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Nutrition Past and Future

TPNS 22-23: Thin Gruel on Grains

Primitive Nutrition 22:
Thin Gruel on Grains, Part I


The Paleo dieters really have a problem with grains.  They seem to have blown out of proportion every possible conjecture, every bad experience, and every legitimate food intolerance to make you feel they are dangerous.  I'm not here to say you should or shouldn't eat grains.  My purpose in this video is just to restore some balance to this recently much maligned pillar of civilization.

Even though I want to, I will not sidetrack here into the essential role played by grains in feeding the impoverished, evening out commodity prices, promoting political stability, or enabling human culture to advance.  Paleo is not about the big picture.  It's about the small stuff.  The very, very small stuff.  I just want to point out now that a food that is inexpensive, easy to cultivate, and doesn't spoil quickly is a food that can do a lot of good for humanity.

In an effort to scare you off of grains Cordain takes us to some strange places.  When was the last you heard a public service announcement about rickets, or its counterpart in the elderly, osteomalacia? Cordain's concerns with grains seem drawn from a bygone era.

It has been known since 1923 that rickets is caused by vitamin D deficiency, not by grains.

It is only a problem today in poor populations with imbalanced diets and where peoples’ skin does not receive adequate exposure to the sun.  If you don't know anyone living in conditions like these or eating diets like you see described here, you probably don't need to give rickets a second thought.

Cordain digs up a couple other golden oldies to scare you with beri beri and pellagra.

You see in my copy of his book I circled the use of the word "invariably."  Once again, Cordain is a rare scientist in that he leaves himself so vulnerable to falsification due to his absolutist language and binary world view.

You might pause the video to read that second paragraph on the left.  He doesn't quite say it, but he wants you to think corn causes pellagra.  Yet the deaths due to pellagra he references in the preceding paragraph are from seventy years ago.  Aren't we still eating corn?  What gives?

All the way back in 1915 it was suspected that pellagra could not happen in the context of a reasonably normal and balanced diet.

In 1912 it was recognized that Mexicans ate corn as a major staple food yet pellagra was unknown to them.

That's because they had been demonstrating the eminently human adaptation of using technology to process their grain for around 3000 years, in this case through a process called nixtamalization.  In nixtamalization, corn is soaked in an alkaline solution to liberate its nutrients.

Cordain has known about this for a long time but he didn't want to use his fad diet book to inform you about it, maybe because that might undermine his efforts to get you to fear the deadly pellagra.

On a side note, pellagra is another historical example of the abuse of the theory of evolution.  This slide is a cautionary tale.

What about beri beri?  Well, that is explained in the paragraph to the right. Cordain uses another sarcastic pair of quotation marks for the word "enriched."  He is trying to sublimate the message that if you have to add a vitamin to a food to prevent it from hurting you, you shouldn't eat it.  But he says a few lines earlier that this doesn't happen with brown rice.  So shouldn't he say instead that we shouldn't strip the naturally occurring nutrients from our rice?

This has been understood for 100 years, yet Cordain thinks you should be concerned about this old problem, too.

Couldn't he instead say that brown rice cures beri beri, which is how they put it in 1918?

Here's another weird one.  Cordain actually published an article called "Whole Wheat Heart Attack."  Haven't you heard that whole wheat causes heart disease?

Probably not.  His idea is based on the hypothesis that lectins in grains hurt your arteries, but only fellow Paleo promoter Staffan Lindeberg will join him out on this limb.

Search "whole wheat atherosclerosis" and with the exception of Cordain's article, it looks like it's a rather positive story for whole wheat.  That last one found no relationship between whole grains and inflammation.  Notice it appears no one has cited Cordain's article.  Why won't anyone buy into his hypothesis?

Probably because there is a consistent inverse association between whole grains and heart disease, as stated in this study of studies.

Actually, whole grains seem to lower your LDL cholesterol.

Regrettably, most of us don't eat a lot of whole grains.

We should all recognize the differing health effects of whole and refined grains.  There are very few health professionals, if any, advising the consumption of latter, yet most recommend the former, and there are good reasons for that.

This abstract offers a nice rundown the health benefits of whole grains.

Eating more fiber will help you live longer, and whole grains are a great source for that, yet there is a lot more to them than fiber.

