Wheat gluten has been dogged on so much over the past few years, you would think it was a serial killer rather than a cereal protein. But jokes aside, there's a reason that the weirdly named food component has become such a nutritional pariah. Incidence of celiac disease, an illness that causes an autoimmune reaction to gluten that flattens the little hair-like protrusions in the small intestines and causes bloating, gas, rashes, chronic fatigue, diabetes, diarrhea and early osteoporosis, has risen about four-fold over the last 50 years, and it's not just that people are diagnosing the condition more often, as research shows.
But some contend that the problem with wheat goes beyond celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. In fact, Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist and a self-proclaimed "seeker-of-truth in health," has written a New York Times bestselling book called Wheat Belly, in which he details how food scientists' bastardization of gliadin, a protein and a component of gluten, is to blame for the obesity epidemic, the soaring rates of type II diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancers, and a long list of other health problems that plague modern society.
"The most perverted food on your store shelves is this thing called wheat in its myriad forms: breads, pastas, cookies, crackers. And a corollary of this is the question, why is wheat in everything now?" Davis asked during my recent interview with him. "And it is in every processed food, from Twizzlers to taco seasoning. And I can't prove this, but I believe it's because Big Food figured out 25 years ago that gliadin stimulates appetite. If you're a billion dollar food conglomerate, you conduct food tests... you've got to notice this stimulates appetite. And they kept quiet about it rather than warn anyone, or ask what the hell's going on here. And they put it in everything."
He said the time that the modern, 18-inch, semi-dwarf "designer" wheat plant took over our wheat fields is the same time rates of obesity began to skyrocket. "That's where all the curves of weight gain and calorie intake and diabetes all started - right then, when the new form of gliadin protein was introduced," he said.
Noting that our biology has not changed significantly over the past 50 years, Davis contends that it's the man-engineered changes in the wheat protein - aimed specifically at increasing yields of wheat plants - that have caused our brains and bodies to freak out in response to the grain. And the most deleterious effect, he says, is that wheat's gliadin triggers increased hunger, which causes consumers to crave -- and eat -- an average of 440 more calories per day than they would otherwise.
"Gliadin is not new, but there is a new sequence and structure in the protein that was introduced in the last 50 years," Davis said. "And the evolution is not attributable to current methods of GMO techniques, but rather methods that predate what we know as genetic engineering, which were used to create crude, imprecise, unpredictable, and sometimes worse forms of the original organism."
He likened the process to to modifying genetics in an attempt to create a miniature baboon. "It's not possible to make the size the only change. There will be differences in hair, brain functionality, color, and probably a number of deformities. But for agribusiness, as long as the new wheat seeds produce a high-yield plant, they don't care about the other stuff."
Davis said that gliadin produces a similarly negative effect in all who consume it -- not just in celiacs or those with gluten sensitivities. Once consumed, the protein degrades into opioid polypeptides, small chain amino acid sequences that bind to opiate receptors in the brain, he said. "This doesn't create a euphoric effect as with heroin or morphine. But all opiates stimulate appetite to some degree. With wheat, it causes people to consume four hundred or more excess calories per day."
Groups focused on recovery from compulsive overeating and weight loss often recommend abstaining from flour, among other trigger foods, because they have observed the irrational hunger-inducing effects of the substance. But Dr. Davis' theory would give scientific credence to what these groups have long supposed. "Multiple groups have danced around this issue," Davis said. He named the Atkin's Diet and the South Beach Diet as a few examples. "But it's often like, okay, you got what you wanted, you lost 30 pounds. Now it's time to start introducing those healthy whole grains!" The doctor laughed, adding that he believes all grains have negative effects on human health.
In addition to causing appetite stimulation and associated weight gain, Davis believes that consumption of wheat causes another very attractive health issue: Abnormal bowel leakiness.
"There's good science to back this up, and a lot of it comes from the University of Maryland, Dr. Fasano," says Davis, alluding to Dr. Alessio Fasano, head of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. "Gliadin disables the intestines' normal capacity to block the absorption of things in your intestinal tract. Not everything you eat belongs in your blood stream, and your intestinal tract is normally pretty good at discriminating what should pass from the bloodstream into the intestines and what shouldn't. Well, the gliadin protein unlocks that normal capacity to regulate the passage of foreign substances into your bloodstream."
Davis speculates this wheat-induced leaky gut causes people who consume wheat and thereby the gliadin protein to have higher rates of autoimmune disease like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Hashimoto's thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid gland). He admits that "the science needs to be better sorted out," but he believes Dr. Fasano's research will confirm the connection.
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"We have the pieces all falling into place that a lot of autoimmune disease is due to abnormal bowel leakiness, the first domino being the glyadin protein."
Davis is not an advocate of vegan diets, but he says that it is possible to stay wheat- and grain-free on a healthy plant-based diet. For vegans, he recommends replacing grains with non-GMO vegetables, fruits, soy and other legumes, seeds (like chia and hemp), and nuts.
"This is not about gluten-free, this is not about just carbs," Davis said. "It's about the changes brought onto modern wheat by genetics research. So the conversation with diet has to no longer be about carbs, fats, vitamins, proteins, minerals, animal products or no, but it now has to incorporate knowledge and awareness about what agribusiness has done to our food. We have to be aware of that now too, or else we'll never be fully aware of the impact of nutrition on our bodies."