I always believed a variety of natural, wholesome foods is pretty much all most people need to eat healthy. This, for me, included whole grains and grain products. So, when I first heard of the paleolithic diet (“paleo”), a lifestyle centered on eating ancient, uncultivated foods and eschewing all grains, I was a little skeptical. I don’t eat processed, refined white bread. I choose whole-grained bread, hot cereal, granola, and baked goods, thinking I was getting more protein and fiber. Surely, I thought, grains are good for you.
But recently I’ve begun to rethink this. There’s a great deal of sense in eating what our bodies have naturally evolved to process. We haven’t changed much at all from the fully human Paleolithic hunter-gatherer that emerged some 200,000 years ago. In fact, since agriculture took hold about 10,000 years ago, our species has actually declined physically. We are now shorter, less healthy, and have a smaller brain capacity than our Paleo ancestors. Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel, has called agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”.
Not great news for farmers or homesteaders. We have outgrown the world’s capacity to support our immense human population solely on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Besides, cultivating a staple diet of grains is what has made our species great: created a stratified social structure that allowed for artists, thinkers, traders, administrators, builders, and scientists to develop and eventually create our amazing modern civilization.
The problem is what’s been good for civilization isn’t always so swell for the individuals living in it. Our Western culture is plagued by obesity, diabetes, heart disease, allergies, and bowel disease to a degree virtually unheard of in our ancient past. The biggest killers of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers were the environment, child-birth, infectious disease, accidents, and murder (more common than you’d think). It’s a myth that cavemen and women were designed to live only thirty years. The few who did survive calamity had the potential to live as long as we do now.
So why are we beset by diseases unknown to our deep ancestors? Could it have something to do with our food? Just what is our digestive system designed to digest? Recent studies are uncovering some amazing facts about our guts and what we put in them.
Our Gut and How it Evolved
It’s been discovered that our gut has a brain of its own. If you gathered up all the 500 million nerve cells and 100 million neurons that direct our digestive system’s efforts to convert food to energy, you would wind up with a brain about the size of a cat’s. Now I don’t know about you, but the thought of an intelligent brain living within my abdomen that is as smart as my cat is rather eerie. This brain is what communicates to that “other” brain in our head, letting us know when it’s hungry. Rather like a cat yowling at her bowl, come to think of it.
If that isn’t strange enough, it turns out that our bodies, cell for cell, are mostly bacteria. There’s a teeming bacterial population living in the gut called the microbiome. According to Dr. Siri Carpenter of the American Psychological Association, bacteria actually outnumber all the human cells in our bodies by ten to one. The gut brain “leverages th(is) living bacterial ecosystem for the sake of both physical and psychological well-being”.
Yes, the state of the bacteria in our gut can actually affect the state of our mind.
Research done by neuroimmunologist John Bienenstock, MD, of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario reveals that a healthy microbiome can make animals in a lab bolder, smarter, more relaxed, and more tolerant of pain. Effects on learning, memory, and mood are caused by neurochemicals produced by gut bacteria. 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin is produced by the microbiome. In reverse, even a mildly stressed mind can affect the balance of bacteria in the gut, leading to disease.
Microbiome bacteria have evolved alongside their human hosts. Because they are bacteria with very short life spans, their potential for rapid evolutionary change and adaptability offers us the advantage of flexibility of diet—a great boon for omnivores on the move. Bacteria can evolve to break down new foods, or dismantle newly encountered toxins. They can become distinct population groups, swapping genes and pieces of DNA. Michael Pollen in a recent New York Times article describes how researchers discovered that Japanese people can digest raw seaweed, something the rest of us can’t do as well. This is due to a certain microbe in their guts acquired 40,000 years ago when they first arrived on the islands of Japan and began ingesting a marine bacterium gene in the seaweed they found there.
So, is our ingenious gut and its army of bacteria adaptable enough to handle our modern post-Paleo diet? What about grain?
Is Too Much Grain Bad for Us?
As soon as you attempt to research this question you discover grain is either the best thing since, well, sliced bread, and something our bodies naturally benefit from, or grain is a villain that causes a plague of troubles. Proponents of both sides have persuasive arguments. Both “sound” right.
Grains are the seeds of grasses that have been cultivated by humans for millennia. They include wheat, corn, rye, oats, rice, and millet among others. However, even with Asia’s rice and Mesoamerica’s corn, wheat is Queen, taking up more than 590,000,000 acres on the planet and trading more on the worldwide market that all other grain crops combined. Although advocates of the Paleo Diet recommend not eating any grains (paleoplan.com bans wheat, rice, millet, oats, spelt, kamut, quinoa, buckwheat, wild rice, amaranth, sorghum, rye, barley, and corn) we will focus on wheat in this article as it’s the grain North Americans are most familiar with.
