Bread: the crutch of life

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2005

Whoever first referred to bread as the staff of life had it almost right. Bread should be something to lean on. For too many people all over the globe it's the crutch that they depend on. Mankind's decision to rely on cereal grains as its primary source of food energy was a primal error, one that is not likely to be corrected in this century or the next.

Only eight cereal grains provide more than half the calories and half the protein upon which the world's population depends. They are: wheat, barley, oats, rye, maize, rice, sorghum and millet. We feed one third of the world's grain production to our animals so that we can enjoy it indirectly in the form of meat and dairy products. The good news is that we thereby concentrate the protein in grains. The bad news is that this conversion magnifies the deleterious effects of cereal grains by converting plant carbohydrate to animal fat, and it degrades the environment.

There were no grain-based foods during the Old Stone Age, a period that ended about 15,000 years ago. Grain kernels are indigestible by humans until we heat and crush them, not an easy job for the early Stone Age homemaker, who did not have control of fire or grinding tools. When inhabitants of the Middle East and the Far East learned how to grow crops from seed and to create the tools necessary to process and store their new crops, monotonous grain-based diets replaced the variety of plants to which humans had become adapted over more than a million years.

Progressively more sophisticated techniques for sowing, growing and grinding firmly cemented the agrarian lifestyle but it set the stage for one-crop economies and their unavoidable problems. Single-crop agriculturalists painted themselves into a corner, as witness the countless famines that overwhelmed civilized populations from biblical Egypt to 19th century Ireland.

Paleopathologists, scientists who study the diseases of ancient peoples, have documented that every society that traversed the path from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist experienced a steep decline in health, usually within three or four generations. High infant mortality, short stature, bone and tooth diseases, shortened lifespan, iron deficiency and other maladies are the inevitable results of that transition.

In simple terms, a diet that consists primarily (i.e. 80 percent or more) of grains is not adequate for humans. Lacking in vitamins A, C and B12, a grain diet that is not supplemented with other foods can lead to serious illness. Pellagra and beriberi are diseases that have not yet disappeared from the globe. They result from a lack of niacin in corn and thiamine in polished rice, respectively. Celiac disease, a disorder that affects as much as 7 percent of some population groups, damages the lining of the intestine, stunts growth and is associated with disease of the brain and joints. It's caused by sensitivity to a protein that is found in wheat and other grains.

It's unrealistic to eliminate all grains from the world economy but any individual can cut back dramatically on cereals, breads and other grain-based products with no risk of health injury. At the very least we should eliminate refined flour and replace it with whole grain (not whole wheat) products. A diet that was high in fruits and vegetables but that contained absolutely no grains worked for our Stone Age ancestors. It will work for us.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.