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Grains are often called the "staff of life," having a sort of credibility that is biblical in proportion. So prevalent is the perception that grains make for "good food" that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – which is the United Nation's international agency for defeating hunger – uses a head of wheat as its emblem, with the Latin Fiat Panis or "Let There Be Bread" as its motto.
Despite the rather lofty secular position a loaf of whole grain bread may hold in the international community, the biblical record actually shows that the first foods mentioned in the Bible were the Herbs and Fruit Trees (Genesis 1:29), and that by punishment for sin God gave man bread:
"...cursed is the ground for thy sake;...In the sweat of thy face shalt though eat bread, till though return unto the ground..." (Genesis 3:17,19).
The inherent wisdom of this biblical message has long been forgotten and today, according to the USDA MyPlate, grains should constitute a sizeable sector of our diet in the form of "bread, cereal, rice, and pasta." Many of us, whose hyper-agrarian taste buds and gastrointestinal tracts have never once gone a day without some grain-derived morsel of bread or cracker, find ourselves expressing our dependency on these foods in telling, half confessionary phrases like: "I'm starving for a piece of bread," or "that pizza is to die for," forgetting that among non-agrarian peoples, grains were universally considered a last resort, or, starvation food only.
In an agrarian society such as our own, we should expect our government to recommend the consumption of grains and our contemporaries to consume grains in plenty. After all, we are no longer hunting and gathering our food. Cereal grasses, in fact, are at the substrate of nearly all modern food production, from the breads we bake, to the milk we drink and to the meats we eat.** With 10% corn ethanol gasoline now a federal mandate, even our vehicles are forced to quench their thirst at the table of the almighty grain.7
And yet despite all of this, economic pressures and cultural preferences can not delete the fact that our bodies did not evolve on a grain-based diet. Grain consumption en masse, in fact, stretches back only 1-500 generations (20-10,000 years)*, depending on how far from the bread basket of civilization, i.e. the Fertile Crescent, one's ancestors happened to have wandered, or how fortunate they were in fending off invading agrarian societies, such as the Romans, whose moniker as the "Wheat Empire" was earned to it by the fact that that Roman forts were actually granaries, designed to hold a year supply of wheat in case of siege.
Still today, the Irish, Scottish and Finns have some of the world's highest levels of celiac disease, as their resilient ancestors managed – for the most part – to fend off the Roman invaders, while at the same time preventing them from adapting adequately to the radically different fair of a grain based diet. (Learn more in our article The Dark Side of Wheat)
Historical examples like these provide an interesting window to peer through, but it is to prehistory, as inscribed so perfectly into the very flesh and bone of the human frame, and then even further down to our very DNA, that we must look if we are to perceive with any clarity how alien cereal grass seeds are to our metabolism.
The most obvious physiological representation of this fact is that we are monogastric mammals, and therefore are not equipped with the multitude of forestomachs found in the ruminant animals which enable them to break down these difficult to digest grasses. Even the ruminants have great difficulty with the "seed" form of the grasses, developing metabolic acidosis, infections and other "diseases of affluence" not dissimilar to those that afflict humans who consume grains heavily, especially when fed wheat.
Seeds, after all, are the "babies" of these plants, and are invested with not only the entire hope for continuance of its species, but a vast armory of anti-nutrients to help it accomplish this task: toxic lectins, phytates and oxalates, alpha-amalyase and trypsin inhibitors, and endocrine disrupters. These not so appetizing phytochemicals enable plants to resist predation of their seeds, or at least preventing them from "going out without a punch." (Learn about the ultimate "invisible thorn" in wheat seeds)
We are monogastric mammals for a reason. Our gastrointestinal tracts have been intelligently constructed via millions of years of adaptation to environmental determinants, with diet first in order of importance. It is no longer a mystery why we are built the way we are. In fact decades of research in biology, evolution, anthropology and genetics have now brought to light the formative forces behind our present day metabolism and physiology.
We Are What We Once Ate Long Ago
A growing body of research has emerged which focuses on the relationship between agrarian or grain-based diets and diseases of affluence, and how increased susceptibility for obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes in agrarian societies can be linked to the absence of genetic adaptations to the consumption of grains in our species as a whole.