In my practice, I take a close look at my patients dietary habits and get to see first hand the ill effects that certain foods and substances can have on the body. One of the primary “offenders” to the health of many people are grains, particularly those containing a protein called gluten. Grains that include this protein are wheat (all forms such as semolina, durum, etc.), rye, spelt, kamut, barley, and most types of oats.
Most of us think of grains as ‘health foods’ and we are taught from an early age how beneficial they are to our health and overall well-being. However, there is increasing evidence that grains, especially those containing gluten, might actually be harmful to our bodies.
In the last few decades, there has been a growing number of people who are suffering from gluten intolerance, also known as Celiac Disease. Today, 1 in 133 Americans suffer from this condition. An even higher percentage of the population goes undiagnosed with an emerging condition called ‘gluten sensitivity.’ Even if we are not affected by the effects of gluten personally, many of us are becoming aware of this issue by the the ever increasing number of gluten free foods that are becoming prominent in many grocery stores and even restaurants.
One might ask, how can a food that we have been consuming for thousands of years be actually harmful to our body? Especially a food that has become a staple in most of the world’s food supplies and cuisines. The answer to this question is complex. To start we will examine what gluten is, it’s applications, and the evolutionary and historical context of these grains.
Gluten is a protein with a fairly unique structure and “binding” quality that makes it ideal for use in cooking and baking. Gluten is what gives dough its very elastic consistency and due to its high level of adhesiveness, it has become widely used in many dishes and cuisines all over the world. Most of us think of gluten as in the form of wheat and bread. However, gluten is also found in pasta, cereals, crackers, cakes, candy, most commercial soups and sauces, thickeners, ketchup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, processed meats, monosodium glutamate (MSG), marinades, meat substitutes (Tofurkey and others), soy sauce, thickeners, instant coffee, and most processed foods in general.
Human genetics and our basic diet evolved over the course of two million years. That ‘original’ diet consisted primarily of wild plants, fruits, animal protein, and fats. Only for the last few thousand years have we been consuming grains with any regularity. Prior to that much of the grains we consumed were wild grasses and their seeds mainly endemic to the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. Their overall use though was minimal due to the processing needed to make them edible and their limited caloric return. Through the cultivation and farming of these wild grasses we alleviated the daily struggles of the hunting/gathering lifestyle and paved the way for the first agricultural societies. This led to ever increasing technological sophistication, rapid population growth, and the emergence of modern societies as we know them today.
It is clear that grains offer some considerable benefits as a food. Their caloric value is inexpensive, they provide the ability to feed a large number of people, and they can be stored for long periods of time. Grains play a significant role in the diet of most of the worlds population and in some they are eaten without noticeable health effects. However, there seems a strong correlation between the introduction of grains in the human diet and the emergence of chronic degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis, diabetes, thyroid disorders, obesity, and cancer to name but a few. It is important to note that these degenerative diseases are fairly ‘new’ to humans evolution.
Egypt was one of the first civilizations to domesticate and cultivate wheat on a large scale and grains became a staple in the average Egyptian diet. In recent years research conducted on mummified bodies revealed some of the earliest evidence of degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis and diabetes. We often consider these ‘modern diseases,’ yet they make their first appearances over two thousand years ago. Experts in the study of gluten and its effects on the human body do not see this as a coincidence. Some might argue that the more civilized living conditions of Egypt may have allowed for longer life expectancy, leading to the possible development of degenerative diseases. But the fact that the first known emergence of these diseases coincided with the establishment of one of earliest and largest grain based societies should not be overlooked.
The Greek and Roman Empires were built on the backs of Egyptian wheat. In around A.D 250 , the Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia wrote detailed descriptions of an unnamed disease in his writings. When describing his patients, he referred to them as “koiliakos,” which meant “suffering in the bowels.” The name koiliakos comes from the Greek word “koelia”, which means abdomen. He recommended to his patients suffering from this condition, to change their diet. Even though Aretaeus began to notice something was causing his patients pain and discomfort, he didn’t connect it to grains. This is possibly one of the earliest documentations of what would later be known as Celiac Disease.
In 1843, a physician named Stanislas Tanchou spoke at the Paris Medical Society Conference. He claimed that he could predict the cancer rates in major European cities over the next 50 years. He based his predictions on the percentage of grains being consumed in each major city. What is astonishing is that, over time, his predictions turned out to be correct. In the cities that had the highest grain consumption, cancer rates were the highest. This is in stark contrast to the fact that in populations who did not consume grains, cancer did not exist.
Towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, physicians also noticed more general declines in public health and a rise in digestive disorders, heart conditions, tooth decay, and other degenerative diseases. At the same time, missionaries, explorers, and physicians such as Dr. Weston A. Price documented the contrast in health between people who still subsisted on centuries old dietary practices dictated by their local environments, and people in ‘modern Western’ societies. Dr. Price hypothesized that the deteriorating health of modern civilizations was due to the increasing consumption of processed foods such as white flours, sugars, canned milk, and new hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as the in 1911 introduced “Crisco.
The industrial revolution dramatically changed how we farmed and processed our foods. In the favor of high yield and mass production the industry quickly abandoned millennia old harvesting and processing methods.
Before the Industrial Revolution, our ancestors took a variety of steps in the preparation of grains, making them easier to digest and absorb. For starters, they allowed the wheat shocks to stay in the fields much longer than wedo today. This exposed the shocks to weather and allowed them to “sweat.” Such exposure to moisture, and the subsequent drying in the sun, had a way of neutralizing some of the toxins found in grains such as phytates, phytic acid, aflatoxins, and lectins to name but a few. Additionally, our ancestors soaked, sprouted, leavened, and fermented their grains to further improve their digestibility. We know today that these toxic ‘anti-nutrients’, if not neutralized by proper preparation methods, inhibit mineral absorption and protein digestion, causing inflammation, suppressed thyroid function, dis-regulated hormone levels, and many other harmful effects on the body.
Another important point is that traditional ‘processing’ methods, such as using slow grinding stone mills, guaranteed that the final product contained all the essential nutrients and components that are found in the grain, including the germ, fiber, starch, and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. This was accomplished by keeping the entire grain kernel intact and preserving the the layers; the bran which contains most of the fiber, the germ which contains the nutrients and essential fatty acids, and the endoderm which is the starchy middle layer. However, without refrigeration or chemical preservatives, the fresh stone-ground flour spoiled quickly. This made the traditional process suitable for mass production, shipping cross country, or maintaining a long shelve life in grocery stores.
By foregoing traditional preparation methods, shortening harvesting periods, the addition of preservatives and chemicals, and through the introduction of high speed steel roller mills, today’s grains are nothing like the grains of our past. In the name of efficiency, production and long shelve life, today’s high speed mills eject the germ and the bran as a waste product. This eliminates the part of the grain that causes it to spoil, but also eliminates all the essential nutrients. These ‘byproducts’ are then sold to mass feeding lots as animal feed. The resulting white flour contains only a fraction of the nutrients found in the original grain and needs to be ‘enhanced’ or ‘enriched’ with synthetic vitamins. Furthermore, with temperatures reaching over 400 degrees fahrenheit, the high speed milling process causes further destruction of the few remaining nutrients and turns the remaining oils rancid. It destroys much the vitamin E contained in the germ, a real tragedy as whole wheat is one of most readily available sources for this vitamin. Literally dozens of dough conditioners and preservatives are added into modern bread, as well as toxic ingredients such as hydrogenated vegetable oils and soy flour, which adds additional anti-nutrients to the bread. And to add insult to injury, cereals and puffed grains undergo another process called extrusion, in which the grain is subjected to high temperatures and extremely high pressures, creating additional toxicity and further destroying nutrients.
Grains are truly humanity’s double edged sword. They enabled us to leave behind our hunter gatherer lifestyle and created the foundation for the modern societies as we know them today. On the other hand, there is growing evidence that they are one of the major culprits for our health problems.
We must remember that evolutionarily speaking, we have been around for almost two million years, but we have only been eating grains for a few thousand. As such, our bodies have not had the time to adapt to this “new” food in our diet. Furthermore, modern farming, harvesting, and processing methods have stripped grains of their nutritional integrity, decreasing their digestibility, and making them highly toxic and inflammatory food to our bodies. With no doubt, today’s grains are proving to be one of the major underlying contributors to the development of degenerative diseases as we known them today.
In part two of this article we will examine the effects of today’s grains on our bodies, the difference between gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease, the issues with standardized testing methods, and how decreasing genetic diversity and genetic modification is affecting our grains. So please stay tuned and feel free to contact me if you have any questions!