Dough: Obesity as Economic Opportunity

This brief post launches a series of musings about the role of wheat and other grains, especially corn and soy, in the big picture: feeding the world’s population, the impact of growing demand for meat with farmers reliant on grain for feed, the leap to genetically-modified strains to increase productivity or year-over-year predictability, the economic role of these crops.

I will also ponder the notion that, to a great degree, overweight, obesity, and their most defining disease state, diabetes, have also proven to be economic boons to industry. If you were to cultivate a population of diabetics, you might enjoy unprecedented growth in the diabetes drug industry–precisely what has happened these last few years.

Here is a perspective on the production of grains worldwide taken from agribusiness giant, Syngenta’s economic projections:

The global demand for grains to provide the 3 F’s–Food, Feed, and Fuel–is on a powerful upward trajectory. Note that Food is the largest portion of grain production.

Likewise, the growth of the diabetes drug market is on a powerful upward trend.

(From PharmaTimes)

Is this just a happy (from the standpoint of industry) intersection, the coincidence of booming reliance on grain with the booming incidence of weight gain and diabetes? Or is this an instance of making dough . . . out of dough? Is the multi-billion dollar diabetes industry a result of widespread gluttony and laziness . . . or is it part of some grand design?

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. I am so curious — with the tremendous growing demand for “gluten-free products” (not yet grain free, but still!) — why aren’t farmers going back to the old forms of wheat that didn’t cause this enormous issue? has the whole supply been contaminated such that the seed is no longer available?

    It just seems like they are planting themselves out of business.

    • Boundless

      > … why aren’t farmers going back to the old forms of wheat ….
      Heirloom seed is more expensive, often astronomically.
      It’s not as disease/pest/drought/wind-resistant.
      Your crop can still get cross-contaminated by patented horror strains.
      The yields are dramatically lower.
      It’s not a commodity (the local elevator has no storage for it).
      There’s no ready commodities trading market.
      The consumers demanding heirloom wheat are making a mistake, often temporary, as heirloom is only slightly less toxic than modern techno-wheat. The market is therefore highly risky.
      Those growing and selling heirloom are doing so for reasons, often laudable, that are other than basic agro economics.
      Speaking as someone who owns what would be wheat ground, switching to flax or almond makes much more sense.
      ____
      Our household got distracted by einkorn for about 10 days, before deciding to entirely ditch wheat, of any vintage, and all related gluten-bearing grains, in all disguises. Eating wheat, barley and rye is a 10,000 year-old error. Mutant semi-dwarf hybrid wheat just finally made it more apparent.

        • Amanda

          you bet well said! by the way I got a terrible headache from eating out yesterday, althoug asked for GF I probably got some cross contamination of the rat poison (G)

      • Robert Bloch

        I can wholehearted agree with your last statement. It is much simpler just to ditch all the grains. Frankly it’s more of a mental thing, anyway. One needs only to look more fully at the alternatives, than focusing on “what must be given up.”

      • Birgit

        We have to keep in mind that Einkorn or even Emmer may not have been much of a problem for people who never ate diets high in sugar and/or starches to begin with and whose parents and grandparents did not either, especially if these people also led a more active lifestyle than most modern-day people. This is similar to some Asian people groups eating a lot of rice and not having an obesity/diabetes/heart disease epidemic.
        Given the fact that most people in this country have grown up on the All-American crap diet we have a lot less margin for error and are better off ditching all grains, beans, starches, and even high-sugar fruit for the most part.
        Birgit

        • Boundless

          > … Einkorn or even Emmer may not have been much of a problem for people who …

          Keep also in mind that prior to 1985, wheat was not a cheap commodity. It was not used as a contaminant (filler) in darn near every packaged food. Quite the contrary, wheat addicts were incensed that bakers were using sawdust as fillers in bread. So, during the {mistakenly} conjectured age of heirloom wheats, people were consuming a lot less of it … but not without harm.

          My bet is that if wheat consumers, without reducing their total wheat consumption, were to switch to products made from authentic heirloom wheats, they would see only minor reductions in grain-induced ailments.

