Wheat Belly: An Unintended Consequence

After you shower this morning, before you get dressed…stop and take a look at your body in a full length mirror. You most likely will see some degree of a “pot belly” looking back at you. Over 68% of Americans are waking up to the fact that visceral body fat is complicating their self-concepts.

Nobody wants to be fat. Fifty years ago it was the rare individual that was. Pull out your family album and take a look at great grandpa and grandma and their kids. Oh sure, there were obese individuals back then…but they were by far the exception.

Today, fat is the rule.

The medical explanation for this is insulin resistance. Something is making human cells in America (and in most countries that have adopted Western eating habits) more resistant to the effects of insulin.

The result is higher insulin levels. Insulin is a fat storage hormone. When glucose levels run higher (due to the intake of high glycemic carbs in an insulin resistant individual) the pancreas simply makes more insulin in order to drive the extra glucose into hungry cells. Higher insulin for unclear reasons causes more fat to be stored around your abdominal organs. This visceral body fat is creating the pot belly phenomenon.

Starvation and extra sit-ups or gym-time generally do NOT make the pot belly go away. Intense dieting can cause more skeletal muscle loss than is does “table muscle” loss. Overly intensive exercise can stress your adrenals, push up your cortisol levels and surprise you with what doctors call a cushingoid pot belly. Even if you do knock off a few inches off your belt size, it takes very few cookies or cupcakes for the inches to sneak back!

What the heck’s going on here?!! And what does Norman Borlaug have to do with this mess?

Norman was a wonderful man and a great scientist. As a plant geneticist, he is credited with developing dwarf wheat. For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. So…what does dwarf wheat have to do with visceral body fat?

For thousands of years the “amber waves of grain” were cultivated by our forbearers. Hunter-gatherers became stable farmers. Human art, culture, and civilization grew out of our relationship with the wheat plant, which was so valued that it was honored as the “staff of life.” Even today we honor the nutritional value of “healthy whole grains” in our quest for better health. The whole grain we are primarily referring to is whole wheat, which constitutes over 90% of grain consumption in western societies.

In the 1980’s, whole wheat assumed an even bigger role in our quest for healthy hearts when it was mistakenly assumed that dietary fat was the cause of high cholesterol leading to heart disease. Fat was rooted out and replaced by our revered “healthy whole grains”…and their evil sister–sugar.

Ironically, it was also in the 1980’s when the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) began tracking the obesity epidemic which we now know is in full swing…and still growing (literally)!The uncomfortable but unassailable historical fact here is that the adoption of the American Heart Association’s battle cry—”Healthy Whole Grains”—precisely coincided with the world wide adoption of Norman Borlaug’s dwarf wheat development into common agricultural practice.

Traditional Triticum aestivum wheat grew upwards to four feet tall and it swayed in the wind, creating the beautiful “amber waves of grain” effect. For centuries, cultivation problems, poor disease resistance, and other production issues limited wheat’s potential for higher yields.

Norman Borlaug solved that with his dwarf wheat. He knew that the modern practice of fertilizing with high nitrogen would cause a larger head of grain to grow. On the tall Triticum wheat stalk, that heavier head would bend and break, killing the plant. On his shorter, thicker dwarf wheat stalk the heavier, higher yielding head of grain could survive and thrive. Further breeding and hybridization made this new wheat more resistant to disease and weather extremes. It grew faster and was easier to harvest. Small and large farmers produced more for less cost and more profit.

Norman was hailed as the “Father of the Green Revolution” and the savior of mankind from world hunger thanks to an 8 to 10 fold increase in yield with his dwarf wheat. He was an international hero.

His breakthrough was so successful from an agricultural perspective that there was nary a thought as to how this and the thousands of new wheat hybrids might affect the nutritional aspects of wheat as human food. Essentially NO nutritional studies were done. It was assumed that a wheat hybrid was no different from a tomato hybrid. Wheat is wheat…right?

Wrong! What was at least 28% protein in Emmer wheat (an ancestral strain of wheat) became only about 10% or so in the modern hybrids of Triticum aestivum. These hybrids were loaded with super-carbohydrates composed of long chains of branching glucose units called amylopectin A.

The 75% amylopectin A content of modern wheat, while being characterized as a “complex carbohydrate” turned out to be no better than even the simplest carbohydrate…sucrose. Eating two slices of whole wheat bread is glycemically worse than drinking a can of cola containing nearly 11 teaspoons of sugar.

The glycemic index (how much and how fast the carb content of a food is absorbed) of whole wheat bread is 72. White bread is 69. A Snickers bar is only 41!

Wheat-induced blood sugar surges take you on a glycemic roller coaster ride. What goes way up…will come screaming down. Eat wheat (processed or not) and you can expect a blood sugar high followed by a shaky hypoglycemic low. What relieves that uncomfortable low? Craving and eating more wheat and sugar. (The glutens in modern wheat hybrids also changed their genetic structure as well with the rise in special polypeptides that mimic addictive opiate drugs…giving special meaning to the words cracked wheat!)

Too many roller coaster rides over days, months and years is what sets up the development of insulin resistance. High wheat equals high insulin. High insulin equals visceral fat. Visceral fat equals wheat belly.

Is this what Norman Borlaug intended?

It is ridiculous to even think that a man who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 would have had any intention whatsoever in making over 2/3’s of Americans fat! How could he in his wildest dreams ever have thought that dwarf wheat (which now makes up 99% of all wheat production) would lead to over 34% of us becoming obese prediabetics and diabetics?

The American Heart Association’s endorsement of “healthy whole grains” was intended to lower our heart disease risk. Instead, ask any doctor about the unprecedented rise in obesity with all its grim outcomes: cancer, arthritis, dementia, autoimmune disease, depression, macular degeneration, shame, regret and despair.
Again I urgently ask: Is this what Norman wanted? No. These are clearly unintended consequences! But here we sit: 68% of us waking up and looking in our mirrors with a fat wheat belly looking back.

The following list shows many (but not all) of the wheat-related diseases that accompany this world wide epidemic. (This is because Borlaug’s dwarf wheat has been “successfully” exported and implemented in almost every country in the world.)Now the big question: What do we do about this?

Irritable Bowel
Heart Disease
Chronic Fatigue
Celiac Disease

There is no easy answer. I expect the best answer is that each one of us must take ownership of the problem as it relates to our own health issues. If you have a wheat belly, you must ask yourself: “Is wheat worth it? Can I live without it? Can I find alternatives that are healthier for me?”

Answering these questions honestly will not solve this unintended global mess that is slowly creating a healthcare crisis of such huge dimensions (literally!) that government planners are at a loss as to how to even approach it.

As I have stated before, it is impossible to legislate better, healthier choices. That must be left up to the individual. That’s you…and that’s me.

Here’s my political slogan for the future: “True healthcare reform…is self-care reform