Over a half decade ago Professor Jared Diamond, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, famously wrote
“The adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”
Dr Diamond was referring, of course, to the devolution of human health that took place as mankind suffered the corporal transformation driven by the mismatch between hunter-gatherer genes and an agricultural diet and lifestyle. Smaller stature, decreased cortical bone thickness, obesity, increased incidence of infectious diseases, dental caries, periodontal disease, vitamin deficiencies, and even famine – all common in agriculturists – were not, for the most part, the lot of pre-agricultural man.
Humanity doubtless gained more than it lost in this hunter to farmer changeover when viewed in a big-picture sort of way. Farming made possible larger communities filled with workers, workers who, for the first time, made specialization of labor a possibility. And fewer people could till the fields and provide food for the many, freeing the others to pursue the arts, business, politics, and warfare.
Stephen Budiansky, author of one of my favorite books, Covenant of the Wild, describes how domestic animals formed a pact with humans in which the animals traded a period of safety and survival for their lives. Had this covenant not been made, it is highly likely – virtually a certainty – that cows would now be extinct. Big, slow, stupid and tasty, had they not been amenable to domestication and entered into the covenant with their domesticators, cattle would have been hunted to extinction long, long ago. But they did – however unwillingly – make the covenant and so exist by the tens of millions today. The deal they cut was a phenomenal deal for cattle as a species, but not a particularly good deal for the individual cow when the time comes to pay up at slaughter.
Homo sapiens entered an almost mirror image of this same covenant when they domesticated cereal grasses.* We gave up our independence and mobility for the promise of a constant and plentiful food supply. But, as with our covenant with domestic animals, there is a catch. And this time it’s with us. Humans emerged from this deal with the short end of the stick. In the same way as did cattle, we made a good-for-humans-as-a-species/bad-for-the-individual-human trade. Like it or not, we traded the health of the individual human for the overall good of mankind and the development of civilization.
We traded a diet based primarily on fat and protein with a little carbohydrate thrown in from roots, shoots and tubers for one centered predominantly on carbohydrate. The main source of the carbohydrate was cereal grains, chiefly ancient forms of wheat, the predecessor of the wheat that now occupies a large part of the human diet everywhere. Ancient forms of wheat didn’t do our forebears a lot of good, and, according to Dr. William Davis’s new book Wheat Belly, the modern forms of the grain do us even less good.
Before we get to the problems modern hybrid wheat causes us, let’s take a look at the afflictions a diet of primitive wheat visited upon our predecessors.
The ancient Egyptians consumed a diet that would be considered optimal by many people today. Both wealthy and poor Egyptians consumed primarily bread and a type of cloudy, almost gruel-like beer. To these staples were added a variety of vegetables (mainly onions), and a small selection of game, fish and meat. The bread was made from coarse ground, whole grain emmer wheat, a primitive, high-protein wheat. Sugar didn’t come on the scene until about 1000 AD, so the Egyptians used honey sparingly (it was expensive) as a sweetener along with figs. In short, these people consumed a diet the vast majority of modern nutritionists would prescribe to people to prevent obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and the rest of the diseases associated with the Western diet.
But, as their mummified remains and their contemporary artwork demonstrate, the ancient Egyptians were often fat and were riddled with heart disease, dental caries, bad periodontal disease and no doubt diabetes and hypertension. Many people have argued that since only the wealthy were mummified, the mummy data applies only to them, and since the wealthy ate more red meat, the rates of obesity, heart disease and the other disorders common to them didn’t apply to the rest of the population. Even the common man, however, was often portrayed as obese in Egyptian artwork, and despite greater consumption of meat, the main staple of even the wealthy was bread and beer.
And it didn’t do them a lot of good.
The 5,300 year old mummy of Ötzi the Iceman found in the Italian Alps showed a bad case of dental caries and periodontitis along with a stomach-full of einkorn wheat (another primitive variety). Said the researchers who examined Ötzi [This is a new link. Old link is no longer live. Quotes are from the old link]:
Although the Iceman did not lose a single tooth until the his death at an age of about 40 years, he had an advanced abrasion of his teeth, profound carious lesions, and a moderate to severe periodontitis.
In particular, the molars of the upper jaw showed loss of alveolar bone as a sign of periodontitis (inflammation of the ligaments and bones that support the teeth), while evidence of “mechanical trauma” was found on two teeth.
