enough protein, fat, and good old-fashioned vegetables. Nevertheless it seemed more a matter of degree than a point of principle: sure, we ought to eat fewer potato crisps, less white bread, sugar, cakes, puddings and so on. But surely "a little of what you fancy does you good"?
Dr Davis stamps heavily on such notions. Perhaps for the very first time, this book reaches everyone in our civilisation with the message that wheat itself is actually bad for you. Think of that: the staff of life, a word synonymous with food since the Old Testament, stigmatised as a poison! For many years we have noticed ripples of disquiet about wheat: more and more people diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome... but most of us shrugged that off, sympathising with the unfortunate sufferers while blithely assuming that something as pleasant, familiar, and natural as bread couldn't possible hurt us "normal people". Turns out it ain't so. For a start, as Dr Davis convincingly demonstrates, today's "wheat" is NOT the wheat that the Babylonians, Egyptians, ancient Jews and Greeks, Romans, Saxons, Normans, and even our own grandparents ate. The "Green Revolution" of 1943 to the 1970s and later replaced traditional wheat with a stunted, bulging, super-productive dwarf variety (it has to have very short stems to support its massive payload of grain without crumpling). This was achieved by moving around a few genes, and everyone assumed there could be no harmful side effects. But in fact, the genetic changes triggered a shift in the range of proteins our wheat contains, with so far unknown effects on health. Moreover, wheat contains gluten (80% of its relatively small protein complement) which can cause a whole raft of hideous diseases - even in those who don't present with symptoms of celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
Then there is the little matter of glycemic index (GI): two slices of "healthy" wholewheat bread raise blood sugar farther and faster than two tablespoonfuls of sugar. That's true of anything with wheat in it. Thus good ol' wheat turns out to be heavily implicated in the worldwide pandemic of obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. Not even bothering to trample on the long-discredited belief that cholesterol causes obesity, heart disease, and cancer, Dr Davis demonstrates that wheat is a far more likely culprit in all of those conditions. Fans of the gifted and rigorous blogger Denise Minger will be pleased to see that Dr Davis reproduces four graphs from her blog, in which she shows that Dr T. Colin Campbell drew incorrect conclusions from his own data in China Study, The: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health
Another problem with wheat is that it is literally compulsive. Due to exorphins (morphine-like substances similar to the endorphins the body itself produces in response to positive stimuli such as exercise), we are doomed to crave carbs on a two-hourly cycle - which is how long it takes for them to lift our blood sugar to the skies (thus causing insulin resistance) and then dump it in the cellar. Check it for yourself: have a nice feast of wheat-based products, then time how long it takes for you to be ravenously hungry again. Dr Davis claims that those who have kicked the wheat habit can fast, effortlessly, for anything from 18 to 72 hours. They eat because they need to, not because they are addicted to the rewards of wheat.
Obviously a book like this raises important questions of public policy. If wheat should be rejected as unhealthy, what are the world's billions to live on? We exceeded the population level that could be sustained without wheat decades ago. So does that mean the poor must accept obesity, diabetes, and a shorter lifespan as the inevitable price of survival? Even in relatively wealthy Western countries, a diet such as Dr Davis recommends will be far more expensive than most of us are used to. The author acknowledges such ethical questions, but does not attempt to tackle them. His task, to alert us to the harm that wheat can do, has been thoroughly accomplished. It is for others to pursue the implications.