Those who support wheat as a staple in our diet offer ideas that are not new. We grew up thinking cream of wheat was a healthy breakfast, fortified white bread puts roses in your cheeks, and wheat is a “complete” food, dense with vitamins, minerals, energy rich starches and proteins to build healthy bodies. References to wheat are in the Bible (give us this day our daily bread), in our history books (think ancient Egyptians and their bee-hive shaped grain elevators), and is deeply rooted in American culture (O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain). However, just because something is “ingrained” doesn’t make it good.
It seems one of the problems with wheat is it isn’t what it was. According to cardiologist William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly, all forms of wheat product North Americans now consume, from refined white bread to sprouted multigrain cereal, are both addictive and toxic. It isn’t the same grain people ate as little as fifty years ago. The new strains were created not for nutritional benefits, but to resist fungi and drought and increase yield per acre. Worse, wheat is now super gluten-ized to make dough more elastic and create fluffier bread, flakier pastries and enhance characteristics of wheat additives for a cornucopia of commercial products.
Some years ago I wanted to lose some weight and gave up starches for awhile, including bread. Within four days, although I was eating plenty of food, my body was screaming for sugar. Now, I rarely eat sweets, I just don’t have a craving for them. However, when I stopped eating bread I actually started to dream of candy bars. The intense cravings I had were identical to those I experienced when I gave up smoking many years ago Luckily this craving subsided after about four weeks on my diet. But wheat was one of the hardest things I ever gave up.
I’ve since learned that wheat now contains a special protein called gliatin. Gliatin is highly addictive – the body reacts to it in the same way it does to opium. Eating gliatin makes you incessantly hungry and creates cravings for more wheat products and refined carbs. Try cutting all wheat from your diet and you’ll see just how true this is.
According to Carolyn Akens, a NY holistic health coach, “Wheat intolerance is consistently rising in huge numbers.” She states that humans don’t fully digest wheat the way herbivorous ruminants like sheep and cows do. Undigested wheat gluten fermenting in the human gut causes gas, bloating and leaky gut that releases toxins into the bloodstream”. This opinion is shared by many in the holistic health field.
A Chicago Tribune article written by Josephine Marcotty quotes a Minnesota study that found wheat gluten intolerance, a debilitating digestive condition, is four times more common today than it was in the 1950s and mortality rates have also increased. About 1 percent of the population has been diagnosed with Celiac disease, where gluten damages the intestinal walls. Many more, about 12 percent, have gluten sensitivity, which means the body produces antibodies in response to what it sees as a foreign substance in wheat, rye and barley protein.
The immune system is then directed to attack the lining of the small intestine, which causes diarrhea, nausea and pain. It’s likely there are many more people who have minor reactions to wheat but who don’t know the source. After all gas, bloating and indigestion are so common we simply consider it part of daily life.
On the other hand, many nutritionists believe that not only are we able to assimilate grains, but they are actually very good for us. Kimberly Snyder, a New York Times bestselling author and nutritionist for many celebrities, says “We’re designed to eat grains. We’ve evolved to eat them because the human body adapts in order to survive, and can get vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and even antioxidants from whole grains… humans have evolved to have more amylase, which breaks down starchy foods.”
The USDA supports wheat consumption, although it recommends eating whole grains to get the most nutritional benefit. The Canadian Food Guide recommends up to 7 servings of grain per day for adults, although they do recommend a variety of mostly whole grains. The original American Food Guide Pyramid proposed grain in the form of bread, cereal, rice and pasta as the foundation for our diet. This gradually changed until 2011, when the pyramid was replaced by MyPlate, which recommends around 30 percent grains in daily intake, with at least half of these to be from whole grains.
Anthropologists have found evidence of grain consumption as far back as 105,000 years ago. This only makes sense. We evolved on the grasslands of Africa. Grasses would naturally have been on the menu. But comparing these ancient grains to modern wheat strains would be a mistake.
The first known wheat grains to be consumed by people were two Wild Einkorn varieties and Goat Grass. When hunter-gathers first arrived in the Fertile Crescent they discovered these grasses growing among the open woodland. They chewed the raw grains, roasted them, pounded them to mush and certainly would have fermented them. They didn’t cultivate them. Einkorn and Goat Grass have tough shells protecting the thin seed so extraction was time consuming. Combined with the fact the ears would readily shatter, a technique the plant uses to spread its seed, meant collecting and eating a lot of grain would be problematic. These grasses would be picked and relished, but they’d hardly be a staple of the Paleolithic diet.