          We haven’t seen analysis of heirloom wheats for percent gluten, gliadin, amylopection A, lectin, agglutinin, comparative net carbs, etc. Frankly, I don’t need that data. The stuff is a 10,000 year old mistake. Techno-triticale merely made the error more apparent. Some analysts have been warning about grains for a long time. The celiacs have been saying beware forever. Forego the entire family tree of this fatal fake food.

    • Dana

      Wheat always damages your health. All grains damage your health. It just so happens the new wheat is more dangerous than the old. But if you look at the anthropological record, the gravesites and the conditions the skeletons were in? A paleopathologist, and probably most anthropologists generally, can tell the remains of a farmer from the remains of a forager (hunter-gatherer) just by looking at the skeleton. Foragers were taller, had bigger brains, and had more teeth, with fewer bone lesions. That particular type of bone lesion they look for came from infectious disease and, while you could say overcrowding led to a lot of that disease transmission, it’s also true that healthy, well-nourished people catch infectious disease far less often. My diet is not dialed in and perfect, but it’s way better than it used to be, and I can’t remember the last time I caught a serious cold. The most recent definite cold I know I caught was in January of this year and it disappeared suddenly, without causing me undue distress, in less than three days. And I had surgery that week, too.

      What I’d like to see farmers doing is abandoning grains and soy entirely. They’re destroying the land as well as our health. That land would be better used as pasture to raise grass-fed, grass-finished cattle and bison–*especially* on the Great Plains, which is not well-suited to plant agriculture, and never has been. We need *meat* in this country, not more Frankenbread.

      • wrotek

        I am wondering about other beans, like cocoa bean, coffee bean, sunflower seeds… These are all reproductive parts of plants. Should we be suspicious they might contain warfare chemicals against human gut ?

    • Dana

      oh and the “more teeth” thing I said about foragers, that’s a reference to their lesser amount of tooth decay.

      I have heard people say that forager remains look healthier because they didn’t live as long, but that’s not true. Agriculture *reduced* life expectancy until quite recently in human history. And those who died young in forager groups were usually victims of accidents, not of malnutrition and overwork, as with farmers.

      Dr. Weston Price in the 1920s-1930s was finding advanced decay in the *children* of farmers. Not so much in the children of those few groups still living mostly on meat and other animal foods.

      • Murray

        Price even found degeneration in the same family. One child reared before the introduction of Western diet (i.e., starch and sugar) had a fully developed lower jaw, perfect occlusion and no dental caries. The younger sibling who was reared after introduction of starch and sugar had under-developed jaw, crowded teeth and cavities.

    • Dr. Davis

      Low yield, Stephanie.

      The older strains of wheat generally yield only a fraction of the yield of modern semi-dwarf strains. Competition would therefore be a problem.

      Nonetheless, a number of farmers have indeed been adopting the older strains again over the past year.

  2. Vivian

    The wholesale “tinkering” with the genetics of wheat astounded me. Reading in your book about the dreadful effects on human health, I decided to give it and other whole grains the boot (visceral fat, that hard round tummy has virtually disappeared as 24 lbs.of it are gone). But now what is left for me in the way of grain substitutes are quinoa, amaranth, wild rice and millet. If there are some other possible candidates, please fill me in. Now I wonder how long it will be before these, too, are manipulated for “fun and profit”…perhaps the process has already started.

    • Jeff

      You don’t need grains in your diet, so why try to find substitutes? Just go grain-free and eat REAL food. Grains aren’t human food – they’re what “food” eats.

      • Mike

        That’s my point of view as well. A lot of people try find similar foods – wheat free breads, muffins and so on. The question is : why ? Why not to stick to REAL FOOD, and taste the real flavour. I know that addiction is so powerful – that’s the only real reason I can accept..

        I don’t say wheat free recipes are bad – thank you Dr. Davis for this – it helps those who can’t live without it.

        • Boundless

          The WB-Friendly treat recipes are important, for a several reasons:
          1. There are few truly healthy convenience foods on the market, other than traditional stuff like some nuts. There’s only one brand of nutrition bars, for example (Quest). It’s going to be some time before the choices expand.
          2. It’s much easier to transition to a new diet if the buffet selection looks and tastes like what you’re accustomed to.
          3. When you have dining guests unfamiliar with dietary developments, you’ll have familiar items for them as well (and in many cases, they’ll have no idea that they are eating healthy treats).