Their phytochemicals promote health in a way that isolated fiber supplements cannot.  They work together in the matrix of the whole food to fight disease.  Refine the grain and you lose most of these benefits.

These phytochemicals may have been under-appreciated in the past.

Whole grains also improve the composition of gut microflora far more than wheat bran just by itself.=

Of course, some people have an entirely appropriate reason for avoiding grains.  They have celiac disease.  The Paleo world sees celiac as some sort of proof for their diet.  In Part II, I'll show you why they are mistaken about that.


Primitive Nutrition 23:
Thin Gruel on Grains, Part II


Paleo gurus don't talk for long before they bring up celiac disease and gluten intolerance.  For those who legitimately suffer from those issues, avoiding gluten is not optional.

However, for the rest of us, to argue against eating gluten because of the problems these people have seems to me to be an example of an exception fallacy.

After all, celiac disease is known to be a genetic disorder.  The usual idea you’ll hear to explain its origin is the timing of the introduction of grains within past populations, so that the descendants of those who adopted grains more recently are more prone to celiac.

However, celiac seems instead to be the result of positive selection based on the immune system.

As we have seen, as cultures adopted agriculture and came to eat grains, they lived closer together, and their immune responses adapted.

The study of our ancestors has revealed that genes related to celiac disease may have provided an advantage in resisting epidemics that would have struck dense populations.

The genetic traits for celiac may have persisted as a balancing polymorphism due to a heterozygote advantage ...

with the homozygote much more likely to develop celiac disease.

A classic example of a balancing polymorphism like this is sickle cell anemia, which also has immune advantages in its heterozygote form in protecting against malaria.

The case that celiac has been positively selected for immunity continues to build.  On the other hand, the imagined evolutionary novelty of grains causing celiac as hypothesized by Cordain doesn't seem to have gained much traction.

The Paleo people also blame grains for schizophrenia.

Loren Cordain, The Paleo Diet

That includes Loren Cordain.

However, this recent review of environmental factors in schizophrenia finds a lot of better candidates to consider than grains.

There does seem to be a link between schizophrenia and celiac disease.

But don't forget, celiac is a genetic disorder.

And this disorder is associated with a variety of neurological symptoms.  35% of the celiac sufferers in this study had a history of psychiatric illness.

So we shouldn't be surprised that celiac and schizophrenia share genetic variants. To ignore this and instead imply that grains can cause schizophrenia in anyone is highly irresponsible in my view.

What about gluten intolerance?  Gliadin is a glycoprotein that is increasingly getting the attention of Paleo promoters.  However, I noticed that the references offered to support this concern here were all in vitro, meaning in isolated lab tests and not in patients' bodies.

In this test of subjects without celiac disease, no anti-gliadin anitibodies were detected.  Certainly, gluten intolerance in non-celiac individuals seems to exist.

However, it isn't clear how many people it affects.  It certainly seems to be a minority.

Alessio Fasano is a celiac researcher Loren Cordain cites to support his fad diet.

Let's see what Dr Fasano himself says about diet without Cordain filtering his ideas.  He describes the past human race as only eating meats occasionally.

In response to claims that gluten sensitivity is widespread, Dr Fasano says, "I have a really hard time believing that we are plagued by this."  He characterizes gluten avoidance in the general population as only a reflection of a current fashion trend.

For most people, a gluten-free diet is a fad diet.

Experts on celiac disease say that adopting a gluten-free diet unnecessarily is always a bad idea.

A gluten-free diet may reduce the beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract.

Even if you do have celiac disease, you don't need to give up on all whole grains.

Before I leave grains, let me state the obvious.  There is a huge difference between refined and whole grains.  Cordain knows the difference but he wants to condemn all grain products.

Most people who think carbs are fattening seen to only understand the term "carb" to equal a  refined grain product.  You will get no argument from me that refined carbs are bad for you.  Not only does the milling of grains remove its health-promoting nutrients, it reduces the them to tiny particles that cause a greater glycemic response.  Consume grains in their whole form with less or no milling and you may find them to be more helpful in achieving your goals.

Responsible researchers who are concerned about the effects of junky carbs also encourage you to eat good carbs, like oatmeal and legumes. That brings us to the humble bean, next in the Primitive Nutrition series.

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