What wheat has wrought

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

August 2011

Cereal grains have been described as "humanity's double-edged sword," a blessing in their ability to provide nourishment at a relatively low cost but a curse as major contributors to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Only eight grains, wheat the leader among them, provide 56 percent of the food energy for the world's population and 50 percent of the protein. Cereals entered the food chain barely 500 generations ago, not nearly enough time for us to adapt to them, for they are not ideal nutrients for humans. They lack vitamins A, C and B12 and they contain antinutrients, substances that interfere with the absorption of calcium, magnesium and iron. It was only after the start of the Agricultural Revolution that iron-deficiency anemia became a common disorder, as it remains today.

Wheat, rye and barley contain gluten, a protein that in some persons interferes with the ability of the intestine to absorb nutrients, with widespread health effects. The severity of this interference ranges from mild symptoms of gluten sensitivity to the disabling condition known as celiac disease. There is some disagreement regarding the true incidence of these disorders but they may affect as many as 7 percent of the populations in those regions where cereal grains were cultivated most recently, such as Scandinavia.

Late in the 19th century the food industry developed milling processes that removed the most healthful nutrients from grains and left in the most attractive: white flour. Inexpensive, high in calories and easy to blend with fat and sugar, refined flour flooded the food chain. The result is a population that is overfed, undernourished and diabetic.

Though not entirely without drawbacks such as gluten intolerance and interference with mineral absorption, whole grains would be a net positive if we could raise our intake from the paltry one percent of caloric intake that they represent now. That is especially true if we could broaden the number of species of grains to include more whole-grain versions of oats, barley, rye, and rice. Corn is not included here because it already forms a disproportionate percentage of our caloric intake, directly in the form of sweeteners and indirectly as beef and pork, even fish.

In a perfect world we would be mostly plant-eaters, but not grains. Leafy green and root vegetables, nuts, berries and fruits are our true genetic heritage. By substituting them more often for refined grain products we could transform our health.

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.