          • Mike

            Oh, didn’t think about last point. I am a bit different, I went cold turkey and it worked for me , despite eating half loaf of bread daily before. And I don’t get bored eating the same stuff – really unusual.

            That’s just me.

          • LorLor

            I agree. Also, I’ve always enjoyed baking as a creative process, not just a means to an end, so I’m enjoying playing with the allowable ingredients to make tasty new treats. Some work out better than others, but I’ve had success with variations on the Apple-Walnut bread and even my non-Wheat-Belly friends liked the Chocolate Chip cookies. Next up – tweak my favorite recipe for pumpkin bars with cream cheese icing. I don’t expect to replace my old favorites like cinnamon rolls and cake, but I hope to create new favorites that won’t upset my stomach and make me fat!

            BTW, Amazon is a good place to get almond flour, etc. Got a 5 lb. bag at a reasonable price and it’s sure nice not to have to grind up all those nuts myself.

  3. Alice

    I personally can’t live in a world where everything bad that happens is a part of some grand, evil conspiracy. The boom in diabetes is a consequence of the increasing reliance on grains, but I don’t think anyone is out there scheming to make as many people sick as possible in order to make money. I am more likely to ponder the science of ecosystems, and how, when a species’ population grows too big, nature will impose internal and external checks. We are not immune to that process, which I suspect may ultimately have more power over us than our power to destroy the environment.

    • If only this were an isolated example of such corporate behavior. You could call it instead a shared response to opportunity from a class of people whose values are money and power. Different people have different values, and some people’s values are a threat to your well being and mine. Our lack of awareness of this danger helps create their opportunities.

    • Myra

      Sorry to say you’re living in a nice cozy dream world Alice. I people weren’t making huge amounts of money from this it wouldn’t be happening. BigAgra and BigPharma depend on a sick, overweight population. The history of the last 40 years is pretty clear.

    • Shirley

      Could wheat and sugar be part of that scheme to cull the herd? A temptation we all fell for starting 10,000 years ago? Getting everyone off wheat one by one would be payback for decades of wrong advice. Projecting needs doesn’t mean it will happen.

    • John O

      I used to be very skeptical of conspiracy theories as well. I’m no longer skeptical. It all boils down to money. Entrenched industry interests have a huge financial incentive to maintain the status quo so they are willing to spend alot of money perpetuating the bad information, lobbying the government, funding bogus studies, etc. The whole “healthy whole grain” situration is a disgrace. I can’t believe how long I fell for it. The sad thing is, I used to feel hungry all the time and have frequent stomach discomfort. Don’t take anything the government or large corporations tell you at face value. They all play lip service to being “responsible corporate citizens” by pressuring their employees to participate in their pet charity project. But when something like this comes up, you can guarantee they are doing everything they can to maintain their profits, even at the espense of your expense. Look at the tobacco industry. Don’t fool yourself into thinking pharmaceuticals are any different.

    • Dr. Davis

      I felt that way, too, Alice, until recently.

      My turning point was when, after Wheat Belly was released, I learned that diabetes drug manufacturers have been the most vigorous financial supporters of the Wheat Lobby and wheat trade groups that propagate the “healthy whole grain” message. Sure, they might just be nice people, but the connection sure smells awfully rotten.

      • Jennifer, MD

        Hi Bill,
        Greetings and congratulations from your old med school classmate with a BS in Ag Econ. I have an award winning investigative reporter friend who would really like to talk to you about a few things that I know would be of interest to you.

        • Dr. Davis

          Hey, Jennifer! No, kidding Ag Econ?

          This place is as good as any. When you post a comment, your email is automatically listed.

          Any insights on these issues from the Ag Econ perspective?

          • Jennifer, MD

            Yep, Ag Econ. As far as I know, I might be the only Ag Econ undergrad MD in the country.

            The Agricultural Economics field is concerned with improving profitability. Maybe by whatever means are necessary. There isn’t a lot of hard science education required in college for the major, so the ability to understand the negative health implications of genetic manipulation of our food sources may be seriously lacking.

