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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thoughts on the Paleo Diet- Or, Are Grains and Legumes Bad for You?

As I'm going along my gluten free journey, looking for various recipes that are free from the 4 gluten grains (wheat, spelt, barley, rye) and the one other grain that many GF people can't tolerate (oats) that are also healthy and with all natural ingredients and are low cost, I'm encountering many, many foodies that are not just gluten free, they're completely grain free and legume free as well. This diet, called the Paleo or Primal diet (the two have some differences, but are basically the same idea), postulates that because "early man was hunter gatherers and lived off of animals they hunted and foods they foraged", anything other than fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs, meat, and fish can't be healthy for mankind today to eat.

Now, I'll admit, I'm not exactly a historian nor a nutritionist. My knowledge of "pre-history" comes mainly from the "Earth's Children" series by Jean Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequels), not from an in depth study, but even so, something about the Paleo diet doesn't sit right with me.
Why?
Well, in the Earth's Children series, having taken place during the Paleolithic Era (the Ice Age), and having been written with lots of research, the people mentioned were hunter gatherers. Only... they didn't just eat fruits, veggies, nuts, and meats- they ate grains and legumes as well.
Why'd they do that if they were hunter gatherers?
For me, that question actually is easy for me to answer, because it lies in my area of expertise. Foraging.


I love to forage. I forage whatever I can find in my area. So many plants grow wild here, each of them beneficial in their own way. I forage for nuts, I forage for fruits, I forage for vegetables.
And come Spring, you know what grows here like mad?
Grains.
So many different types.
Wheat.
Barley.
Oats.
Fields and fields of it. Growing in every possible dirt area. Along roads, in empty lots, in people's backyards if they weren't careful enough to weed it. As far as the eye can see, stalks of wheat and oats and barley swaying in the breeze.
If I had a sickle, I would have gone out to harvest it all. (I was starting to go gluten free when I discovered all this, which is why I didn't do anything with the bounty available.)

No, I don't live near an agricultural area. This isn't domesticated wheat that ran wild.
This is the true stuff. Wild wheat. Wild oats. Wild barley.

Ripe for the picking. Easy to forage.
Is there any reason I would even begin to believe that hunter gatherers would chose to forage purslane, milk thistle, nettle, almonds, pine nuts, etc... but they purposely would chose to leave the grains behind, especially when they are so plentiful?
I have a hard time believing that hunter gatherers didn't eat grain.
In fact, I'm pretty sure they did. What else do you think they gathered to store for the winter months when game and fruits and veggies weren't as readily available?
Wheat and other grains store very well. They were what sustained people when food was scarce. There's a reason why having a meal with someone is called "breaking bread" and why in so many cultures, bread is considered holy.
Because it was the sustenance of people. It was life giving.

I read an interesting article a few weeks back on the blog Yolks, Kefir and Gristle that left me with lots of food for thought, and in many ways, was the inspiration for this post.
The article was talking about man's reliance on grains today, and what role exactly grains played in people's diets. One interesting point the author brought out was that "grains are famine food". To prove this point, she brought some quotes from Genesis, where Joseph advised Pharaoh to stock up on plenty of grains during the years of feasts, so that they'd have food to eat during the years of hunger.
This was something I never would have thought to consider, but yes, Joseph advised Pharoah to stock up on grains because they are the ideal food to nourish your body during times of food shortage.
But...
But...
Grains aren't just famine food.
Grains have other benefits, other than just being able to store them for long periods of time without worrying about them spoiling.

Are grains the ideal food?
Well, depends what ideal means.
Are grains nutritionally dense? Do they provide maximum nutrition for the body in every bite? No. There's no doubt about that. Grains have a decent amount of nutrition in them, but vegetables and fruit contain more vitamins and minerals per gram. Animal proteins and nuts contain the most protein and fat per gram.
But just because something isn't the most nutritionally dense food doesn't make it a nutritionally deficient food.

Grains were domesticated and eaten for a reason.
Because they were easy to grow and harvest, had many uses, and didn't spoil. And because they provided much needed calories when they were needed.
As far as I know, grains were the biggest staple of people's diets during the winter. The winter is when we need heavier foods, more satiating foods. I mean, think about it- what makes you feel more warm and cozy in a snow storm? A bowl of oatmeal? Some chili and beans? Or a big greens salad?
I know personally that my body craves light and refreshing raw vegetables and fruit in the summer, but come winter and I really want those carb heavy foods. They warm me up in a way that raw veggies just can't.

