The Deception and Danger of Grain Based FoodsJune 15th, 2009
Grain based foods such as cereal, bread and pasta have become a staple of the modern diet. Despite their popularity and the common recommendation to make them the most significant part of your diet, grains are at the root of many serious health issues. Between the number of grain based foods that are highly processed and unhealthy for anyone and the number of people who don’t digest grains well, frequent consumption of these foods can easily lead to life compromising conditions, and if left unaddressed, even premature death.
Many government organizations and so called nutrition experts adamantly state that grain based foods are the foundation of a healthy diet. Unfortunately, this dogmatic perspective is misleading many people and encouraging them to harm their health and live a compromised life.
Why Grain is Such a Large Part of the Modern Diet
Wild grains are very difficult to eat and weren’t a regular part of the human diet until the recent advent of agriculture. Despite the fact that farming required more effort than hunting animals and gathering fruits and vegetables, grains provided several advantages that made the additional effort worth while. Because grains could be stored for long periods of time, they were a more reliable source of food. This allowed humans to settle into more permanent communities and establish better living quarters.
Grains are also known to be addictive and have the ability to mimic the effects of an opioid drug. As such, they provided a false sense of comfort and well being that encouraged many of the early proponents of agriculture to continue eating and farming them.
Today, grain based foods continue to provide similar advantages. They can easily and inexpensively be produced in mass quantities, they have a long shelf life, and their addictive nature continues to lure people into buying them. Based on these factors, grain based foods are a money making dream come true for large food manufacturers.
An Evolutionary Oversight
Based on the estimation that the earliest forms of agriculture began only about 10,000 years ago, we haven’t been consuming grains for very long. Compared to the millions of years of human evolution, this is a minuscule amount of time and is not nearly long enough for us to have adapted to the dramatic shift from meat to grain.1-3 In fact, some regions of the world have only been exposed to agriculture and grain based foods for a few thousand years and have had much less time to adapt. In short, many of us simply aren’t built to thrive on grain based foods.
Archeological evidence shows that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture has had an undesirable impact on human development. Research indicates that early adapters of agriculture were smaller, more diseased, and had smaller brains and weaker bones than their hunter and gatherer predecessors. This includes a 5 to 6 inch reduction in height and an 11% reduction in brain size.
How Selective Farming and Food Processing Made Matters Worse
10,000 years later, we still think we can outsmart nature and invent our diet rather than eating the foods we evolved on and are built to thrive on. Maybe our smaller brains are preventing us from realizing the flaw in this approach! Not only have we failed to recognize this significant problem, but we’ve made it much worse with the technological advances of food processing. Most modern grain based foods are highly processed, have excessive amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates, and contain toxins from pesticides and additives. These foods are bad for all us regardless of the fact that many of us are unable to digest the grains that they’re derived from.
Farming has also contributed to the problem. Many of the issues associated with grain based foods are caused by a type of protein that they contain called gluten. This protein allows grains to store nutrients that are beneficial to their growth and survival, particularly in colder climates. As the use of agriculture spread to the north, the colder weather facilitated the evolution of grains that contain much higher amounts of gluten.
Gluten is also important to food manufacturers because of it’s beneficial baking characteristics. As such, farmers now have even more incentive to favor grains with the highest gluten content. Because of food processing and selective farming, the grain based foods that we eat today are much less nutritious, much more unhealthy, and contain much more gluten than they did previously. Based on this, the frequency and severity of health issues that are related to grain based foods shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
Why Grains Can Be a Nutritional Nightmare
Aside from the highly refined grains that are bad for all of us, whole grains can be a good source of nutrition for people who are able to properly digest them. However, many of the amino acids that gluten is made of are tightly bonded and very resistant to human digestion. While some people produce the enzymes necessary to digest gluten, many don’t. For these people, undigested gluten proteins often invoke an immune response that inflames and damages the intestinal lining.
The intestinal lining is a significant part of the immune system and prevents pathogens, antigens, toxins and undigested food from entering the blood stream. When the intestinal lining is damaged, these undesirable substances and organisms can enter the blood stream much more easily. Once they do, they invoke further immune responses throughout the body that can cause a wide range of unpleasant symptoms. In addition, undigested gluten proteins that circulate in the blood stream have also been found to directly damage organ tissue. If either of these scenarios occur on a regular basis, the chances of developing a serious disease are significantly higher.
Anything that contributes to the damage of the intestinal lining will increase it’s permeability and also the chance that undigested gluten proteins will enter the blood stream. This can be caused by chronic infections, chemical exposure, the use of antibiotics, and excessive consumption of sugar and processed foods. These stressors also force the adrenal glands to produce the cortisol required to reduce the resulting inflammation. If this happens frequently enough, it will likely lead to adrenal fatigue, and in turn, cause even more problems.
Gluten Intolerance, Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease
There’s a lot of different terminology surrounding the issues related to gluten and its digestion. Gluten intolerance is the most general and is often used to describe all types of gluten related reactions. Gluten sensitivity is slightly more specific and typically refers to the presence of gluten proteins in the blood stream and the associated immune reactions that result. Although it often goes undiagnosed, gluten sensitivity is estimated to effect between a tenth to nearly half of the population.
