I finished the book Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis earlier this week, and I recommend it! But before I summarize what the parts I found the most compelling, let me give you a little background about how I found myself reading in the first place …
We introduced oat cereal to our oldest son shortly after rice cereal (around 5-6 months), and quickly figured out that the resulting skin rash and prolific vomiting warranted serious medical attention. In working with a childhood allergy specialist at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP), we learned that he had protein-induced enterocolitis, which is an intestinal auto-immune response to certain proteins. In his case it was oats and barley, so we eliminated those items from his diet by essentially going gluten-free until he outgrew the condition. I’ve written extensively about this on our family blog, and would be happy to share more with other parents going through the same thing – just contact me using the form below.
As I mentioned in a blog post called Neurotypical last year, my oldest was also diagnosed on the autism spectrum several years ago. Once the shock subsided we’ve been committed to doing everything in our power to help him be his best self. We’ve been lucky to have access to amazing state-sponsored support in Pennsylvania and Illinois, but I always wonder if there is more I could do. Perhaps due to the centrality of food in my life (my mom is French and taught cooking for many years), plus everything we went through with our son’s diet at a young age, I’ve been reading extensively on the relationship between behavior and diet (see Learn More, below). I came across a groundswell of literature – from families and scientists alike – that advocates a gluten- and casein-free diet for kids on the spectrum.
Right around the holidays last year, we got numerous reports of our son’s bad behavior at school. Perhaps most seriously, he had hit a few kids on the bus, and we were asked to find alternative transportation for him. Our sweet, gentle little boy, a bully? It just seemed so out of character! But we learned that he found the noise on the bus really overwhelming, and that was his way of acting out. Getting an email from your child’s principal when he’s still in kindergarten is quite a wake-up call, let me tell you!
Since we had two weeks at home around Christmas, we decided to take the plunge. In the past weeks we have seen subtle but remarkable differences – definitely enough to keep at it. He plays more readily with his younger brother and is less likely to have an aggressive response if he doesn’t get his way. He is making better eye contact, appears more calm and focused, and is coming home with amazing progress in school (and a very good first report card). But it’s not just us … his teachers, too, have remarked that his behavior is different, in particular his interest and willingness to engage in play with his classmates. So challenging as it can be at times, there is no question we’ll persevere.
Of course, everyone in the house is affected by his dietary changes (we don’t cook four separate dinners, after all!). So I’ve been close to gluten-free for a few weeks too. The big dark circles that I get (which I also get from eating dairy) have all but disappeared. Based on what I’ve read I hope that it will help with cyclical fatigue and migraines, but it’s way too early to tell yet. At first I dreamed about bread and pastries (croissants!) or baking, and then I shopped obsessively for gluten-free alternatives. But as I’ve gotten used to it I feel better. And perhaps because of that intense and sort of additive response, I’m even more committed than ever to sticking with it both for my son and for myself.
I’ve continued to read to learn more about wheat allergies, gluten intolerance, leaky gut, and more. There are two books that I would highly recommend for individuals in similar circumstances. The first is The Kid-Friendly ADHD & Autism Cookbook (pictured above), and the other one – for me at least – is a relatively new book called Wheat Belly. The remainder of this post is focused on the later book by Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist.
Here are the a few of the most interesting things I learned:
Between 1940 and 1980 (after World War II and before there was testing for the genetic modification of foods), the Rockefeller Foundation funded research with the Mexican department of agriculture to hybridize wheat. They chose Mexico because could grow two crops a year and quickly arrive at the desired outcomes. The admirable goal was to feed the world’s starving after the war. These efforts created a crop that was more hearty, easier to harvest, had a bigger yield, and made fluffier bread (did you know that it costs manufacturers about .05 to make a 3.99 box of cereal?!). In other words, practical for farmers and terrifically profitable for food manufacturers. One of the readers on Dr. Davis’ blog commented that in a one hour span of watching television, she counted more than forty commercials about wheat products. And in the book he talks about the explosive growth of companies like Kraft, whose success has been fueled by those foods.
The kicker (for me anyways) is that the genetic modifications were really significant and never tested for human safety. Yet wheat with that genetic makeup comprises the vast majority of what we consume today. The grain that most closely approximates the original genetic composition of wheat (einkorn) is still available in some places (including the Middle East and the South of France), and it actually doesn’t create the same sort of allergic or autoimmune response in most cases – crazy, huh?
I am not rabidly opposed to genetically modified foods (GMOs), though I will admit it creeps me out a little bit. And I have felt (since dealing with the severe allergies of my oldest son at the age of five months) that there has to be a connection between the explosion of childhood allergies and celiac disease and what we’re doing to our food. I remember in one of his pre-school classrooms more than 50% of the kids were allergic to something. There are countries in Europe (like Austria for example) that don’t permit GMOs. You just don’t hear that sort of visceral parental panic about peanuts – or God forbid blueberries – ending up in a pre-school classroom. You buy bread and it grows mold or gets stale in a few days – as it should. It just doesn’t have an infinite shelf life like bread in the US does. And it doesn’t cause you to gain weight in the same way. Anyways, the view from my soapbox is distracting, so I digress … where was I?!
