Thursday, June 6, 2013
It’s just the newest fad diet these days to go gluten-free, right? What is this stuff, “gluten,” anyway? Turns out this newest “fad” actually makes a lot of sense when we look into it. Gluten is the protein found in wheat and most other grains. Although grains (the seeds of grass plants) are mostly carbohydrate, there is a little fat and protein thrown in there too.
So let’s talk about grains. Grains are the newest food to be added to the human diet, from an evolutionary perspective (besides red #6 and weird processed food ingredients like butylated hydroxytoluene, but that’s another story). We’ve only been eating grains for about 10,000 years, at most. And that’s only in certain areas of the world. When you look at the fact that homo sapiens have been on the planet for over 400,000 years, and our older ancestors dating back to homo habilis have been on the planet for 2.3 million years, this is only the blink of an eye. Actually, this means we’ve been eating grains for only the last 0.04% of the time our species has been on this planet.
Grains are not human food. We do not have a gizzard, which is the organ that grainivores have that grinds the grains into flour inside their bodies. This is why we have to grind grains and cook them in order to eat them. Grainivores also eat little sticks and rocks to help their gizzards grind up the grains. Have you ever seen a wheat berry? It’s like a small rock. We would never eat that in the wild, that’s why our ancestors did not consider it food for the first 99.96% of human history.
Grain-eating started with the agricultural revolution. Humans realized that they could stop following the herd they relied on for survival, and stay in one place, if they planted the fields and kept domesticated animals. Thus was born farming. We needed foods that could be stored when animal foods were scarce, and increasingly came to rely on grains and beans, in addition to root vegetables, squash, and other foods that could be stored. These were used to supplement the animal foods that were available at the time.
Humans began experiencing a great increase in sickness and disease with the adoption of this foreign food group. Although many of us think of ancient humans as living short difficult lives, this is the experience of more recent people, after the agricultural revolution (like the middle ages). Pre-agricultural humans, or hunter-gatherers, often lived long and healthy lives. There are mummies that date back to pre-agricultural times that have all of their teeth and are believed to be close to 100 years old. Our human body evolved over millennia to be an amazing machine, when fed the right foods. Grains cause disease in multiple ways. First of all, there are a plethora of “anti-nutrients” in grains that strip vitamins and minerals out of the human body. The primary anti-nutrients are phytates, which bind to minerals and results in rickets, slowed skeletal growth, iron-deficiency anemia, and leaky gut syndrome.
Leaky gut is a very real issue in our society today. The main diseases that result from grain eating, besides vitamin and mineral deficiencies, are autoimmune disorders. When we eat grains, especially whole grains - which are actually worse for our bodies, the bran part of the grain that makes it a “whole grain” rips tiny microscopic holes in our intenstinal lining. (By the way, the reason they tell us whole grains are better for us is because they cause a slightly slower raise in blood glucose. This is similar to saying that low-tar cigarettes are slightly better for you than high-tar cigarettes so you should smoke a lot of them.) When we have these holes in our intestinal walls, intact proteins from our diet can leak into our blood stream instead of being broken down into individual amino acids. When the body sees certain intact proteins from our diet (like gluten and casein - milk protein) in our blood, it thinks this protein is a pathogen because many germs and pathogens are long protein strings. The body reacts with an immune response against the imagined invader. When this goes on for years, the immune system eventually turns on its host and causes auto-immune problems. These include: Type I Diabetes Mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis and joint problems, Crohn’s disease, colitis, celiac, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, psoriasis and eczema, hypo- and hyperthyroidism, depression, anxiety, Sjogren’s syndrome, and irritable bowel syndrome, among many others.
So why are grains the base of the food pyramid and why are we told to eat a diet high in “healthy” whole grains? Well, the most obvious explanation is because the grain industry likes it that way. They make a lot of money off of our grain-eating ways, and the health care industry makes a lot of money off of treating these diseases. The reason this misinformation has been perpetuated for so many years, especially in our country, is because nutrition research in America is almost exclusively industry-funded. There is no federally-funded nutrition research in the U.S., like there is in many other Westernized countries. This means that most of the nutrition research here is funded by groups like the grain and sugar industries. This obviously sways the results of the research, and which studies not only get funded, but which get published.
Many people are forced to eat a diet higher in grains and other cheap carbohydrates because animal foods are more expensive. There is also an incorrect belief that grains and plant foods are easier on the planet that growing animals. Ironically, these days we not only eat grains ourselves but feed it to our domesticated animals – like chickens, who are omnivores and eat worms, and cows who are supposed to be eating grass. But is it really cheaper when we look at the costs of health care, and living shorter lives? There is a quote I like that says something like, Pay for food now or doctor’s bills later. When the destruction of the soil and our bodies is taken into account, we find that grain eating is not actually cheaper or better for the planet.
But how can we possibly give up bread? The staff of life, give us this day… Crusty baguettes and cake and donuts and cookies. Well, gluten-free has been a “fad” long enough that wonderful alternative have been put on the market. I have been off of gluten grains for almost a decade, and don’t miss them at all. I eat sandwiches, cake, cookies, and pizza – mostly made out of rice, tapioca, and potato starch, all of which are “safe starches”. But mostly I eat healthy animal foods. And in addition to watching the pounds melt away, I got to watch numerous health problems melt away as well.
Or you can make gluten-free alternatives yourself, at home!
My favorite gluten-free flour blend (use this instead of wheat flour in any recipe)
6 Cups white rice flour
2 Cups potato starch
1 Cup tapioca flour or starch
xantham gum, guar gum, or agar agar as a binding agent – amounts vary depending on whether the recipe is for bread, cake, or cookies and will be given on the package.