Celiac disease can exist with or without gluten sensitivity and is a condition in which the immune response to undigested gluten proteins damages and flattens the microvilli of the intestinal lining. This increases intestinal permeability and typically results in poor nutrient absorption. While celiac disease is far less common than gluten sensitivity, it’s more common than most people realize. It affects about 1% of the population and unfortunately takes an average of about 11 years to be diagnosed. Even worse, some people with celiac disease are never diagnosed and are left suffering with a compromised life that often leads to other diseases and premature death.
The symptoms of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease can vary dramatically from person to person, and the severity of the symptoms is not a reliable indicator of how much physical damage is being done. In fact, some people don’t experience any symptoms at all despite the fact that they’re still incurring intestinal damage. Unfortunately, cancer is often the first recognizable problem that these people experience.
The Link Between Gluten and Modern Diseases
One of the most dangerous characteristics of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease is the potential they have to cause many of the serious health issues that have become so common in today’s society. People who are unable to properly digest gluten and continue to regularly consume the grain based foods that contain it will often develop one or more of the many associated conditions and diseases. This includes cancer, autoimmune disease, neurological disease, bowel disease, osteoporosis, epilepsy, attention deficit disorder, infertility, liver disease, and many others. As such, gluten sensitivity and celiac disease should be taken just as seriously as any of the conditions and diseases that they can cause.
The followup to this article discusses gluten’s association with these diseases in more detail.
Testing for Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease
Although a number of the smaller proteins that make up gluten are believed to be problematic, gliadin is the one that’s most well known. As such, most gluten sensitivity testing is designed to identify gliadin antibodies. The presence of these antibodies indicates that undigested gluten proteins are circulating in the blood and are invoking an immune response. Unfortunately, gliadin antibody testing is likely to be ineffective for people who have already eliminated gluten from their diets.
Celiac disease is often diagnosed through a biopsy that reveals a damaged intestinal lining. Because this damage is not always uniform, a diagnosis can easily be missed if the biopsy is taken from a healthy section of the intestines. As with the antibody testing, biopsies are also less likely to result in a diagnosis after gluten has been eliminated from the diet and the intestinal lining has had a chance to heal.
A fairly new and much less invasive type of testing for celiac disease identifies the presence of transglutaminase antibodies which is an indication of recent intestinal damage. If you live in Canada, you can order a finger prick version of this test that will give an immediate result. For more information, visit Celiac Home Test.
Trying and Implementing a Gluten Free Diet
The simplest way to determine if you’re sensitive to gluten is to temporarily eliminate it from your diet. However, to notice any improvements, you must completely avoid gluten for at least two weeks. If you’re experiencing symptoms from any unrelated conditions, it will take longer and will be much more difficult to recognize any changes. As such, don’t be too quick to disregard the possibility of gluten sensitivity. To make a more accurate assessment, I recommend that you strictly eliminate gluten for at least a month or two. If you do notice an improvement, it would be in your best interest to follow a gluten free diet permanently.
Many people who are sensitive to gluten make the mistake of following an unhealthy gluten free diet. If you avoid gluten but continue to eat processed alternatives that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates as well as chemical additives, you’ll still be likely to experience symptoms of poor health. Although you’ll be avoiding the problems associated with gluten sensitivity, you’ll be trading one problem for another and will continue to have a high risk of disease.
The healthiest and most simple way to follow a gluten free diet is to eat only natural whole foods such as meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. These are the most nutritious foods you can eat, and because they don’t contain any gluten, they automatically eliminate the guesswork associated with a gluten free diet. Because gluten has been found to cause intestinal damage and symptoms of reactivity in even the smallest amounts, it’s important to avoid any trace of it. As such, you need to protect your food from exposure to gluten and even to cookware and utensils that were used with foods containing gluten.
Despite experiencing improvements from a gluten free diet, many people are reluctant to stay gluten free without the confirmation of positive test results. As unfortunate as this is, it’s understandable considering the addictive nature of grain based foods and how common they are in the modern diet. If this applies to you, keep in mind that trying a gluten free diet will affect the reliability of most testing methods.
Be Cautious of Dairy and Other Foods as Well
As with grains, dairy is one of the most common foods in the modern diet and was also an insignificant part of our evolution. It contains a type of protein called casein that can cause many of the same problems as gluten, especially if it’s A1 beta casein. Many people who are sensitive to gluten are also sensitive to dairy and have to eliminate both from their diet. Grains and dairy are the two most common food sensitivities and those who aren’t sensitive to both are likely to be sensitive to one or the other.
In addition to grain and dairy, sensitivities to traditional foods such as meats, fish, fruits, or vegetables are possible as well. This is especially the case for people who have incurred intestinal damage through celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Being tested for food sensitivities and avoiding reactive foods will give the intestinal lining a chance to heal which should result in an overall improvement in health and well being.
For more detailed information about celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or their role in the development of other diseases, I highly recommend that you read Dangerous Grains by James Braly MD and Ron Hoggan MD. This book also describes the risk factors of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, explains the various testing options that are available, and describes how to follow a gluten free diet. In addition, it discusses the nutrient deficiencies that are often caused by celiac disease and gluten sensitivity as well as the supplements that can be used to correct them.
[1. Simopoulos AP. "Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1999. 70(3):560S-569S.]
[2. Eaton SB, Konner M. "Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications. New England Journal of Medicine. 1985. 312(5):283-289.]
[3. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O'Keefe JH, Brand-Miller J. "Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005. 81(2):341-354.]