Duck Dodgers (who posts comments here now and then) wrote a long post on the Free the Animal blog titled How Wheat Went From Superfood To Liability.
Don’t worry; he’s not encouraging you to toddle down to the Olive Garden for a bowl of pasta and stop for some (ahem) “whole-wheat” bread on the way home. His point, as briefly as I can state it, is that ancient wheat was a nourishing food — which we turned into garbage through modern milling and refining.
I enjoy Duck’s Free the Animal guest posts because he fires arrows at the sacred cows of paleo and low-carb.
What?! You enjoy that?!
Yes, I do. We don’t learn in an echo chamber. We learn by being challenged, and by being willing to change our minds. At one time, I believed all the horsehocky about saturated fat clogging our arteries, red meat causing cancer, etc. I changed my mind because people challenged my beliefs. Thank goodness they did.
I encourage you to read the entire post. Go ahead, I’ll wait …
Okay, with that out of the way (and in case you didn’t read the post), I’ll pluck some quotes and add my own comments. As you’ll see, I think Duck makes some excellent points, but I’m still not persuaded ancient wheat was a superfood.
So, how did cultures regard wheat and whole grains before the industrial revolution? According to the historical literature, wheat was not some kind of sub-par caloric filler or cheap energy. Every culture had its superfood and wheat was, hands down, the superfood of Western civilization. Whole wheat is not just calories and nutrients. It contains of all sorts of phenolics, carotenoids, sterols, β-glucan, resistant starch, inulin, oligosaccharides, lignans, and other phytonutrients. Much of the health benefits of wheat are believed to come from these phytonutrients.
Economist Thomas Sowell once said that when his students declared this or that to be good or bad, his next question was: compared to what?
Duck makes a convincing case that ancient wheat was far better than the refined garbage people eat today. But was a wheat-based diet healthy compared to a hunter-gatherer diet?
Anthropologist Jared Diamond famously called the switch to agriculture the worst mistake in the history of the human race, based largely on observations of human remains. Some quotes from his article in Discover:
In some lucky situations, the paleopathologist has almost as much material to study as a pathologist today. For example, archaeologists in the Chilean deserts found well preserved mummies whose medical conditions at time of death could be determined by autopsy. And feces of long-dead Indians who lived in dry caves in Nevada remain sufficiently well preserved to be examined for hookworm and other parasites.
Usually the only human remains available for study are skeletons, but they permit a surprising number of deductions. To begin with, a skeleton reveals its owner’s sex, weight, and approximate age. In the few cases where there are many skeletons, one can construct mortality tables like the ones life insurance companies use to calculate expected life span and risk of death at any given age. Paleopathologists can also calculate growth rates by measuring bones of people of different ages, examine teeth for enamel defects (signs of childhood malnutrition), and recognize scars left on bones by anemia, tuberculosis, leprosy, and other diseases.
One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5′ 9” for men, 5′ 5” for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5′ 3” for men, 5′ for women.
At Dickson Mounds, located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A. D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a threefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor.
A six-inch crash in height, with a rise in dental defects and infectious diseases (bearing in mind that the Dickson Mounds natives were growing maize, not wheat). Other anthropologists have made similar observations. When we took up farming, our health declined.
To be clear, Diamond doesn’t argue that grains induced those problems directly. He writes that perhaps when humans became farmers, the crops squeezed out a more varied and nutrient-dense hunter-gatherer diet, leading to malnutrition. But it’s clear that switching from a hunter-gatherer diet to a grain-based agricultural diet didn’t make us taller or healthier. Quite the opposite.
Back to Duck’s post:
Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, not only recommended bread as a health-promoting staple, but he was keenly interested in experimenting with different preparations of wheat.
If wheat was so deleterious, you’d think that Hippocrates would have noticed it and warned against its consumption instead of recommending it for the prevention of disease.
Hippocrates was not alone. Avicenna recommended bread as a key staple of the diet. Paracelsus believed that wheat had mystical properties, and Aristotle thought foods made from wheat suits our bodies best. And, what we see over and over again in the historical literature is that wheat was once considered to be the most nutritious and most important edible plant in the entire vegetable kingdom. Bread was known as the Staff of life—it was the de facto superfood for agriculturalists.