            As you might expect, big agribusiness is involved heavily with university agricultural research, much like the pharmaceutical companies are involved with sponsoring a lot of research in medical schools. Grants are big money for the schools and most universities are falling over themselves to get a chance to get them.

            Making a living as a small farmer can be tough. Many need to have day jobs to support their ability to continue farming and operate on very thin margins. Most farmers are good, hardworking people. Unfortunately, they also may be brainwashed by big agribusiness. A promise to improve crop yield, pest or drought resistance can be very appealing. I’m not sure if you get the big buck TV ads for seeds and chemicals like we do here in the Midwest. The slick ads are remarkably similar to direct to consumer pharmaceutical ads, except no disclaimers of how what they’re hawking is poisonous to all of us. Scary.

            I’ll talk to my reporter friend.

          • Dr. Davis

            Thanks for the insights, Jennifer.

            In a capitalist system, we cannot, of course, clamp down on such practices driven by free speech and growing businesses. However, I believe that voices such as yours, with insights into agriculture as well as health/medicine, need to be heard to help educate a public that is too often subverted into the service of profit.

            I see this as having really gone sour in healthcare. I now see patients being “used”–insurance money being squeezed to extraordinary degrees–as a money opportunity. Heaven forbid you go to the emergency room, for instance, with muscular chest pain–stress nuclear, heart cath, EP study, MRI of chest, neurology consultation, blood tests, etc., for something that could have been settled with some judgement and reassurance. I’ve witnessed this now many, many times . . . as hospitals continue their ad campaigns, billboards, hospital expansions, and incentivizing their physicians with bigger bonuses for generating increased revenues.

            I’d love to hear more about your agricultural insights! What kind of medicine do you practice?

          • Jennifer, MD

            I share your sentiments about insurance companies and hospitals completely.

            As a specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, I see people after they’ve been through the zillion dollar cardiac workup for their musculoskeletal chest pain.

            From the agricultural/medical perspective, I’m concerned with the magnitude of genetically modifications of our food supply. You have ferreted out what’s going on with wheat, but who knows what’s going on with all of the other plants? Did you know that papayas and squash are on the list of “biotech” seeds?

            Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to save their own non-genetically modified seed for replanting. They have been sued for gene patent infringement due to cross pollination of their crops by pollen that blows in from genetically modified fields in the area. The seed cleaning processors are shutting down for the same reasons.

    • Murray

      There does not have to be a conspiracy theory. Joel Bakan (Children under Siege) refers to the phenomenon as “tilt.” Various currents of incentive result in the playing field being tilted toward some outcome, without any of the players consciously intended it, much less controlling it. For example, a cereal company or pharmaceutical might fund a charitable disease foundation that makes research grants and, quite naturally, get a representative on a funding board. The representative will be naturally skeptical of research proposals that go against received wisdom and the interests of the representative and the organization they represent. Confirmation bias kicks in. People in committees shy from conflict so the tilt is to steer away from conflict-creating proposals. No conspiracy. But the outcome is tilted by the structure. Similarly, there is the phenomenon of “regulatory capture” when government adapts to suit the interests of those they regulate. Consumers are diffuse, whereas the producers are focused in their presentations to regulators. regulators will be more disposed to recognize and respond to the concerns of those they are dealing with personally. The cumulative effect of all this gives the appearance of a conspiracy. But I seriously doubt there is a conspiracy. My personal theory is that no conspiracy of more than five people can be sustained.

      • Alice

        Thank you for posting this, Murray. “Tilt” makes more sense to me than conscious intent to do evil, though a number of good points have been made here.

        • Rong

          You also need look not further than the revolving door between the regulators and the regulated. Nearly all the top banking regulators are from the big banks or will soon be working for them. The same is true of agriculture, etc. No conspiracy, just a hell of a lot of self interest.

          • Dr. Davis

            I’d like to see a lot more public light thrown on this revolving door, as it is potentially an incredible source of biased government behavior/policy.

