The great grain trade-off

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

September 2011

About 70 percent of the world's population relies heavily on cereal grains for sustenance, a remarkable fact considering that the human organism is poorly suited to eating them. If it were not for our ability to crush grains of wheat, for instance, and to heat them in order to make them digestible, we would still be subsisting on other types of plant foods such as fruits, berries, leafy plants, nuts and tubers such as potatoes. Of course, we could also enjoy meat and fish as well as shellfish and insects in order to get enough protein and vitamin B12.

When the Agricultural Revolution began about 10 or 12 thousand years ago it made life a little easier. Maybe some Stone Age woman happened to notice that there were edible vegetables growing in the garbage heap and they kept showing up every year. A long dry spell might have forced her to try eating the popped grains that appeared in the ashes of a grassfire and that pounding them between a couple of flat stones made them easier to chew and digest. All this probably took several generations but when it caught on it changed every aspect of life — for better and for worse.

Even primitive tools allowed gatherers to store up enough grain to last for long periods. As long as they could protect them from hostile neighbors or hungry rodents they became less dependent on long treks away from camp.

At about the same time they became herders of animals, the more tractable ones such as sheep, goats and cattle amenable to being penned and bred. Dangerous hunts became less common.

The variety of their diet suffered. Instead of hundreds of plant foods they began to rely on only a handful. Ten thousand years down the road more than half of the calories that humans consume come from only about 8 different types of cereal grains. Some of these are seriously lacking in nutrients that we need and several contain antinutrients, chemicals that bind minerals such as iron and calcium and make them unavailable from the diet. The fossil record shows what happened. Infant mortality soared, age at death declined, iron-deficiency became — and still is — a major medical problem. True famines occurred for the first time when crops failed. The need to live close to water resulted in sanitation disasters and epidemic disease.

Was the trade-off worth it?

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.