Davis’s publicist said he was unavailable for comment in time for this story, as he was doing a radio interview and then driving to Cleveland as part of a press tour for his new book. This new one is a break from the franchise in name, but not in subversive tone. It’s called Undoctored: Why Health Care Has Failed You and How You Can Become Smarter Than Your Doctor. The title is not hyperbolic. The text literally sells superiority: “Let’s be absolutely clear: I propose that people can manage their own health safely and responsibly and attain results superior to those achieved through conventional health care—not less than, not on par with, but superior.”
This is the same anti-establishment, outsider spirit that sent Davis’s first book to the number-one spot on The New York Times bestseller list and brought “gluten free” to such a pitch that it can now be found as one of very few nutritional distinctions on restaurant menus around the world. At a time when some best-selling books sell just a few thousand copies, Wheat Belly has sold more than a million.
“In that book, a lot of the science from celiac disease has been sort of co-opted and extrapolated into the general population,” said Lebwohl. “Like the notion that gluten is intrinsically pro-inflammatory. That’s something for which we have very shaky data.”
But since people believe the story, these ideas are now the topics of serious study. They came to popularity among crowds that felt alienated and unheard, and so were susceptible to demagoguery, and now a medical establishment that has long been seen as elitist and closed-minded is paying for the power dynamic it created.
The funding for the new gluten-heart-disease study came from grants from the American Gastroenterological Association, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the National Institutes of Health. Any entrenched system is going to have a backlash; in the case of gluten, the rebellion is now leading the discourse. The team at Columbia is now working on another study looking for any relationship between gluten and cancer. (They have no reason to think that gluten causes cancer. But some people do believe this.)
“I believe we need to research and study rigorously the things that patients are interested in,” said Lebwohl. “This is, in my view, a necessary part of science’s mission—to go to where the public is interested and provide sound analysis. If the public is barking up the wrong tree, we shouldn’t ignore that.”
Some find this concerning—that we’ve entered a cycle of buying and belief that will require so much research that science will never catch up, but only ever be chasing whatever people have already chosen to believe gluten is doing to them. Others say this is exactly how science is supposed to work.
In the meantime, Lebwohl tells gluten-wary patients to be wary, rather, of “any practitioner who is telling people that the problem is that their gut is leaking.” And as a general rule, “beware of any lab tests that tell you what foods you can’t tolerate. If there is a lab that does tests that can’t be paid for by conventional means––insurance companies––maybe that lab is testing things that are totally unproven. There are countless people who will take advantage of those who are looking for answers right now.”