Thursday, August 1, 2013

Redeeming The Grains Part I: The Paleo Narrative

An interlude of sun and heat has lately interrupted the symphony of soddenness this summer has intoned. A crescendo of growth among the grasses on the field above has at last begun to taper as the mower finds its beat. Slender stalks of gold and green bear seedhead notes of varied form; as my striding legs pick through their riffs, one note- discordant in this tableau of wild growth- holds and arrests my unshod feet.
One of these seedheads is not like the others...
This Demeter-borne builder of man's daily bread, this vilified villain of Paltrow's vulnerable villi, this stout yellow sheaf of starchy seeds- whether sanguine or sinister- is our familiar Wheat. I smile as I would at an often-troublesome friend, resigned to knowing that while not all of our disagreements can be resolved, fondness creeps in around the edges when my guard is relaxed. Such is my relationship with this embattled grain, as I have yet learned that redemption treads even in the territory of past condemnation.

Yet far afield from my meeting here a battle still rages- between those who bear reverence for this golden grain, and those who would see it forever diminished to a source of adhesive. In forums, on blogs, on talk shows and in grocery-store aisles, wheat and its glutenous cohorts are on trial in the stomachs of a hungry world. That they feed so many of its denizens just sets the stakes higher; even if they're found guilty, how would we extricate them from our lives?

The list of charges is long: our once-celebrated cereals now stand accused of everything from mangling our intestinal mucosa to stripping the noble paleolithic savage of his inherited liberty and casting him into the pit of civilized subordination. Does it surprise, really, that the grain-rejecting “Paleo Diet” has gained greatest momentum here in the USA, a nation founded on and formed by periodic spasms of grasping for a freedom we've never quite managed to define? If stems of grass weave the manacles that restrain our spear-throwing shoulders, is it any wonder that we who need a struggle to self-validate would move to torch the granaries?

For some this debate sparks quite a bit of passion. But do these passions equate to justice? Do the charges brought with such fury stand? I was once resolute in pronouncing the Evils Of Wheat. Now, I am not so sure.

The question of our prehistoric relationship with grains is where I first entered the fray. Yearning to find some existence alternative to expected participation in a culture that just wasn't convincing, I came across the concept of Rewilding. The notion that an animal confined in a zoo is unlikely to experience its full biological inheritance of being, and that this is reflected in the modern dysfunctions of humans in cages built of culture and concrete, continues to resonate with me. A dietary regime aspiring to return to humanity's wild roots held an obvious appeal. With growing health concerns that seemed reasonable to link to the previous year of eating mostly boxed remixes of grain, vegetable oil and artificial flavorings, diving headlong into the Paleo Diet was certainly a more accessible way to feel like I was rewilding myself than retreating to a bark hut in the PNW.
Though I did give it some thought.
One of the central concepts of the Paleo Diet is that ancient human ancestors, living as hunter-gatherers, would not have bothered to eat grass seeds, and as a result we modern humans are poorly adapted to the grain-heavy diets that appear to coincide with health conditions regarded as “diseases of civilization.” Scattered heads of tiny grains would be passed by for game, fruits, larger nuts and seeds, leafy greens and roots (popular manifestations of the paleo diet include endless variations of proscribing or promoting some of these elements over others).

This is not an unfounded notion; the field of Optimal Foraging Theory explores the dynamics of human behavior in hunter-gatherer cultures in relation to maintaining a sufficient supply of food. Optimal Foraging models often indicate a much higher return-for-effort with foods like game, fruit, and (where available) honey. Grains require the gathering of many seedheads and then separating the nutritive seeds from their indigestible husks through threshing and winnowing in order to yield seeds which must then by cooked to be digestible. This is not exactly a process most of us would describe as energy-efficient. Thus, Optimal Foraging Theory might predict that preagricultural hominids would have little use for grains.

Optimal Foraging Theory has its shortcomings. Models must be built on data, and our information on what foods were available and in what ways they were utilized in ancestral environments is far from complete. Often data is substituted from modern hunter-gatherers, which poses a number of problems. Most persisting hunter-gatherers have remained so long because the landscapes they inhabit are considered marginal for agricultural food production. Their cultures are very specialized to their modern environments, which may not be as productive and abundant in human food as land now converted to agricultural production (due to its fertility) may have been. The modern tableau of species these hunter-gatherers can choose from is also likely radically different; what modern species are equivalent to the pleicostene megafauna whose bones bear the cut marks of our early stone tools? None of these people inhabit the sort of fertile grasslands generally considered to be the pivotal environment for genus Homo.

Reflecting the influence of that grassland environment, several papers recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explored changes in bone isotope content over the course of hominid evolution that would suggest an increasing intake of proteins with carbon isotopes derived from grasses. Inane quips about Paleo Dieters investing in lanwmowers drew a very solid rebuttal from Dr. Cordain, one of the original paleo diet proponents. As he explains, the bulk of available evidence would suggest that the major source of these grass-derived isotopes would be the meat of ruminant herbivores living in those grassland environments. As is typical, though, his writing is also heavy with disdain for the idea that grasses may have had any importance in early human diets.

A lawnmower likely to increase your dietary quality.
I have grown uncomfortable with the prevalent attitude that the caloric inefficiency of grasses as a dietary staple for hunter-gatherers means that they had no importance or value for our ancestors. This attitude heavily colors Cordain's further arguments in the rebuttal and indeed the whole Paleo diet movement. This is the attitude that opens the door for the notion that humans are poorly adapted to eating grains at all, and that we might all improve our health by eliminating them from our diets. This attitude serves to stave off the application of critical thought to the long lists of “reasons” for grain avoidance furnished in paleo circles.

I would contend that grasses and their seeds would likely have held significant value for our early ancestors. Our modern agriculture-based relationship with grains, wherein they're most importantly an easily stored, high-calorie staple, has shrouded our ability to see and understand what that value (or values) might be. I'll be exploring those possible values in the next installment, followed by an exploration of the rise of grain sensitivities and how they might relate (or not) to our ancestral relationship with grains.

This post is linked to Tasty Traditions and Simply Natural Saturdays,

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