Blog | Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Beating on wheat and raining on grains

Beating on wheat and raining on grains is very much in season. But I don’t think that’s what’s making us fat and stupid. I am pretty convinced it’s the paperclip. And, possibly, the Post-it note.

First, I have it on decisive authority that our paleolithic ancestors had no paperclips. And they had no Post-it notes. That probably clinches the argument right there, but there’s more.

The paperclip was reportedly invented in 1899. Since epidemic obesity, diabetes, and dementia have ensued, I think it’s rather clear that paperclips are to blame.

The Post-it note was invented, more accidentally than not, in 1974 or thereabouts. Just look at all the hell that has done broke loose since then! Not just all these epidemics of chronic disease, but climate change, overpopulation, desertification, and the wholesale death of bats and bees if not yet birds. Clearly, then, paperclips could only do so much damage on their own. Post-it notes put us over the edge.

Having established these indelible links among paperclips, Post-it notes, and all manner of calamitous mayhem, the prosecution is really tempted to rest on its laurels, but there’s still more. The innocent must be exonerated.

And to that end, there’s a defense of grains. Grains allegedly make us fat and stupid. But what about all those agonizingly skinny people in U.N. food relief lines living just about only on grains? What about the notorious “bread and water” diet for poor souls wasting away in dungeons and prisons? My understanding is that obesity is not the salient problem there.

OK, that’s feeble stuff, you’re right. But how about the fact that grains figure, often quite prominently, in the diets of all of the healthiest, leanest, longest-lived, most vital peoples on the planet? Look through the inventory of Blue Zones, and you find grains everywhere. The Okinawans ate them; the Seventh Day Adventists eat them; they figure in all of the best variations on the theme of the Mediterranean diet.

And they have fared pretty well in clinical trials, too. Grains were part of the dietary pattern shown to reverse coronary atherosclerosis. They were part of the diets, more than once, shown to prevent heart attacks 70 percent of the time in high-risk people. They were part of the diets shown to lower blood pressure, and prevent diabetes in almost two-thirds of high-risk individuals. There’s more, but that really ought to do it if you’re still reading.

As for the adverse effects of grain intake on brain function, I am aware of no reports indicating that Sir Isaac Newton avoided them. Or Goethe. Or Bach. Or Shakespeare. Or Einstein. And I’ve read of Julius Caesar dipping his grainy bread in olive oil, even as I do myself, meaning no disrespect to any Picts or Gauls listening in. I enjoy whole grain bread in olive oil, but harbor no malice toward Picts or Gauls. I draw the line!

None of this is an argument for refined starches, obviously. Just because whole grains have a pretty good track record doesn’t mean the same pedigree extends to what’s left behind when we’ve stripped off the hull and ripped out the germ. That would be like inferring that since Earth’s atmosphere is good to breathe, it would still be good to breathe if we sucked out all the oxygen. I wish you, the baby, and the bathwater good luck with that one.

Of course, it’s true that there were no “grains” per se in our native, paleolithic diet. That’s pretty damning.

But of course, there were no grain-fed cattle either. There was no bacon. There was no mustard. There was no ketchup either. There was no marinara sauce. Heck, there were no tomatoes. There were no beans, no lentils, no chickens as we know them now. No ground beef, and certainly no sausage. No deli meats. No hummus. There was mammoth, though.

The reality is that we can’t eat the foods our Stone Age ancestors ate, because their foods don’t exist now, and our foods didn’t exist then. The best we can do is approximate the native. And while the native did not include grains, it did reportedly achieve something like 100 grams of fiber daily from a wide variety of plant foods. There is little hope of getting to 100 grams of fiber daily even with whole grains filling in for the high-fiber plant foods our ancestors ate, and probably no hope of doing so without them. So those who consider eating grains a departure from the native should concede that not eating 100 grams of fiber per day is another.

Of course, if you do aim for 100 grams of fiber, permit me to recommend excellent reading materials in your bathroom; you’ll be spending a lot of time in there.

Still, the recent arguments against wheat and grains do seem really convincing. But then again, not all that long ago, arguments against dietary fat seemed really convincing. Then arguments against all carbohydrates, not just grains. Then arguments against all high-gycemic foods. And arguments against dairy. And arguments against eggs. And arguments against meat. And arguments against all animal products. And arguments against salt. And arguments against saturated fat. And arguments against tropical oils. And arguments against trans fat. And arguments against sugar in general, and fructose in particular. And arguments against gluten. And arguments against GMOs. And … well, you get the idea. All made persuasively, and with an application of religious zeal.

Of course, if any one of these arguments was truly valid about the one thing truly wrong with our diets, it would mean all the others are wrong. Of course we could account for that; eating the wrong foods has clearly made all the “other” guys dopey.

But maybe the only truly safe thing to do is assume they are all right. That’s what I’m going to do.

I’ve been sitting here on my fat tush long enough, and I’m off to start my next diet. I suppose I might attribute my excess poundage and listless mind to the hours in this chair in front of this screen, but there’s no popular book telling me to do that, so to hell with it. It’s the damn grains/sugar/carbs/wheat/GMOs/animal foods/etc.

My plan is to head on over to the fast food restaurant, and buy just about anything they sell. It doesn’t matter, because I intend to dump out the alleged food anyway; clearly nobody should be eating that crap. I intend to eat the Styrofoam.

Being a responsible, if dull and pudgy, parent, I will indulge my child in a Happy Meal. We will, of course, throw away that rubbish, too; my kid can eat the toy.

At least I would be setting out to the fast food restaurant now, if I could. I put my car keys on a paperclip, and for the life of me can’t remember where I left the damn thing. If only I had stuck a Post-it note reminder to the family mammoth, or the wall of my cave …

David L. Katz, MD, FACP, MPH, FACPM, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and Associate Professor (adjunct) in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Director and founder (1998) of Yale University's Prevention Research Center; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, Conn.; founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation; and formerly the Director of Medical Studies in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine for eight years. This post originally appeared on his blog at The Huffington Post.