by Ryan Atkins
(Originally published in issue #85 of the Performance Menu Magazine)
Although physically active from an early age, I never really started to address the diet side of health, fitness and performance until late in my college career. I had the good fortune of meeting Hal Lupinek, probably one of the best coaches I’ll ever have the pleasure of working with. He taught me to recognize the value of mult-joint, large muscle movements like the squat, deadlift, press, pull-ups, dips, etc. Hal also was the first to introduce me to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as he wanted to hone some of the basic skills he had picked up from a handful of private sessions he had taken with Rickson Gracie (keep in mind this was back in the late 90s, shortly after the first UFC, when BJJ was FAR from mainstream). Another idea that Hal introduced me too (again, far from mainstream at the time) was the concept of a protein and fat emphasized diet. Although not entirely new (The Atkins Diet has been around since the 70s, if I remember correctly), loading up on meat and not being afraid of fats wasn’t a common message back in the 90s, at least as I recall. Hal didn’t recommend any books by Dr. Atkins. Instead, he handed me a copy of Jay Robb’s The Fat Burning Diet. I still have a copy of it in my office as part of my fitness/training library that I encourage my staff and clients to borrow from when they are willing and able to pursue some reading endeavors.
Development of my dietary knowledge would remain relatively stagnant for a couple of years, until late in 2003 when I found the CrossFit main site which sparked my interest in dietary information. I was also exposed to some other sources of dietary expertise that had varying stances on carbs/wheat such as; Barry Sear’s The Zone (go ahead and eat any type, but make sure and measure them precisely at every meal and always keep the proper ratios), Rob Faigin’s Natural Hormonal Enhancement (go ahead and eat them, but only do so every 3-4 days or so and then chow them down – he didn’t mention anything about food hangovers, I don’t think), and, of course, there was Robb Wolf (and eventually his Paleo Diet Solution – carbs are OK, as long as they’re not grains, legumes or dairy). It was through his podcast (episode 95) that I was originally exposed to Dr. William Davis, author of the now New York bestseller WheatBelly.
Dr. Davis impresses in many ways. He is very well-spoken and his ability to express his ideas clearly and concisely helped to make for what I consider to be one of the most informative podcasts I had listened to in a long time. One of the compelling facts was ,that, like some other respected experts, Dr. Davis came to his conclusions after first following himself the very diet that conventional authorities recommended. He adopted a vegetarian approach, consumed good doses of ‘healthy’ whole grains and ran on a regular basis. Over the course of time he would eventually become diagnosed with diabetes for his adherence to traditional thinking. As a recovering vegetarian looking to avoid high blood sugar levels, he decided to take wheat out of his diet. He attributes this choice as the causative factor for his diabetes going into complete remission. When he started implementing this dietary advice into his cardiology practice he not only noticed that his patients stayed off of the operating table, but that they also witnessed a host of other positive benefits to boot. More on this later.
If you followed the works of people like Art DeVany, Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain and/or Mark Sisson, a lot of what Dr. Davis covers regarding the problems with wheat consumption might not be revolutionary material but, for me at least, it helped to crystallize some main points firmly in my mind. And his message is extremely simple. Take out one thing in the diet and you’ll get HUGE benefits. The doctor himself admits that wheat elimination might not be the only dietary change people have to make to completely optimize health, but does point out that it’s probably the single most important first step in the right direction. And, from what I’ve seen at least, he makes a great point. We currently see paleo (or paleo-like) advocates debate back and forth about the merits of such things as dairy, legumes and other neolithic food items. What I’ve yet to see is for a credible source in the community question the decision to remove grains from the diet. On a side note, one could very effectively argue that the removal of high fructose corn syrup from the diet might have just as profound implications as the removal of wheat, but, as the doctor emphasizes throughout his book, governmental authorities and medical experts advocate good size portions of whole grain wheat products as the basis of a food pyramid or as nearly a quarter of the food plate. HFCS consumption isn’t nearly as endorsed (although it’s natural, made from real corn and fine in moderation – or so I’m told).
One of the issues that Dr. Davis brings up in his book that I feel is unique to his work is how wheat has changed in recent decades from the wheat of our ancestors. Dr. Davis details in the first part of the book how pressures to increase yield, provide for pest resistant qualities and other factors have significantly affected the genetic structure of wheat. He points out that farmers are allowed to experiment with making changes to the plant WITHOUT having to see if these changes would have any deleterious effects if the wheat is consumed by humans or animals. He also argues that the recent, huge increases in the frequency of certain conditions, not to mention something as blatant as the obesity rate can be highly correlated with this modification of the wheat plant. This fact combined with the substantial part it now plays in the standard American diet (20% of all calories consumed is the figure quoted) explains how wheat is not the same plant it was 50 or 100 years ago and how its adverse affects have been magnified. If you’re a history buff and like a good amount of detail when it comes to this stuff then you’ll like the first part of Wheatbelly.
