Book about wheat still a best-seller, July 23, 2013
by Morton Sosland

It would have been appalling for any reader in grain-based foods to peer at a recent Sunday Book Review section of The New York Times and to see at the head of the Best Sellers a photograph of stacked bagels and this cutline: “Wheat Belly by William Davis. According to Davis’ book, at No. 6 on the advice list, wheat is the culprit most responsible for America’s obesity epidemic. ‘Lose the wheat, lose the weight,’ his subtitle proclaims.” As shocking as this may be, it is small comfort that the awful book is not a Best Seller, in either fiction or non-fiction. It is sixth among the 20 books listed under Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous, and within this category of both e-book and print books offering advice, it is third among the eight devoted to recommending how to eat either to recover from an illness like diabetes, to preserve health or to maintain weight.

This would be the eleventh week of Book Reviews in which “Wheat Belly” ranks among best sellers in the advice section. For a time, it enjoyed first place in this list, but thank goodness, that has passed. Yet, even this diminished position ought to be considered a mind-blowing disaster by anyone caring about grain-based foods.

The reasons for this concern extend far beyond industry members who, yes, have selfish reasons for not wanting the Davis attitude toward wheat to reach very far or wide. In effect, his allegations about the evils of bread and other wheat foods undermine the longstanding belief that these foods have truly earned their Biblical title of “staff of life.” Considering how modern civilization evolved in most parts of the world from people who depended on wheat-based foods, primarily bread, for their sustenance, it now seems obvious that anyone claiming wheat foods to be the main cause of obesity is nothing but a charlatan.

Especially galling is the way that the Davis book makes its claims about wheat foods causing a health problem — obesity — that is relatively recent. Indeed, it is only in the first years of the 21st century that nutritionists and others worried about public health have cited excessive weight as a general problem. In view of the time the world has counted on bread as either its main food or as a major part of the food supply, it is unbelievable that the contentions about wheat’s role in a new health problem can be taken seriously.

One need only look at the consequences of the Davis book’s thesis gaining acceptance to realize the dimensions of the disaster that might ensue. Here attention is not paid to the damage this would inflict on one of the world’s major crops and the massive infrastructure aligned with wheat producers. In the United States, where the Davis book is focused, school lunch administrators believing what it says would be driven to remove an essential nutrition source. Even a leading fast-food chain deciding it wanted to stop using wheat-based buns would have a seriously negative impact. The same influence on the eating habits of poor people in the United States and in other nations could only create havoc.

The same Times Book Review section as carries the “Wheat Belly” heading has an essay describing the increasing number of books being written about dying by authors experiencing their own medical problems. Books about food may have been published longer and in greater number than these personal memoirs. Yet, there are observations in this essay, by Meghan O’Rourke, that apply to books on food of the same ilk as the Davis volume. These writers, she says, largely write to help themselves “gain some semblance of control” as to how they feel about death. Denial and repression as well as cognitive dissonance are terms she uses to question just how factual such narratives are. The same questions should be asked about food books like the Davis volume.