Last month a friend gave me, unsolicited, a copy of a book called “Wheat Belly.” What was she trying to tell me?
It hadn’t escaped me that, having reached a certain age, my middle had begun to expand. I eat very healthfully, and exercise regularly, but still the old spare tire clung to me like an embedded tick.
Five years ago, when I was 20 pounds lighter, clothes hung on me like on a mannequin, draping just so. With my postmenopausal figure resembling more the Michelin Man than its former hourglass, I still haven’t figured out how to dress. Yes, I’ve discovered Spanx and tops that blouse over the extra padding. And, yes, I’m relieved that mommy jeans are coming back so I don’t have to worry about a dreaded muffin top. But I want my former lighter-on-my-feet self back.
So when my friend handed me the “Wheat Belly” book, I welcomed a new plan. It seemed easy: Don’t eat wheat. Just remove one thing from my diet? I could do that. As long as I could imbibe spirits, which was forbidden on a diet I had been considering.
The gist of the book is that today’s wheat is not our grandmother’s. According to the author, William Davis, M.D., Europeans started eating wheat cultivated from a wild grass called einkorn around 3300 B.C. Einkorn was a simple food, containing only 14 chromosomes in its genetic code. Around that time, it was hybridized with goatgrass and the resulting emmer wheat contained 28 chromosomes. (“Plants such as wheat have the ability to retain the sum of the genes of their forebears.”)
Emmer sustained several civilizations until biblical times when it naturally merged with another grass and became Triticum aestivum, a 48-chromosome wheat. The more genetically complex, the more pliable its flour became, it allowed for less dense bread. And so this last wheat stayed with us until the middle of the last century.
Today’s wheat (even whole wheat), Dr. Davis writes, is so toxic you’re better off eating sugar. It has been hybridized and genetically modified to produce higher yields. It also is easier to thresh and produces lighter flours.
Wheat no longer shimmers in amber waves‚ it is now predominantly “dwarf wheat” — any taller than a foot, its super grains would cause the plant to collapse. By 1980, thousands of new strains of wheat had been developed, producing dramatic genetic changes and untold numbers of chromosomes. Yet “no animal or human safety testing was conducted on the new genetic strains‚” according to the book.
Today we are a society addicted to wheat, which, among other things, has opiate-like effects on the brain, making it difficult to go cold turkey. Thus, eating wheat makes you high. And not eating it, when you’re in the cycle, makes you low. It’s also a potent appetite stimulant — a bagel begets a pizza begets pasta — and mood agitator. There’s a lot of science in the book, but suffice it to say that the wheat-caused “cycle of insulin-driven satiety and hunger” is responsible for growth of fat specifically in the visceral organs,” as well as its “familiar surface manifestation.” In other words, the wheat belly.
Fortunately, I didn’t eat much wheat to begin with. But it is astonishing how, as soon as there is a rule telling you not to do something, you suddenly want to do it. Why did I find myself at Maison-Kayser bakery on Third Avenue eyeing the financiers or going into Crumbs to ogle the cupcakes decorated like fine jewels? Or, why was I drawn inside Mary’s Marvelous to inhale the scent of fresh-baked goodies? After all, “Nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven.”
In my first wheat-free week I got through a visit to Southampton almost unscathed, despite my intense yearning to score a bag of the salty-sweet-crunchy nuggets of my youth, Crutchley’s doughnut holes, which Kathleen King has reintroduced at Tate’s Bake Shop. I was able to pass, but only because the friend I had joined for dinner had a plate of fried calamari. Yes, they were battered, most likely in wheat, but I made a decision there and then: If a plate of irresistible morsels is sitting in front of you, and the wheat quotient is minimal, I won’t torture myself. Seems like a good rule. And it took my mind off Crutchley’s.
This is how things went for a while — cravings that I was mostly able to ignore. At home I could control what I ingested. With the gluten-free fad in full swing, it is easy to find satisfying wheat replacements. I’d been eating brown rice pasta for a while anyway. Delicious. Trust me, and readily available, you can also buy quinoa pasta, also delicious and wonderfully textured. And the Sag Harbor shop Provisions carries several tasty breads made of rice or millet flour, which are light and tasty.
Out in public, wheat seems to crop up everywhere from wraps to pasta, and especially on hors d’oeuvres trays as an inexpensive vehicle for getting the main event into your mouth. So I had to eat more consciously. Hard cheese at events works because I can use my fingers rather than crackers. Ditto for soup chasers, which sadly don’t seem to be around as much this summer as last.
With only one thing to avoid, it’s been pretty easy. I’d say I’m 98-percent wheat free, cheating only at first when someone brought a fabulous banana bread into the office. Now those things fail to tempt me. Much.
It’s been five weeks. I lost five pounds within two weeks, but have continued to hover at that same number since. While I’m sure that avoiding “Frankenwheat” is a good thing, my belly has shrunk only minimally. I’m thinking of renaming it “wine belly.”
Debra Scott is a writer and member of the production staff at The Star.