Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Guest rant: Did Paleo man eat grains?

Today's post is a guest rant from Mike in response to this article:
Bread was around 30,000 years ago

Starch grains found on 30,000-year-old grinding stones suggest that prehistoric man may have dined on an early form of flat bread, contrary to his popular image as primarily a meat-eater. Read more

I don't doubt that Johnny Caveman occasionally had some grains, but I'll still contend that 1) evolutionarily 30,000 years is really no different than 5,000, 2) it wasn't nearly a staple in their diet, 3) it still wasn't good for them, and 4) our modern grains are much worse for us than what they had. In fact, I think that civilization happened when Johnny Caveman found some wild grasses, ate them, and got addicted to them, and rather than going out and hunting and gathering, he set up fences to keep the other cavemen out.

1 - It's generally accepted that most of our genetics evolved somewhere between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. So if we take the low-end of that, 200,000, and the high-end of grain eating, 30,000, that's still only 15% of our current evolutionary history. So I still feel pretty confident that our genes don't know about grains (all that much) - especially since they don't start to affect us until after we reproduce.

2 - The only time that Johnny Caveman would have had grains is when he stumbled across some wild grasses. Without agriculture and organized farming, he wouldn't have had them year round. So even with the presence of some grain in his diet, it wasn't until dedicated farming (5,000ish years ago) that grains played a significant role in our diets.

3 - The big problem with grains are i) they are gut irritants, ii) they contain "anti-nutrients", and iii) they cause autoimmune problems in many (if not most or all) people.

i - All grains (and even quinoa, which technically is a fruit) have some form of gut irritant in them. Basically our gut's job is to keep everything out. The only things that are allowed to go through the gut lining into the body are amino acids (broken down proteins), fats, sugar (broken down starches). Nothing else should get through. The trouble is that things, like gluten in wheat, can poke holes in the gut and cause it to get inflamed. This does a couple of things: an inflamed gut cannot absorb nutrients, and the inflammation allows things to get through the gut lining that aren't allowed, like whole proteins. So gluten causes the inflammation and then the inflammation allows whole gluten proteins into the body which causes more bad things.

ii - Grains and legumes contain things called phytates. Phytates bind very strongly to things like calcium (and a whole bunch of other good stuff). In fact they bind so strongly, that if you're an analytical chemist trying to find how much calcium is in something, you add phytates to your sample, and then measure the amount of calcium-bound phytates are there. That's is it binds so strongly that ALL of the calcium gets eaten up. That means that you can eat all of the nutrients you want, but if you eat them in the presence of grain, they get bound to the phytates and are basically undigestable. It's this reason that grains are the major cause of osteoporosis: they suck so much calcium from the body that just digesting them makes your bones weaker regardless of how much calcium supplements you are taking. I could go on, but I won't :)

iii - Back to that whole gluten proteins getting past the gut wall. (This is also true for other proteins, but I'll just stop with gluten.) Gluten looks a whole lot like the transglutaminase molecule. Transglutaminase is used in just about every biochemical pathway in the body, i.e., i uber important. Now, when your body sees the gluten in your system, it recognizes it as a poison and mounts an immune response to it by making little gluten-specific antibodies. But the trouble is these antibodies are pretty dumb and they just know how to attack things that look like gluten, which is often tranglutaminase. So now your body has mounted an immune response to itself (autoimmune) and starts killing of the tranglutaminase which means that lots of important things start to go bad. This can include things like Type I diabetes (the pancreas stops working because the immune system killed it), Multiple Sclerosis (the nerves quit working right because the immune system ate the protective covering), arthritis (the cartilage doesn't protect the bones because the immune system interfered with the production of it). And TONS of other stuff. I won't go on, but there is SO much related to gut irritation and autoimmunity that it's silly.

4 - Even the grains we had at the beginning of agriculture weren't as bad for us as the grains today. Start here ( and and dig into some more of his posts. Basically, the wheat of yore didn't have nearly the amount of gluten in it that today's grain has. So even if you did have that stuff, the level of gut irritation and autoimmune problems would have been much less. He even did an experiment of tracking down some old-timey grain and making some bread from it and noticed fewer (yet, still some) problems.

Finally, I don't take paleo eating and living as a religion and make hard and fast rules about only being able to eat it if Johnny Caveman had it. Rather, I look at the type of food available during our evolution and try to match that with the type of food available today. Then I watch my health and performance based on what I eat and try to optimize on that. It turns out that I look, feel, and perform better the closer I get to the theoretical Caveman diet, but there still are some variations. As I try to tell everyone, you may not think you're sick right now, but try eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy (the big three that are gut irritants, contain anti-nutrients, and cause autoimmune issues) for 30 days (no cheating!), and see if you feel better. If you do, great, you win! If you don't, then what have you lost? One month of missing food you loved.