…the most surprising find is the high frequency of cavities.
These dental pathologies are a sign of change in the Neolithic diet.
We already know that he was eating grains, such as einkorn or emmer. The contained carbohydrates clearly increased the risk of developing dental diseases
One would assume these findings would be common among the rest of Ötzi’s contemporaries, who doubtless consumed a similar diet.
Sadly, these same findings are also common among modern man who consumes a more malign version of primitive wheat.
Until I read Dr. Davis’s book Wheat Belly, I didn’t really think much about wheat other than its being a major source of carbohydrate in the American diet. It never had occurred to me that the wheat we eat today is not the same wheat of our great-grandmothers cooked with nor probably even our grandmothers. And it really hadn’t dawned on me how pervasive wheat is in the diet. Since reading Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma I had been conscious of the amount of corn in our modern diet, but I hadn’t thought much about wheat.
As Yogi Berra supposedly said, “You can see a lot just by looking.” So I went out and looked. And I can tell you that we are much more Children of the Wheat than we are Children of the Corn.
In most grocery stores, an entire aisle is devoted to nothing but bread in all its forms. Then there is typically another large aisle full of cakes, cupcakes, cookies, pies, tarts, sweet rolls, bagels, croissants, brownies, and other sweet baked goods. The vast majority of the cereal aisle displays products containing primarily wheat. And if you look at processed foods of all kinds, you’ll find wheat in there. If you make or buy gravy, roux, or just about any kind of sauce, you’ll find it’s thickened with wheat flour. (MD bought some demi-glace a few days ago, and noticed as she was removing it from the container that even it had added wheat.) Then there is the aisle full of different beers, many of which are made with wheat. These are just a few of the items you can find containing wheat in a grocery store; don’t even get me started on restaurant fare.
Wheat is everywhere – corn should be so lucky.
When I was roaming around looking for pictures of dwarf wheat (more about which later), I came upon the website for the Kansas Wheat Commission that listed a few facts about wheat. Here are several that caught my eye.
Wheat is the primary grain used in U.S. grain products. Approximately three-quarters of all U.S. grain products are made from wheat flour.
More food is made with wheat than any other cereal grain.
U.S. Farmers grow nearly 2.4 billion bushels of wheat on 63 million acres of land.
About half the wheat grown in the United States is used domestically.
A little back-of-the-envelope calculating using the above statistics tells us that each of us in the United States consumes about four bushels of wheat per year. Another statistic from the linked website states that each bushel of wheat makes about 90 one-pound loaves of whole wheat bread. So, we all eat the equivalent of 360 loaves of bread per year, or approximately one loaf per person per day. That’s a lot of wheat, in fact, it’s almost approaching ancient Egyptian levels. (Moreover, since MD and I don’t eat any, that means two other people out there are each eating two loaves per day.)
It would be bad enough if we consumed all this wheat as emmer or einkhorn or other primitive varieties, but we don’t. We get most from a hybrid of Triticum aestivum – our great grandmother’s wheat – called dwarf (or semi-dwarf) wheat, which now comprises more than 99 percent of all wheat grown worldwide.
As Dr. Davis tells it, the hybridization of wheat came about in an effort to improve yield, which is now about tenfold greater per acre than it was a century ago. Older strains of wheat were taller and more prone to damage from wind and rain. And
When large quantities of nitrogen-rich fertilizer are applied to wheat fields, the seed head at the top of the plant grows to enormous proportions. The top-heavy seed head, however, buckles the stalk. Buckling kills the plant and makes harvesting problematic. A University of Minnesota-trained geneticist…is credited with developing the exceptionally high-yielding dwarf wheat that was shorter and stockier, allowing the plant to maintain erect posture and resist buckling under the large seed head. Tall stalks are also inefficient; short stalks reach maturity more quickly, which means a shorter growing season with less fertilizer required to generate the otherwise useless stalk.
Below you can see the difference between wheat grown in the Middle Ages (left) and the short dwarf wheat grown today.
Dr. Davis writes that modern wheat is approximately 70 percent carbohydrate by weight. The carbohydrate is in the form of a starch called amylopectin A.
