Coeliac Disease- A Disease or a Simple Case of Poisoning?

We are all creatures of habit. In this complex age, we never give a second thought to electricity, television, even the internet. Let alone running water, roads, wheels, and houses. Few of us ponder about what life was like without them. Even fewer of us ask the same questions about the very food that we eat. What was life like before the supermarket, the refrigerator, tinning and preserving, and how about before intensive agriculture, or before farming itself- indeed where did our food all start? Yet the history of food is exactly the topic of most interest to scientists in the relatively new field of Paleolithic diet, and it gives some startling insights into what we eat and how if affects our health.

The New Year always brings a rush of friends pronouncing that they are going on to a “detoxification diet” whatever that is. For many of us though, avoiding toxins is a very real daily necessity, fraught with potential danger. These are people who have coeliac disease. People with coeliac disease must avoid food which contains gluten- a substance found in cereals such as wheat rye and barley. Gluten is toxic to them. At first blush this seems a strange thing, as we all eat cereals and take them for granted. But if we scratch a bit harder, we soon see that cereals are not the innocent foods they appear to be.

For millions of years, humans and their relatives have eaten meat, fish, fowl and the leaves, roots and fruits of many plants. One big obstacle to getting more calories from the environment is the fact that many plants are inedible. Grains, beans and potatoes are full of energy but all are inedible in the raw state as they contain many toxins. There is no doubt about that- please don’t try to eat them raw, they can make you very sick.

Around 10,000 years ago, an enormous breakthrough was made- a breakthrough that was to change the course of history, and our diet, forever. This breakthrough was the discovery that cooking these foods made them edible- the heat destroyed enough toxins to render them edible. Grains include wheat, corn, barley, rice, sorghum, millet and oats. Grain based foods also include products such as flour, bread, noodles and pasta. These foods entered the menu of New Stone Age (Neolithic) man, and Paleolithic diet buffs often refer to them as Neolithic foods.

The cooking of grains, beans and potatoes had an enormous effect on our food intake- perhaps doubling the number of calories that we could obtain from the plant foods in our environment. Other advantages were soon obvious with these foods:

· they could store for long periods (refrigeration of course being unavailable in those days)

· they were dense in calories- ie a small weight contains a lot of calories, enabling easy transport

· the food was also the seed of the plant- later allowing ready farming of the species

These advantages made it much easier to store and transport food. Of most critical importance, it enabled food to be stored for the winter. It also made it much easier for nomads and travellers to carry supplies. Food storage also enabled surpluses to be stored, and this in turn made it possible to free some people from food gathering to become specialists in other activities, such as builders, warriors and rulers. This in turn set us on the course to modern day civilization. Despite these commercial advantages, our genes were never developed with grains, beans and potatoes and were not in tune with them, and still are not. Man soon improved further on these advances- by farming plants and animals.

Instead of being able to eat only a fraction of the animal and plant life in an area, farming allows us to remove all the inedible plants in a particular area and replace them with a large number of edible plants and animals. This in turn increases the number of calories that we can obtain from an area by some 10 to 100 fold or more. Then followed the harnessing of dairy products, which allow man to obtain far more calories from the animal over its lifetime than if it were simply slaughtered for meat.

Paleolithic Diet buffs refer to the new foods as Neolithic foods and the old as Paleolithic Diet foods. In simple terms we see Neolithic as bad and Paleolithic as good. Since then, some other substances have entered the diet- particularly salt and sugar, and more recently a litany of chemicals including firstly caffeine then all other additives, colourings, preservatives, pesticides etc.

Grains, Beans and Potatoes (GBP) share the following important characteristics:

· They are all toxic when raw- there is no doubt about this- it is a fact that no competent source would dispute- they can be extremely dangerous and it is important never to eat them raw or undercooked. These toxins include enzyme blockers, lectins and other types.

· Cooking destroys most but not all of the toxins. Insufficient cooking can lead to sickness such as acute gastroenteritis.

· They are all rich sources of carbohydrate, and once cooked this is often rapidly digestible-giving a high glycemic index (sugar spike).

· They are extremely poor sources of vitamins (particularly vitamins A, B-group, folic acid and C), minerals, antioxidants and phytosterols.

Therefore diets high in grains beans and potatoes (GBP):

· Contain toxins in small amounts

· Have a high glycemic index (ie have a similar effect to raw sugar on blood glucose levels)

· Are low in many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytosterols- i.e. they are the original “empty calories”

· Have problems caused by the GBP displacing other foods

As grains, beans and potatoes form such a large proportion of the modern diet, you can now understand why it is so common for people to feel they need supplements or that they need to detoxify (i.e. that they have toxins in their system)- indeed both feelings are absolutely correct. Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily realize which supplements we need, and ironically when people go on detoxification diets they unfortunately often consume even more Neolithic foods (soy beans) and therefore more toxins than usual (perhaps they sometimes benefit from a change in toxins).

So there we have it. Gluten is not the only potential toxin in wheat, there are many others- but these others tend to be reduced by cooking. Cereals have many other inferior aspects as a food, and they certainly ere not one foods that we evolved with (or created with if you prefer). For over 2 million years all food was gluten free, but now for the past 10,000 years Caucasians, Africans and Asians have eaten foods containing gluten, but for Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and Pacific Islanders, cereals have only been available for 100 to 500 years. Scarcely any time at all. Wheat and other cereals are at best second rate foods, which were introduced as emergency foods to prevent starvation in winter, but whose high productivity lead to their wholesale introduction, like many of the cheap substitutes that we use today.

So, gentle reader, to answer your question “why can’t I eat cereals”, it would appear that we were all never meant to eat them in the first place.

Dr Ben Balzer, general practitioner with a special interest in the Paleolithic diet.

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