Last updated on August 24th, 2011
Grains are the humble seeds of grasses and of civilization. Without grains, we wouldn’t be where we are today: fat, miserable, malnourished — hunched over an iPad or a plate of Fettucini Alfredo.
No, where we would be is hunched atop a rock with our trusty spear in hand, waiting for some game to come by, hoping that the game would be the kind we could eat and not get eaten by.
The cultivation of grains created agriculture, and agriculture created cities, nations, and the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. Wheat, rice, barley and the bunch gave hunter-gatherers the bum’s rush from the Saloon of History. Don’t let the swinging door hit you in the butt, big fella, and here — take your spear.
(Some of my literary friends might prefer to call it the “Salon” of History, but I’m pretty sure it’s a saloon, and a cheap dive at that.)
Now, like Woody Allen’s character, we are surrounded by wheat, fields of wheat, tremendous amounts of wheat, and as a result many of us devour wheat products multiple times a day.
But not me, not anymore. I have banished bread, buns, cakes, cookies and pasta from my life. After going low-carb, I’ve eaten a piece of bread or a reduced carb whole wheat tortilla only now and then. (The last bread I ate was half a bun from a Korean barbeque sandwich in Ann Arbor, MI, on May 13, 2011. My choices were limited, and someone else paid for the sandwich. The pork was delicious.)
Other grains I still consume sparingly, on occasion. I drink a light beer every other week or so, containing grains of some sort (though I’m turning more to red wine) and just this morning I ate a quarter-cup of rolled oats cooked with flax seed meal, walnuts, cinnamon, and blue berries, with tablespoon of heavy cream on top. As summer plays out, I’m drawing a bead on an ear of sweet corn, slathered in butter, but haven’t pulled the trigger yet. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.
A couple weeks ago, I ate a small scoop of rice at a Chinese buffet. I regretted it immediately: it was the least tasty part of the meal.
But wheat I am studiously avoiding.
As I said in a post the other day, I have a problem with wheat that goes beyond its carbohydrate content. I didn’t go into detail there, but a couple readers took up the thread in their comments. My fellow low-carb blogger, Joe Lindley (cravingsugar.net), wrote, “From what I’ve heard gluten is far more of a problem than we’ve suspected – for many people. Some with severe reactions to it have to stay off it totally for 9 months or more and then, if they have just the slightest bit of it they’ll have symptoms again.”
Reader Squirrel88 got more personal, describing “digestive” problems and body/ joint pains that went away upon banning the “slightest bit of flour” from the house — and with it, any trace of gluten.
I don’t know if gluten sensitivity is my problem. Certainly, I don’t seem to be extremely gluten sensitive. For instance, eating a low-carb whole-wheat tortilla doesn’t cause me obvious problems. But in the old days — when I ate lots of bread, cereal, pasta, etc. — I had problems. Oh, did I have problems.
What kind of problems? I don’t want to be too graphic. Let’s just call it “intestinal distress.”
Frequent intestinal distress. Even at times intense intestinal distress. I often attributed it to something I had eaten — maybe a bad piece of left-over chicken or a large bowl of bean soup. But many days it happened after I’d eaten nothing more offensive than bran flakes and toast.
Sometimes I thought I had caught whatever virus was going around, and sometimes it may have been that. But not all the times.
(Yes, I have seen the doctor about this problem. That’s the topic for another post. One result was the discovery and removal of a polyp in my large intestine, and regular colonoscopies ever since. The polyp was small and had nothing to do with my symptoms, but had cancerous potential. Finding it 23 years ago was a lucky break.)
Since going to a low-carb way of eating, the symptoms have vanished.
My gut is at peace. I attribute the truce to giving up wheat.
Are there other suspects? Other foods I have stopped eating, besides wheat, that may have been the cause?
Yes, two come to mind: dairy and beans.
I used to drink a lot of skimmed milk — ten or twelve ounces at a time. Like wheat, milk was something I consumed almost every day. I still drink cream or half-and-half in my coffee, but it totals two ounces a day. I also eat cheese almost every day, but again only an ounce or two. Perhaps it took the larger doses of dairy to trigger my problems. I can’t rule it out. But currently I am having dairy much more often than I am having wheat or any grain, without having problems, so it doesn’t seem as likely to be a cause.
As for beans, I ate them once in a while, usually in soup. The high fiber of beans gives many people gas, including me. But I didn’t eat beans frequently enough to explain my symptoms. Also, fiber doesn’t seem to be the issue. I eat flax seed meal now, very high in fiber, with no apparent problems.
The truth is wheat is nastier stuff than milk and beans, and less nutritious. Gluten is only part of the story. Wheat contains other toxic anti-nutrients that are part of its self-defense system. As a grass, wheat may also contain allergens of the type that account for some cases of hay fever — something I have suffered from since boyhood. (Not so much this summer, though, now that I think about it. In the past, fresh cut grass has often set me to sneezing. But my biggest allergy has been to ragweed pollen, not a grass; it’s the start of ragweed season around here and my symptoms remain mild. Interesting.)
Wheat products need to be fortified to supply a decent level of nutrition. Otherwise, they supply little but starch and trouble. There is some fiber, but you can get that from tastier, healthier sources. It’s similar with the other grains. So why bother?
Many don’t see a reason to bother. As well-known Paleo author and blogger Mark Sisson puts it, “Apart from maintaining social conventions in certain situations and obtaining cheap sugar calories, there is absolutely no reason to eat grains [emphasis his].“
Of course, our civilization still depends on wheat and the other grains; they supply the bulk of the calories needed to feed seven billion people. What do we do about that?
Beats me. I have to admit that eating grain is better than starving.