Setting aside the appeal to authority, I’d ask the Sowell question again: compared to what? If Hippocrates was getting good results with his patients by having them substitute wheat for pork and green vegetables, then I’d say he was onto something. But we don’t seem to have that information. Maybe the wheat replaced swill.
Much of Duck’s post quotes doctors from previous centuries who recommended wheat as a health food. Okay, fair enough. That’s interesting at the very least. But given how often established medical opinion has turned out to be wrong over the centuries, I wouldn’t consider it solid evidence that ancient wheat was a superfood and didn’t cause health problems.
In both of his Wheat Belly books, Dr. William Davis blames the gliadin portion of gluten for causing many, if not most, of what he considers to be wheat’s deleterious effects. The ability of gliadin to increase gut permeability has been well established in recent years and is not, as far as I know, controversial. (If you Google “gliadin intestinal permeability,” you can read from now until you retire.)
Duck’s main point in his post is that milling and refining wheat turned it into health-sapping garbage. I agree wholeheartedly. But unless ancient wheat didn’t contain gliadin or we were somehow protected against the effects on gut permeability, I suspect wheat has always had the ability to induce auto-immune reactions. Perhaps those reactions weren’t linked to wheat because everyone ate the stuff.
I’m reminded of something I read in The Emperor of All Maladies, a hefty book about the history of cancer: when a doctor first floated the idea that smoking causes lung cancer, the vast majority of other doctors and researchers scoffed. They continued scoffing for years. As the author (an oncologist) explains, it’s been historically difficult for doctors to accept that something causes a disease if 1) nearly everyone is exposed to it, and 2) most of them never develop the disease.
At one time, nearly everyone smoked. Doctors smoked. The banker smoked. Your neighbor smoked. Your in-laws smoked. It was considered normal behavior. Heck, everyone does it, and few of them develop cancer, so it can’t be the smoking. Move along, let’s find the real cause.
When reading that passage, I thought, Hmm, just like with wheat. Everyone eats wheat, so it can’t be bad for us.
At a dinner some years ago, a friend I hadn’t seen in ages asked why I was skipping the bread and pasta. When I told him, he was incredulous. What?! How can wheat possibly be bad for us? Almost everyone eats wheat! People have been eating wheat since biblical times!
Well, yes. But from what I remember of the Bible, healing the sick was one of the real crowd-pleasing portions of the Jesus show.
True, we’ve been eating wheat for as long as we’ve been civilized. We’ve also had diabetes, cancer, heart disease, psoriasis, asthma, arthritis and schizophrenia for as long as we’ve been civilized. Wheat may have caused or contributed to all of them – even if, as with smoking and lung cancer, no single one of those diseases afflicted most people.
Back to Duck:
In his book, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, Dr. William Davis claimed that modern hybrids of wheat are to blame for all modern health issues. However, this is not supported by the scientific literature—nor is it supported by France’s lower levels of chronic diseases despite considerably higher wheat intakes.
Ahh, those wacky French. Truth is, I’m not sure what to make of them. They’re twice as likely to smoke as Americans, but have lower rates of heart disease … yet I wouldn’t cite them as proof that smoking doesn’t cause heart disease. I suspect that the American diet of HFCS, refined flour and industrial seed oils creates a perfect storm for inducing disease, which the French avoid by shunning the HFCS and seed oils and embracing natural animal fats. They might still be better off without the wheat.
Or perhaps someday we’ll learn that the French are healthier than us because spending an hour with your mistress before heading home for dinner with the wife and kids prevents nearly all chronic diseases. Chareva disagrees with that hypothesis and offered evidence that anyone who tests it will end up sleeping in a chicken coop.
Duck’s hypothesis is more interesting, despite not involving mistresses:
By 1953, Newfoundland had enacted mandatory fortification of white flour. By 1954, Canada and a number of US states had enacted the Newfoundland Law. Southern states in particular were eager to enact the law, to reduce pellagra, that had become prevalent during the Great Depression. These states typically mandated fortification of flour, bread, pasta, rice and corn grits.
In 1983, the FDA significantly increased the mandated fortification levels—coinciding with the beginning of the obesity epidemic. 1994 was the first year that obesity and diabetes statistics were available for all 50 states. Notice a pattern?
Fortifying flour may have ended the deficiencies of the Great Depression, but it appears to have significantly worsened chronic diseases.