Sorry for the rant :) I just love this topic and take any opportunity I have to try to convince people to try it, it's helped me so much, I feel like I need to tell everyone.


Bluescaptain Joe said...

Amen. 30 days was all it took to convince me. I thought the other day about how much ibuprofen and antacid I used to take. DAILY! It worked out to an average of 4-8 ibuprofen a day and 2-4 antacids (not chewables) each day. That worked out to a jumbo bottle of each of those every two months. Just to not hurt! Nowadays, I think I may take two ibuprofen every week or two, and only (obviously) if I actually have a headache. And antacids? Never.

Seriously, if you read Amy's blog and you have problems with acid reflux or headaches, try paleo and be strict for 30 days. It may just work for you.

Greg said...

Mike and Amy, thanks for the rant. Each of us who have spent time on the Paleo continuum has a different story and passion. I have transformed by body and blood chemistry from pretty normal to great. My current interest is autoimmune disease prevention and control, so this hits my issue directly. I will recommend this to everyone who will listen.

makethetime said...

Amy, do I have your permission to re-post this to my blog, with full credit, of course?

Amy said...

makethetime - I tried to write you back but your email address isn't tied to your comment. You can certainly repost it, thanks for asking. Just please link to this post and give writing credit to Mike D.

wazupwazup said...

Well Paleo is interesting seems every year since the 1800's someone comes out with a "new" low carb high protein diet....difference between Paleo and Atkins....dairy....and I think you would be surprised that Paleos did have dairy but I digress. If you choose to go Paleo be careful because the diet makes no distinction between vegetables.....particularly it does not cut out Nightshade Vegtables which can cause joint pain for many many people that do not even know what is happening......BTW, if you are "strict" Paleo, only eating what Caveman ate, do you only eat it seasonally? Fruit and veggies only when in season for caveman at that time of year and place?

Amy said...

Guessing by your name and the fact that this is on an old post of an inactive blog and that these are some of the standard anti-Paleo comments, this is probably just a generic troll targeting paleo websites. So I shouldn't get baited into answering. But I will anyway.

First, I don't go to your website and pick a fight with you. This is my blog, and I've written here about what works for me and for a lot of other people. Trolling is rude, anonymous, cowardly, and pointless. I will address your points, but obviously you (or the people who assigned you to troll my post) haven't done your research because all of these issues are regularly addressed by prominent people in the ancestral health/primal/paleo movement. If you are an actual person and not a cut and paste, I want to tell you to go do your homework before coming on my blog and criticizing me. I'll break it down for you, or anyone else who happens to find this post, anyway:

1. Nothing about the paleo/primal diets is inherently low-carb. You can eat a high-carb paleo diet by incorporating fruit and starches like squash, sweet and white potatoes, and plantains. Grains and legumes are not the only sources of carbohydrate.

2. Don't bother demonizing the Atkins diet. By choosing healthy fats instead of trans fats and industrial seed oils, you can implement Atkins in a very healthy way. I'm all for it.

3. Don't make an issue out of dairy. There are some people who tolerate it well, and for them, I say go for it. There are plenty of other people who don't tolerate it well. I am one of them. You don't know which one you are until you cut it out and see if you feel better, reintroduce it and see if you feel worse. I did just that and I know dairy is not for me. Your results may vary.

4. Paleo has specific protocols for people with autoimmune disease that cut out nightshade vegetables. All vegetables are not the same - the community has recognized that for a long time.

5. A paleo-style eating plan doesn't mean re-enacting caveman days. It simply uses evolutionary biology as a framework for guiding food choices. Eating produce seasonally would be ideal, but it isn't always practical. You get a lot of bang for your buck by implementing some of the broader changes (no grains) while ignoring other details. That said, I do eat more tubers in the winter and less fruit in the summer - broad brush strokes. Paleo is not all or nothing - perfect re-enactment or throw the whole thing out. I really just want to be healthier. So use it as a starting point, experiment, and figure out what works for you.

Dave said...

That was so satisfying, watching that troll thing/person get dealt with, and just seeing the whole level of inquiry and reason here, and the work of connecting it to other sources. I read widely and try to start with the criticisms and enemies of a thing if I suspect I'm getting interested. I was a vegetarian for thirty years and still have a huge interest in lessening our impact on animals, but the simple fact is that about five days into paleo I had a massive reduction in a persistent case of tendinitis. People trot out the same silly objections to paleo (I've seen this and I'm not even necessarily a paleo person yet)...