Here’s an excerpt from chapter 1 of Wheat Belly Total Health, the Wheat Belly book that lays out much of the rationale and science behind why so many facets of health, so many abnormal health conditions, reverse with wheat and grain elimination. Short version: humans are simply not equipped to consume any component of grasses, including the seeds (“grains”).
(Only the text is excerpted; I added the photos and illustrations for the blog.)
“Goldfish do not eat sausages.”
Since you are reading this book, I take it that you are a member of the species Homo sapiens. You are likely not a giraffe, toad, or woodpecker. Nor are you a ruminant, those taciturn creatures that graze on grass.
Ruminants, such as goats and cows, or their ancient wild counterparts, ibex and aurochs, enjoy evolutionary adaptations that allow them to consume grasses. They have continuously growing teeth to compensate for wear generated by coarse sand-like phytoliths in grass blades; produce in excess of 100 quarts of saliva per day; have four compartment stomachs that host unique microorganisms to digest grass components, including a compartment that grinds, then regurgitates, its contents up as a cud to re-chew; and a long, spiral colon, also host to microorganisms that further digest grassy remains. In other words, ruminants have a gastrointestinal system uniquely specialized to consume grasses.
You don’t look, smell, or act like a ruminant. Then why would you eat like one?
Those of you who have already forgone wheat do not, of course. But if you remain of the “healthy whole grain” consuming persuasion, you have fallen victim to believing that grasses should be your primary source of calories. Just as Kentucky bluegrass and ryegrass in your backyard are grasses from the biological family Poaceae, so is wheat, as are rye, barley, corn, rice, bulgur, sorghum, triticale, millet, teff, and oats—all grasses from the family Poaceae. You grow teeth twice in your life, then stop, having to make do for a lifetime with a pre-pubertal set that erupted around age 10; produce a meager quart of saliva per day; have three fewer stomach compartments unpopulated by foreign organisms and without grinding action; you don’t chew a cud; and you have a relatively uninteresting linear, non-spiral colon, adaptations that allow you to be omnivorous—but not to consume grasses.
Early members of the Homo species found nourishment in scavenging, then hunting, animals such as gazelle, turtles, birds, and fish; consuming edible parts of plants; fruit and roots; mushrooms; nuts and seeds—foods that hungry humans instinctively regarded as food. About 10,000 years ago, during a period of increasing temperature and dryness in the Fertile Crescent, humans observed the ibex and aurochs grazing on einkorn wheat, the ancient predecessor of modern wheat. Our hungry, omnivorous ancestors asked, “Can we eat that, too?” They did and surely got sick: vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, or at least simply passing wheat plants out undigested, since humans lack the ruminant digestive apparatus. Grass plants in their intact form are unquestionably unappetizing. We somehow figured out that the only edible part of the einkorn plant for humans was the seed—not the roots, not the stem, not the leaves, not the entire seed head—just the seed, once the outer husk was removed and the seeds chewed or crushed with rocks, then heated in crude pottery over fire. Only then could we consume the seeds of this grass as porridge, a practice that served us well in times of desperation when ibex meat, bird eggs, and figs were in short supply.
Similar grass consuming adventures occurred in the Americas with teosinte and maize, the ancestors of modern corn; rice from the swamps of Asia; sorghum and millet in sub-Saharan Africa, all requiring similar manipulations to allow them to be consumed by humans, reducing the edible part to the seed. Some grasses, such as sorghum, required further manipulations to be safe, given its content of poisons such as hydrocyanic acid (cyanide) that results in sudden death when the plant is consumed before maturity.
What happened to those first humans, hungry and desperate, who figured out how to make this one component of grasses—-the seed-—edible? Incredibly, anthropologists have known this for years. The first humans to consume the grassy food of the ibex and aurochs experienced explosive tooth decay, shrinkage of the maxillary bone and mandible resulting in tooth crowding, iron deficiency and scurvy, along with reduction of bone diameter and length resulting in as much as a loss of five inches in height for males, three inches in females (Roberts 2005; Cohen 2007; Cordain 1999).
The deterioration of dental health is especially interesting, as dental decay was uncommon prior to the consumption of the seeds of grasses, affecting less than 1% of all teeth recovered, despite the lack of toothbrushes, toothpaste, fluoridated water, dental floss, and dentists. Without any notion of dental hygiene aside from a twig to pick the fibers of wild boar from between the teeth, dental decay was simply not a problem that beset many members of our species prior to the consumption of grains. The notion of toothless savages is all wrong; they enjoyed sturdy, intact teeth for their entire lives. Only when humans began to resort to the seeds of grasses for calories did mouths of rotten and crooked teeth appear in children and adults, decay evident in 16-49% of all teeth recovered, along with evidence of tooth loss and abscess, making tooth decay as commonplace as bad hair among humans of the agricultural Neolithic age (Cohen 2007).
In short, consuming the seeds of grasses that began 10,000 years ago may have allowed us to survive another day, week, or month during times when foods we instinctively consumed over the preceding 2.5 million years fell into short supply. But this expedient represents a dietary pattern that comprises only 0.4%—less than one-half of 1%— of our time on earth. This change in dietary fortunes was accompanied by a substantial health price. From the standpoint of oral health, humans remained in the Dental Dark Ages from their first taste of porridge all the way up until recent times. History is rich with descriptions of toothaches, oral abscesses, stumbling and painful efforts to extract tainted teeth. Remember George Washington and his mouthful of wooden false teeth? It wasn’t until the twentieth century that modern dental hygiene was born and we finally managed to keep most of our teeth through adulthood.
Fast forward to the 21st century: Modern wheat now comprises 20% of all calories consumed by humans; the seeds of wheat, corn, and rice combined comprise 50% (World Health Organization). Yes, the seeds of grasses provide half of all human calories. We have become a grass seed-consuming species, a development enthusiastically applauded by agencies such as the USDA who advise us that increasing our consumption to 60% of calories or higher is a laudable dietary goal. It’s also a situation celebrated by all those people who trade grain on an international scale, since the seeds of grasses have the advantages of prolonged shelf life (months to years) that allow transoceanic shipment, ease of storage and extended shelf lives without refrigeration, and worldwide demand, all the traits desirable in a commoditized version of food, allowing such financial manipulations as buying and selling futures, hedges, and complex derivative instruments, the tools of mega-commerce. (Can’t do that with blueberries or Atlantic salmon.)
Examine the anatomy of a member of the species Homo sapiens and you cannot escape the conclusion that you are not a ruminant, have none of the adaptive digestive traits of such creatures, and can only consume the seeds of grasses—-the food of desperation—-by accepting compromises in health. But the seeds of grasses can be used to feed the masses cheaply, quickly, and on a massive scale, all while generating lots of profits for those who control the flow of these commoditized foods.