Furthermore, wheat flour fortification may explain the popularity of non-celiac gluten sensitivity we see today in fortified countries (it was extremely rare prior to fortification). As it turns out, iron fortificants have been shown to promote significant gastric distress, even at low doses and pathogenic gut profiles in developing countries. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is virtually unheard of in unfortified countries, like France, which consume 40% more wheat than Americans.
That’s the most eye-opening section of the post as far as I’m concerned. Before reading the brief history that Duck cites here, it never occurred me to that fortifying grain could make it worse. If gliadin didn’t cause gut permeability back in the day (still a big IF in my book), that could be the explanation.
As far as modern wheat goes, I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Norman Borlaug, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his part in developing semi-dwarf wheat, was a good man. He set out to prevent mass starvation, and he succeeded. Given a choice between semi-dwarf wheat or watching my kids die of starvation, I’ll take the wheat every damned time.
That being said, I still believe semi-dwarf wheat is something those of us who aren’t starving should avoid. Duck makes a good case that milling, refining and fortifying wheat turned it into a health hazard. But the changes in semi-dwarf likely threw gasoline on that fire. Here’s a quote from Wheat Belly Total Health:
One important change that has emerged over the past 50 years, for example, is increased expression of a gene called Glia-α9, which yields a gliadin protein that is the most potent trigger for celiac disease. While the Glia-α9 gene was absent from most strains of wheat from the early 20th century, it is now present in nearly all modern varieties.
Now let’s mill it, refine it, and fortify it. Awesome.
Dr. Davis believes the change in the gliadin gene is the reason celiac disease has increased by 400% in the past 50 years — and that’s a genuine increase, by the way, not a case of better diagnosis. Researchers realized as much when they compared blood samples from 50 years ago to recent blood samples. The modern samples were four times as likely to contain antibodies triggered by celiac disease.
Duck, on the other hand, believes fortification is the likely culprit. It’s an interesting possibility.
Back to Duck:
Nor does Dr. David Perlmutter’s book, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers, explain how humanity enjoyed its highest levels of intellectual achievement while largely eating wheat and other grains as staple foods—enjoying unprecedented population growth and longevity as well.
I can explain that one. In a previous post, I mentioned Conquests and Cultures, by Thomas Sowell. One of the book’s main points is that economic specialization is required for cultures to advance. If pretty much everyone has to hunt and gather food, there will be no pianos, printing presses, telescopes or steam engines. There’s no doubt that agriculture led to economic specialization, and thus civilization and intellectual achievement.
But that doesn’t prove eating grains had a positive or even a neutral effect on our brains. It simply means that in a civilization where farming allows most people to do something else, Mozart becomes a composer and Voltaire becomes a writer. In a paleo society, Mozart is the hunter who sings those amazing songs around the campfire, and Voltaire is the hunter whose clever stories amuse his pals during the long walks home from a hunt. They may have had genius IQs, but we’ll never know. We do know that human brains have, in fact, been shrinking since their peak size roughly 20,000 years ago.
Another point Sowell makes in Conquests and Cultures is that civilizations advance through cross-pollination of ideas, technologies and resources. Throughout history, cross-pollination was often the result of large-scale conquest. (Sowell doesn’t ignore or excuse the brutality of conquest, by the way.) Conquering an inhabited territory requires a large army (another example of economic specialization), which requires a large population, which requires agriculture.
In Europe and the Middle East, the “crop of conquest” was wheat. In the Western Hemisphere, it was maize that enabled the Aztecs and Mayans to build cities and raise armies large enough to establish empires. But again, that doesn’t prove the conquerors were healthier or smarter than the tribes they subjugated. It only proves that farming enabled them to raise and feed large armies.
Okay, time to wrap up. This is already a long post about a long post. To summarize:
Duck believes ancient wheat was a nutritious food, not a health hazard. Maybe, but I remain skeptical. Maybe ancient wheat was good, maybe it was neutral, maybe it was bad but not nearly as bad as the stuff sold today. I still think it’s likely wheat has been provoking auto-immune reactions in susceptible people since the dawn of civilization.
But whether wheat was good or bad back in ancient times, the refined and fortified garbage sold today is a health hazard. On that we totally agree. So unless you want to go out and find some ancient wheat (which Duck explains how to do in his post) and give it a try, my advice remains the same:
Don’t Eat Wheat.