All the changes to wheat from the 1940s to 1980s was actually just the result of fast hybridization – which farmers have been doing forever. It wasn’t GMOs as done today (which may be more radical but at least regulated). Maybe it’s something about the big business involvement in that (unsupervised!) in those early changes which gives me the willies. That and the lack of testing for human safety – that’s nuts. As an anthropologist I have to prove that I’m protecting my human subjects, but the food industry didn’t?
Here’s the other thing: wheat as it exists today is the only food which triggers a response in the central nervous system. Specifically, “digestion yields morphine-like compounds that bind to the brain’s opiate receptors [this] induces a form of reward, a mild euphoria.” Dr. Davis quotes one of his patients saying “bread is my crack – I can’t give it up!” In some 30% of cases, withdrawal can be severe and require medical support or even intervention. In case that isn’t convincing enough, there is an opiate-blocking drug (used to bring heroin addicts off a high!) called naloxone. When given to study participants, they ate ~400 fewer calories a day due to lack of cravings.
Thea author goes on to say that the food pyramid in the 1980s (which encouraged more ‘healthy whole grains’) directly correlates to the explosion of weight in America. And because it is in so many things (as an ingredient or an additive), he provides convincing data that pervasive consumption of gluten – and not other processed sugars like soda – are the reason for our obesity epidemic.
Dr. Davis devotes a chapter each to many of the most serious and pervasive health issues in America today, including obesity, celiac disease, diabetes, aging, brain / neurological disorders (including autism and schizophrenia), and the skin. Although the chapters were dense I found them to be pretty accessible and very thought-provoking. In particular, he shares the insights of a woman who has re-analyzed the thirty years of data from The China Study. Her startling conclusion was that his biased analysis (focused on a plant-based diet and reduction of animal protein) totally misses the high correlation between wheat consumption and various diseases, as shown in this graph at right.
I’m not one for fads or fad diets; the only thing like that I’ve done in my life was very gradual weight loss on Weight Watchers. I felt (and still do) that was a significant lifestyle change, not a diet – which is why it works. But by the time I got to the final chapter (13), I was pretty much hooked and was trying to figure out if I was ready to give it a try. What he describes makes good sense to me. In the very simplest terms, the high-glycemic carbohydrates that we ingest cause insulin spikes that wreak havoc on our health and create a cyclical desire for more of the same. The only way to break the cycle is to significantly reduce carbohydrate intake – most especially wheat and other glutenous (?) grains, but also limiting the amount of fruit and (obviously) processed sugars you ingest. The resulting caloric gap should be replaced by vegetables, protein, and healthy fats, e.g. avocado, nuts, etc. This allows the body to return to it’s natural metabolic state, which results in gradual weight loss and ultimately improved health.
Dr. Davis goes on to say that it will not serve to replace wheat, barley, rye, and others with gluten-free alternatives – though that’s where we started in our house! Although they don’t have the addictive properties of wheat, these grains still result in many of the other undesirable effects on our health. In fact, Dr. Davis advocates about 50-100 grams of carbohydrates a day – no more than a half a cup of rice or potato or quinoa in one sitting. This is extremely challenging when you think about the prevalence of wheat in the American diet. What to have for breakfast, if not cereal? What to have for lunch, if not a sandwich? So I was totally hooked, and then … wow … the changes are much more substantial than I realized. But the sample week-in-the-life meals and recipes helped me understand and realized that I could (with enough willpower) make it work.
Yesterday was the first day that I made the transition from gluten-free (e.g. just using alternative flours) to a more complete change in what I was eating. I am not quite ready to give up Weight Watchers yet, but I found it really useful to look at my food intake through the lenses of both programs, as below:
One of the interesting things I’ve noticed right away is that for the first time (since before being pregnant) I am not hungry all the time. Food is fuel, but I’m not obsessed or driven by a meal schedule. For example, yesterday I had a pretty small breakfast. But I wasn’t all that hungry at lunchtime, and just had the yogurt and flax mixture at 1:30 pm. I was under my Weight Watchers points (target is 26 at my current weight), and also at only 50% of my recommended carbohydrate intake according to USDA guidelines. Coming back to the Wheat Belly recommendations and focusing on the carbs specifically, the daily target is 50-100 grams, so I was well over that. It’s pretty obvious why now, but this exercise was a real eye-opener for me. I knew about apples, but I had no idea that bananas are so high in carbohydrates! The soy chai latte was yummy but probably not worth that much of my carbs for the day. And the rest was not bad … though it’s obviously going to take some practice to get in the recommended range.
I do appreciate the simplicity of Weight Watchers, but I feel that – especially since I understand the science behind it – it will be worth it to give a thoughtful, gluten-free life a go. I’ll probably continue to do both programs in parallel for awhile while I get the hang of it. If you’re on this path yourself – or if you’re likewise in an exploratory mode – I’d love to hear your input and feedback in the comments!
Here are some of the most compelling materials I’ve read:
- The Human Microbiome: Me, Myself, Us
- Scientists Discover Children’s Cells Living in Mothers’ Brains
- Studies implicate gut bacteria in autism
- Scientists make gut-brain connection to autism
- Innate Immunity Associated with Inflammatory Responses and Cytokine Production against Common Dietary Proteins in Patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Gut Bacteria Found In Autistic Children is Different
- The Gut/Brain Connection
- mBiosphere: Gut Bacteria in Autistic Children Differ From Non-autistic Children
- Clinical research: Gut bacteria prevalent in autism
- Gut Bacteria In Autistic Children Different From Non-Autistic Children