In addition, he does a great job bringing to the table and emphasizing some aspects that may not have received due attention/emphasis in previous material presented by other experts I’ve followed. Since I am neither a biochemist nor a doctor, and some of this material has been covered before for readers of the Performance Menu (see the Damn Dirty Grains article written by Robb Wolf in the March 2007 issue), I’m going to bullet point some of the issues with wheat consumption. Although they aren’t presented exactly in the same format as the book, this was the take away, so to speak, that I had immediately after putting the book down. Dr. Davis breaks out his chapters based on some of the major ailments in society and how wheat plays a part in almost all of them: food addiction, obesity, celiac disease, diabetes, premature aging, heart disease, brain dysfunction and skin disorders all have their own chapters. If you want to get real geeked out on some of this material I urge you to check out the book. Anyway, some problems with wheat as I’ve interpreted them, in a nutshell:
Insulin spike – Dr. Davis is quick to point out that one of the main issues with wheat is it’s high ranking on the glycemic index. It’s higher than both table sugar and white bread. For those of you just climbing our from under a proverbial rock when it comes to dietary basics, consistent rises in insulin levels contribute towards both fat storage and towards eventual metabolic derangement and the host of diseases/conditions associated with it. Although seasonal bursts of and properly timed insulin spikes can be beneficial to health and performance, the typical habits of most Americans is to consistently consume enough carbohydrates (often processed, wheat-based, and/or high-fructose corn syrup containing sources) to dramatically spike insulin levels throughout the day and well into the night. Not good. Say hello to per-diabetic and diabetic conditions to go along with the obesity issue.
Gut irritant – Vegetarians and other advocates of wheat are quick to point out that wheat contains protein. What they often fail to mention is that the type of protein (an unfriendly form of lectin) is hardly conducive to digestion and use by the human body. In addition, the effects it has on the lining of the small intestine is anything but benign. Deterioration of this lining allows substances into the bloodstream that are not fully processed. Not readily recognizable as something usable, the body produces antibodies to fight what it perceives as an intruder. The problem with this is that the ‘intruders’ sometimes resemble, to a great degree, substances that our body produces itself. Say hello to the beginnings of autoimmune disorders. This ‘leaky gut’ syndrome wasn’t a widely recognized phenomena until the past few years, but progress is being made. It was recently the subject of a recent piece in the New York Times. The fact that wheat elevates insulin in a way that promotes fat storage near the abdominal region (visceral fat) and causes the aforementioned gut irritation/immune system activation contributes to a third issue…..
Inflammation – One of the first and few supplements that I often recommend to new people coming to my gym is fish oil. A primary purpose of proscribing it’s use is to reduce excess levels of inflammation in the body. The elevated inflammation caused by repeated insulin spikes and visceral fat storage not only serves as a causitive factor for skin issues, joint issues and other maladies, but plays a key role in perpetuating/exacerbating general metabolic derangement.
Addictiveness – besides the lectin protein, wheat contains another protein called gliadin. This wonderful little substance once digested forms a chemical that will bind to the same receptor sites used in the brain for opiates. In other words, gliadin is addictive. Because of this, consumption of wheat serves not to satiate hunger, but rather spurs it on. Combined with the effects on insulin, this trait bodes poorly for those looking to cut calories and/or lose weight, and the removal of wheat from the diet oftentimes manifests itself as a reduction in appetite and subsequent weight loss.
Anti-nutrient/nutrient inhibitor – not unlike the protein issue, many of the vitamins and minerals contained within wheat aren’t readily absorbed by the body. To make matters worse, the quantities of those substances aren’t horribly impressive, especially when compared with those found in vegetables and fruits. Perhaps the greatest issue in this category is the fact that wheat contains phytic acid, which can actually draw calcium, magnesium and other vital micronutrients out of the body – not good news for those with bone density issues.
Shortly after hearing Dr. Davis talk on the podcast, I saw that his work had begun to pop up pretty regularly on the internet. Imagine my surprise when I found out that he lived in the Milwaukee area and that his practice was a scant 20 minutes from our training facility. Within in the past year, for those of you unaware, I’ve been running my fitness sessions out of a local private high school. We combined our gear. I train their high school athletes in exchange for rent-free facility use for my clients. One of the benefits – a large auditorium that can hold hundreds of people. Within a day’s time of finding out where the doctor resided I was on the phone with his office which is how the idea for our recent presentation with Dr. Davis sharing key points from his recent bestselling book, WheatBelly came to pass. The main goal and focus of his presentation was to educate everyone and convey the importance of his message. Graciously, Dr. Davis waived his normal speaking fee with the suggestion that all the profits made from the seminar be donated to the high school’s strength and conditioning program. Making it free for high school students to attend and charging a nominal fee for other attendees made it feasible for anyone wanting this information to attend and allowed our gym to raise over $500 for the school’s athletic fund. It was this action and others that convinced me wholeheartedly that Dr. Davis’s primary concern is about getting the word out and improving people’s health.
In short, this book would make a great addition to your library if you the kind of person that enjoys a good amount of history along with your science. It’s a worthy buy if you are the type of person that needs to learn more about or cement the negative consequences that wheat can have once it has found a place in a person’s diet. It’s also a good buy if you need to focus your efforts on having clients make that ONE change that can have a host of positive effects. This simple, concise recommendation will give those who follow your advice so many benefits that fine tuning it further, if needed will be a very easy matter. In other words, this book could make a great launching point for a person’s much needed dietary transformation.