  4. Ellen Edgecombe

    I tend to agree with you Alice and Shirley. I hope the planet is taking matters into its own hands so to speak. One thing that really concerns me is how on earth the earth can provide for so many people without the production of grains? Don’t get me wrong, I think its a terrible thing that wheat especially is being produced on such a grand scale, but is the development of ag industry part of what allowed us to overpopulate the globe so easily? In a warped way, is it a good thing that nature is finding ways to “weed” the global population? Medical science and the way it has evolved on one hand is a glorious thing, but on the other hand how much does it toy with natural selection and population control? Is the earth also fighting back in other ways by creating seemingly more abundant natural disasters than there ever had been? Probably a long shot but the thought has crossed my mind. Wheat and grains are not the only catalysts in this game and I don’t think its a good thing that so many people are being provided for so cheaply and readily by grains and then assisted to survive by modern medicines. Grains have made it so affordable for large families to survive and modern medicine has put brakes on natural selection. Something has gotta give somewhere. I tend to agree with you Alice. I hope the planet is taking matters into its own hands so to speak. One thing that really concerns me is how on earth the earth can provide for so many people without the production of grains? Don’t get me wrong, I think its a terrible thing that wheat especially is being produced on such a grand scale, but is

  5. Ellen

    I tend to agree with you Alice. I hope the planet is taking matters into its own hands so to speak. One thing that really concerns me is how on earth the earth can provide for so many people without the production of grains? Don’t get me wrong, I think its a terrible thing that wheat especially is being produced on such a grand scale, but is the development of ag industry part of what allowed us to overpopulate the globe so easily? In a warped way, is it a good thing that nature is finding ways to “weed” the global population? Medical science and the way it has evolved on one hand is a glorious thing, but on the other hand how much does it toy with natural selection and population control? Is the earth also fighting back in other ways by creating seemingly more abundant natural disasters than there ever had been? Probably a long shot but the thought has crossed my mind. Wheat and grains are not the only catalysts in this game and I don’t think its a good thing that so many people are being provided for so cheaply and readily by grains and then assisted to survive by modern medicines. Grains have made it so affordable for large families to survive and modern medicine has put brakes on natural selection. Something has gotta give somewhere. 

    • LorLor

      Apparently ANYTHING can be fed to cows, I was reading on CNN today about how broke farmers are feeding them CANDY – gummy bears, marshmallows, whatever they can get cheap. Supposedly it’s the sugar content that counts, it’s just like corn. !

      I can tell the difference in taste between industrial corn-fed beef and organic grass-fed. I wonder what ice cream sprinkles-marshmallow-M&M beef tastes like?

  6. Vivian

    I am having concerns about Jeff’s comments. I don’t understand the phrase “grains are not human foods…they ARE WHAT FOOD EATS”…what, do you mean …that cattle are feed grain to finish? I would much prefer them to be grass-fed! As to eschewing all “grains”, the older ones like quinoa, amaranth, etc. provide variety at a very much lower glycemic level. You may be a tough dieter..but some of us like to transition gradually. We still like the crunch and mouth-feel of a no-gluten kind of grain/seed. Please don’t condemn us!
    As far as I know, wild rice is a seed gathered by natives in canoes/boats on Lake Winnipeg, hence the high price. I so hope quinoa is not going the way of big agra.

    • Dr. Davis

      I couldn’t quite follow the rambling on this article.

      I believe it was a rant against processed food, though I had a tough time telling what the real message was.

  7. JIllOz

    Dr Davis,

    if wheat raises blood sugar, and high blood sugar leads to diabetes/cataracts and eye damage, you can legitimately say:
    “Stop Wheat!! Or you’ll go blind!!”

    ;)

  8. Birgit

    Grains are not only damaging to people but also to animals. Many dog foods are now advertised as being wheat-free, grain-free etc. and people are willing to pay much more money for those. Horse people are also waking up to the dangers of grain as it causes founder/insulin resistance in horses. I also suspect that feeding grains causes OCD-type behaviors in horses and possibly other brain dysfunctions.
    Many people who may not be willing to skip wheat in their own diet because they are addicted may be easier to convince that their pets are better off without it. ;)

    Birgit

    • eema.gray

      My cat went on the wheat belly diet long before the rest of us did. :-) We feed her the Blue Buffalo Wilderness line and have been amazed and impressed with the changes in her behavior, her ability to maintain healthy weight, and the condition of her skin and fur. That’s probably when we should have made the change for ourselves, honestly!