The most digestible form of amylopectin, amylopectin A, is the form found in wheat. Because it is the most digestible, it is the form that most enthusiastically increases blood sugar. This explains why, gram for gram, wheat increases blood sugar to a greater degree than, say, kidney beans or potato chips. The amylopectin A of wheat products, “complex” or no, might be regarded as a supercarbohydrate, a form of highly digestible carbohydrate that is more efficiently converted to blood sugar than nearly all the other carbohydrate foods, simple or complex. [Italics in the original.]
But what about the much vaunted whole grains. Won’t ‘whole grain’ bread or wheat products be better? Not according to Dr. Davis:
…the degree of processing, from a blood sugar standpoint, makes little difference: Wheat is wheat, with various forms of processing or lack of processing, simple or complex, high-fiber or low-fiber, all generating similar high blood sugars. Just as “boys will be boys,” amylopectin A will be amylopectin A. In healthy, slender volunteers, two medium-sized slices of whole wheat bread increase blood sugar by 30 mg/dl (from 93 to 123 mg/dl), no different from white bread. In people with diabetes, both white and whole grain bread increase blood sugar 70 to 120 mg/dl over starting levels.
And aside from the blood sugar and, consequently, insulin problems caused by the consumption of too much wheat, there are other problems. As with almost any food, the newer the food, the greater the likelihood that it will be problematic to some humans who consume it. Since dwarf wheat has been around for less than 50 years, it should come as no surprise that it does indeed cause its share of problems. Dr. Davis spends the better part of his excellent book detailing many of these problems and describing his clinical experience in helping many of his patients shuck their wheat habit. He describes the increase in celiac disease over the past 50 years and believes, as I do, that celiac disease is a continuum. The severe form of it that is recognized as celiac disease is pretty easy to diagnose (if a doctor has sense enough to look for it), but there are milder forms that manifest themselves as anything from mysterious rashes that come and go to diarrhea and other GI disturbances to arthritic aches and pains. And we can’t forget a number of other afflictions that may well have their basis in wheat intolerance that include osteoporosis, acne (bagel face?), neurological disorders, and the creepily- dubbed ‘man boobs.’
It’s good to learn in Wheat Belly that Dr. Davis has finally shucked his bred-in-the-bone cardiologist’s antipathy toward fat in general and saturated fat specifically and has come over to what most of his peers must view as the dark (read: low-carb) side:
The fat phobia of the past forty years turned us off from foods such as eggs, sirloin, and pork because of their saturated fat content — but saturated fat was never the problem. Carbohydrates in combination with saturated fat, however, cause measures of LDL particles to skyrocket. The problem was carbohydrates more than saturated fat. In fact, new studies have exonerated saturated fat as an underlying contributor to heart attack and stroke risk. [Italics in the original.]
Dr. Davis wraps up his meticulously researched book with a straightforward plan to help free the reader from the tyranny of wheat, while at the same time providing instructions for a delicious and satisfying wheat-free diet. He furnishes an extensive list of wheat-containing foods that should be avoided and imparts his caveats about going facedown in products advertised as being gluten-free. And best of all, he provides a short section filled with matchless wheat-free recipes for many meals that would otherwise be wheat-laden. (MD and I have tried a few of these recipes and found them to be superb. I especially enjoy his wheat-free granola recipe even though I go a little easy on the rolled oats part of it.)
Wheat Belly hit the New York Times Bestseller list shortly after it came out (and has been there for two weeks now), which I can tell you from experience, is not an easy thing to do. As a result (because being on the NY Times list means a book has had big sales numbers), the wheat producers have not taken their hits lying down. They’re fighting back with full venom, because a book like this one can do them serious economic damage. Expect it to get worse. (Remember all those shelves in the grocery stores stuffed with wheat-containing products? They don’t want to see that go away.) You can read about some of their tactics here and read Tom Naughton’s interviews with Dr. Davis here and here.
I can’t recommend this terrific book highly enough. Wheat Belly is fully referenced and indexed (unless you somehow got the little freebee paperback review version that I received from the publisher), and is a must have for the library of any serious low-carber or anyone concerned about health.
*MD and I wrote about this domestication of humans by grains in The Protein Power LifePlan. In that book we referenced an interesting paper by a couple of Australian researchers on the hypothesis that the addictive nature of cereal grains [full text pdf] helping this domestication along. [An updated version of this paper is available in full text here.]
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