In the winter, people ate grains because fresh produce simply wasn't available.
For those people who try to eat locally and seasonally, they'll notice that (unless they live in a place like I do where it only rarely freezes in the winter) there isn't much to be found grown locally in mid winter. The things that are available are those root veggies that were grown in autumn and store well over the winter months.
If you want berries, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and grapes in the middle of the winter, you can't get them locally grown. You can't generally get them frugally. They're shipped across the world so that people who insist on having these things year round can purchase them... if they're willing to pay the price (both monetarily and environmentally).

I am guessing that all those people who eat a Paleo diet can generally manage to keep their food expenses relatively low in the summer months by growing their own gardens, foraging, and by shopping at their local farmer's markets. But come winter? That same diet is all of a sudden less nutritious (out of season produce is generally grown in conditions that leave that produce with less nutrition than its in season counterpart) and tremendously more expensive.

Why?
Because people never ate Paleo in the winter.
And I bet they rarely ate Paleo even in the summer.
Traditionally, people ate grains. A lot. It is the staple of life.

If people have the financial means to eat a grain free, legume free diet such as the Paleo or Primal diet, then perhaps its not such a bad option (though, as I mentioned, there is the environmental impact to consider).
But for everyone else? I don't think a Paleo diet should be everyone's goal because "thats how early man ate, so it must be healthiest for everyone". I'd bet one million dollars that early man did NOT eat Paleo, and that the Paleo diet is a recent invention.
Does that mean its not healthy?
I won't argue about that.
Some people have seen miraculous differences in their lives since adopting a grain free lifestyle, seeing chronic health issues disappear. A diet with lots of animal protein and lots of produce surely isn't unhealthy. Its very nutritionally sound and beneficial to many people.

But does that mean grains are bad? Should everyone try to be grain free?

Grains are famine food. Grains are winter food. Grains are poor man's food. Grains are the seasonal eater's food. Grains are traditional food.

If you can't afford a Paleo diet, or if you're simply not interested in following a Paleo diet, there's nothing wrong with that. People have been surviving millenia on grain based diets. Grain based diets aren't evil. They aren't terrible. They are satiating, frugal, and convenient.
Grains are a blessing to many people.

If you want to have the healthiest diet possible, cut out all the processed junk from your diet first. That is much worse than eating grains. If someone wants to link the rise of new health issues of today to a new type of food we're eating, its much more likely to be from the modern processed foods. Because eating grain has been around since... oh... at least biblical days, and if you ask me, hunter gatherers ate grains as well.

Grains are definitely not evil.

P.S. Neither are legumes. Every time I said "grains" in this post, you could substitute the word "legume" and it would be just as true. I just didn't want to say "Grains and legumes, grains and legumes" every single time. But this post was talking about both grains and legumes. If prepared properly, both are a very nutritionally sound, frugal, and traditional way to nourish your family. Just make sure you're preparing them the traditional way, so that you can get maximum nutritional benefits and it doesn't wreak havoc on your system.
P.P.S. If you've learned that your body reacts negatively to grains, even when prepared traditionally/correctly, this post was not referring to you. It was talking to everyone else.

What do you think about grains and legumes? Are they good? Bad? Neutral? Bad but better than nothing? The terrific staple?
How do you feel about diets like the Paleo and Primal diets? Do you think they are firmly based in historical facts, or do you think they're bogus? Do you think they're nutritionally beneficial or nutritionally problematic?
Do you agree with what I've said in this post? How frequently do you eat grains and/or legumes?

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3 comments:

  1. A great read! I have spent the last year gluten & dairy free ( 2 years prior to that dairy free). I've gone without grains on & off for health reasons. Although these methods have been improving my health, I agree that the Paleo/Primal theorists are not quite accurate to history. Thanks for voicing that opinion!!

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  2. The HolyBible, in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we are given several accounts of Jesus feeding His followers with bread and with fish. Also, at the night of the LAST SUPPER, Jesus gave His followers BREAD and WINE. We really don't know if these breads were wheat or not, but we do know they were made of GRAIN. Check it out, friends.

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  3. The 'real' problem with grains is the fact they are not the same grains your parents ate. Today's grains are Genetically Modified Organisms. (G.M.O. ~ thank you MONSANTO!). Totally different issued than what Paleo diets present! GMO foods lack nutritional value...it's seeds are chemically produced in a laboratory. So...if you still choose to eat grains, then for God's sake, please buy Organic ONLY so you know what you're eating

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