  9. Birgit

    I copying this from my blog as it directly relates to the issue of whole grains and diabetes and I’m hoping someone else will benefit from my experience:
    THIS COULD HAVE BEEN SCARY – NORMAL WEIGHT AND PRE-DIABETIC IS POSSIBLE
    I’m talking about what my insulin levels must have been like before starting to eat low-carb.
    Here is the reason. During my recent blood work my insulin levels were 2.2 which is on the low side. I already know that my fasting glucose levels are significantly under 100 and even after eating they are under or close to 100 when I eat according to plan (under 50 grams of carbs/day).
    The unexpected result was that my Hemoglobin A1c test came back high at 5.9 which is in the pre-diabetes range (5.7-6.4) . To briefly explain, this test will give info on the past 3 months, especially the last month of insulin resistance and blood sugar and it’s accuracy is dependant on having normal hemoglobin levels. When my results came back high my doctor checked my hemoglobin levels and I just found out that they were normal. This means, that with a very high likelihood I was essentially pre-diabetic in the 3 months or at least in the month before the test, close to the normal margin, but still.
    This was a period when I was not exercising much other than walking because of minor surgery and I also did a fair amount of boredom eating. My carbs were significantly higher than 50 grams/day but probably not more than 100 grams/day and none of those came from grains or beans. This is still far less than what I had been eating 8 months ago which was probably more in the range of 300-400 grams/day, including, of course, all natural, organic whole grains, “natural” sweeteners like agave nectar and lots of fruit, incl. often 2 bananas. I was not overweight by any definition and the only complaint I had was lack of energy to exercise and concentrate in the afternoons and evenings and difficulty in improving my running.
    I found some old lab records from 2006 where I had been tested for diabetes and my A1c level was 5.2, at the upper end of normal. This was before I went to eating much whole grain.
    During those years when I had switched to eating whole grains and overall a “healthy” natural foods diet I never would have thought that I could be pre-diabetic but now I’m wondering… if my A1c is at prediabetic on 100 grams of carbs/day where was it at over 300 grams of carbs/day, even with much more fiber.
    Thankfully it looks like I don’t have to worry about this any more. I will try harder than before to keep my carbs around 50 grams/day, even if my weight is where I want it. Clearly, after years of abusing sugar and grains this is what I need to do for optimum health.
    I will repeat the A1c test in about 3 months and see what the difference is.
    If you have never had an A1c test get one, even if you are normal weight. If it registers as pre-diabetic or diabetic get on a low-carb diet immediately.
    Birgit

    • Dr. Davis

      Very nice, Birgit.

      You illustrate the diabetes-causing effect of wheat quite nicely. Lose the wheat, lose the diabetes/pre-diabetes. It is really quite simple, but completely counter to the awful prevailing “wisdom” that is not only ineffective, but CAUSES the problems like diabetes they are supposed to prevent.

  10. wrotek

    Dr Davis, what are in Your opinion, subjective signs of inflammatory food ?
    I am guessing that diarrhea, shortness of breath, pain (joint pain, migraine), fatigue
    Are these right ? Any other ?

    • Dr. Davis

      It can take virtually any form, Wro: Along with the ones you list, add rash, fluid retention/swelling, kidney damage, endothelial dysfunction (abnormal vessel constriction), liver abnormalities, visual changes, malabsorption, etc.

      In other words, inflammation is a fundamental processed shared by thousands of different conditions.

    • lupo

      “Inflammation” is comprised of a multitude of cellular and hormonal events and states. For example, the fibrosis in wound healing wouldn’t happen without inflammation.

      So please, for the sake of exactness, use “chronic inflammation” or “diet-induced inflammation”. Inflammation is usually the nice guy who wants your best.

  11. Not only food represents the biggest share, it also shows growth that exceeds the one witnessed previous 30 years. Should we expect more “heart-healthy whole grain” marketing ?

  12. Jill

    As a mcdonalds addict and pop addict just reading this for the first time and started exercising this week what I’m reading is eat real food avoid all grain. Good first step?