About 30,000 years ago, before we had anything resembling modern agriculture, Wild Einkorn and Goat Grass combined their genes to create a hybrid called Wild Emmer. Emmer still had tough seed coverings and fragile ears, but the grains were larger, making the effort of gathering them more rewarding. It was Wild Emmer that was selected for cultivation once agriculture began in earnest some 10,000 years ago. New farmers favored traits that would be a disadvantage to any grass in the wild—bulkier grains, thinner seed casings, and the tendency to hold onto their seed rather than disperse them with shattering. Eventually, wheat began to look more like some of the grains we’re familiar with today. Cultivated Emmer gave rise to spelt and eventually to modern Durum and bread wheat.
Did ancient hunter-gather peoples eat grain? Certainly. So why was it good for them and bad for us? Probably because they didn’t eat the 146 lbs of refined, modified wheat products per year that each of us do. The amylase in our guts may have evolved to process some grain, but even our amazing gut can’t handle that kind of onslaught.
Many believe a return to the foods of our early ancestors is a return to health. But, what were these ancient foods? Are they still around? How do we obtain them?
What is (and was) the Paleolithic Diet?
Try to imagine someone from the Paleolithic era and you’ll likely envision a fur-clad cave man, club in hand, on the hunt for his next meal. This might be a wooly mammoth or one of the large wild herbivores painted on cave walls. We tend to think of pre-agricultural people as eating a lot of meat. Meat is important in our evolution, but big game was rarely the staple food.
Evidence found in ancient camps and dump sites (and observation of modern hunter-gatherer peoples) supports a diverse diet based on wild vegetables, tubers, fruits, berries, mushrooms, seaweed, nuts and meats. Some groups relied more heavily on hunting big game animals, but the majority of protein for most humans came from other sources like fish and shellfish, snakes and reptiles, birds, small animals, nuts, eggs, grubs and insects.
For the last 100,000 years or so, people cooked their food and this enhanced the variety of foods they could eat. However, many of the species of plants and animals they ate are now rare, extinct or forgotten. Reproducing a similar diet would be very challenging in today’s kitchen.
However, there are many who believe we should try. According to Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution, most of what ails us today is directly due to the food we now grow. “The Paleo diet is the healthiest way you can eat because it is the ONLY nutritional approach that works with your genetics to help you stay lean, strong and energetic!”
There’s some debate even within the Paleo community about what is acceptable to eat. Most avoid dairy, grains, legumes, refined sweeteners, and highly processed oils. They restrict coffee, chocolate, dried fruit, alcohol, caffeinated teas and natural sweeteners such as honey. They advise getting plenty of vegetables, fruits, grass-fed and free-range meats and eggs, fish, shell fish, eggs, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, and fats from animals, nuts and olives.
On the Homestead: Can We Grow Hunter-gatherer-type Crops and Animals?
Well, yes and no. It depends on your interpretation of Paleo, what ancient foods are still available, and what you want to eat (snake, anyone?).
Grain as a staple is out. However, since grain was a part of ancient people’s diets, Spelt and some other ancient grains might be feasible as long as it’s grown as a small component of the diet and not as its foundation.
Aurochs, the wild ox that gave rise to our domesticated cattle is now extinct. Wild boars are notoriously hard to handle. Many of the wild animals we used to hunt are now gone. However, there are thousands of animals kept on farms or ranches that have changed little from their ancestors over the millennia. These include yaks, bison, goats, llamas, emu, ostrich, reindeer, honey bees, pigeons, elk, quail, deer, and pheasant. Domesticated heirloom breeds of pigs, sheep, fowl, rabbits, and cattle produce a higher quality of meat and by-products than more modern breeds.
We may not eat much sea asparagus anymore, but we can still grow “forage” crops of berries, tree nuts, mushrooms, and heirloom varieties of herbs, vegetables, and fruits. A browse through many of the new heritage seed catalogues opens up many exciting options for getting earlier varieties of food on our plates.
And that’s the key: Variety, Variety, Variety. Hunter-gatherers were opportunistic nomads, following the seasons, eating whatever they found along the way. We can reproduce much of that variety of unadulterated, natural foods. Herbivores that eat grass the way their ancestors did are healthier and provide better nutrition. Permaculture produces foods that access nutrients from a naturally rich soil ecosystem. Multiple small plots with a variety of organic heritage foods offer the diversity our bodies were evolved to utilize. Homesteaders getting “back to basics” are already on the right track to creating a more natural, healthy way of eating.
Our ancestors would be proud.