9

votes

If our grandparents ate grains and had a low rate of degenerative diseases, why are grains so bad for us?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created March 24, 2012 at 11:26 PM

My understanding is that, in general, our grandparents were healthy people. They certainly ate grains. So, what's wrong with grains?

Having been the chapter head of WAPF in Santa Fe for a number of years, and pretty Paleo now, I do understand that traditional ways of cooking (e.g. long slow fermentation of dough for bread) plus non-diet factors -- less stress, stronger family and community ties, hard work, being more in tune with the seasons, less poison in the air and in our food, and other factors -- contributed to their health.

Why do we make guesses about what paleolithic people ate when diet and health data from 100 years ago is much easier to get and doesn't make a case for eliminating properly prepared grains. What's changed in the last century that targets grains?

4b5be253ac1981c690689cab7e4bf06d

(3043)

on July 17, 2012
at 04:01 PM

Basically, Pottenger did not know that cats needed taurine, which is destroyed when food is cooked. Thus, the cooked cats could have diet from this deficiency. I didn't use it for this example specifically, but as a more general "bad eating/deficiencies can cause effects through the generations."

A3c56c85290f748410a6f340ddd552b3

(321)

on July 17, 2012
at 03:44 PM

I've heard that the Pottenger cat "thing" was hugely flawed and not a good study to use to draw any conclusions about humans. I wish I could find that reference.... anyone know?

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on July 02, 2012
at 06:53 PM

Yeah - I think even the most anti-gluten folks here can admit that for someone with strong digestion and no allergies, there's a *huge* difference between a homemade wheatberry salad and that same wheat being milled and processed into, say, Frosted Flakes or Little Debbie brownies.

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on July 02, 2012
at 06:51 PM

Amanda, you beat me to it! I was going to bring up Pottenger and how the damage compounds through successive generations. Look at children today - they are suffering the most...more than we do, and we're getting sicker younger than our parents, and *they* got sicker younger than *their* parents.....

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on July 02, 2012
at 06:49 PM

Agree -- depending on how old we all are, some of our grandparents were only in their 30s-50s when good ol' Ancel Keys made the scene, so they spent their later decades eating lots of low-fat and fat-free stuff, margarine, skim milk, sugary cereals, etc. We probably have to go back to at least our great-great grandparents to find people who spent their whole lives on much better food. (And even then, there was still candy and bread and all that, but nothing like we have today.)

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on July 02, 2012
at 06:48 PM

Agree -- depending on how old we all are, some of our grandparents were only their 30s-50s when good ol' Ancel Keys made the scene, so they spent their later decades eating lots of low-fat and fat-free stuff, margarine, skim milk, sugary cereals, etc. We probably have to go back to at least our great-great grandparents to find people who spent their *whole* lives on much better food. (And even then, there was still candy and bread and all that, but *nothing* like we have today.)

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 02, 2012
at 03:46 PM

And how convenient, and how cheap. My nemesis was frosted mini wheats.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 02, 2012
at 03:42 PM

Over 4 generations I think they are reversible. For instance, over 500 generations we have become increasingly sedentary. Olympic records continue to improve, demonstrating that our ability to reverse the negative effects of sedentism has not declined.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 02, 2012
at 03:34 PM

If we're not killed by disease or accident, autophagy sets in and we die of a degenerative disease. Exercise can forestall the effects and extend our lives. I'm not sure diet has a big effect per se, though overeating/obesity do.

21b36b3de8ff31b0d41e7f0f4b5c1e03

(1688)

on March 25, 2012
at 11:58 AM

Heart disease appears to have been common among (upper class) ancient Egyptians, who ate a lot of grain. "Commonly considered a result of our modern lifestyle, atherosclerosis was surprisingly widespread in ancient Egypt. The researchers pointed out that 45 percent of the mummies they put through CT scans show signs of atherosclerosis." http://news.discovery.com/history/mummy-heart-disease-110520.html

8634d4988ced45a68e2a79e69cc01835

(1617)

on March 25, 2012
at 03:42 AM

My grandparents had heart disease, and my grandmother had 2 bypass surgeries, osteoporosis, and multiple strokes, despite never being overweight. Anecdotal, I know, but still....

80890193d74240cab6dda920665bfb6c

(1528)

on March 25, 2012
at 01:34 AM

Actually Sol we have excellent public health records in several countries that go back a long time, some based on parish and church records. The UK has very good public health information - the first scientific stab at public health and epidemiology was written by Graunt in 1662. The London Epidemiological Society kept good records for the Victorian era as well.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on March 25, 2012
at 01:33 AM

Yeah, I have healthy people in my family who ate grains who are 93-99. Diet isn't everything, though those women I would note are under-eaters, so perhaps caloric restriction played a role. There is no way to know about heart disease in paleolithic populations, but you can know about other health conditions. The problem is that healthy skeletal populations aren't only hunter-gatherers, there are some farmers in the collection too.

0b8e2def29520ec9526577c35fddcaa0

(105)

on March 25, 2012
at 01:12 AM

My great-grandmother outlived all my grandparents. She passed in 1993 at 97 years old, when her body finally shut down 2 months after breaking her hip. She was an otherwise healthy active woman who refused to go to a "retirement" community because she wasn't "old." She grew up in the UK and always cooked from scratch.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:57 AM

My dad was paranoid about trichinosis because he knew people who had it. Say what you want about modern poisons but I'll take the improved sanitation and food inspection of today over what they had 50 years ago.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:53 AM

I wonder whether my obese grandparents were Type 2 diabetic. We have so much more inexpensive testing capability now than 50 years ago.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:43 AM

Melissa, I see your point (about getting data from modern foraging populations.) Another question, which may be worth posting as a new question, is how we know how much diet affects health vs. all the other factors. Could the Kitavans eat properly prepared grains and still be healthy if no other lifestyle factors changed?

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:32 AM

There may be another factor here that perhaps grains are problematic for those of us with health challenges that we're trying to heal and not problematic, or less so, in healthy people.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:29 AM

Melissa, if we don't have great data about disease rates 100 years ago , how can we make guesses about the data going back tens of thousands of years? I'm not playing devil's advocate, this is a sincere question.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on March 25, 2012
at 12:29 AM

We don't know that. There is only so much you can learn from bones. Most cancers don't show up and heart disease/diabetes doesn't either. Most of the degenerative disease speculation is based on studies like the Kitavan study, on modern foraging populations. Based on that and other studies, I'd rather be an old person on Kitavan than my great-great-grandmother. No gout on Kitava.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:25 AM

Nice summary! Your short list makes it clear why it's such a challenge for us to avoid more damamge let alone heal.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:23 AM

Nemesis, your answer makes me wonder how we know that Paleo people didn't have a high rate of chronic disease, and, even, if they were healthy, how do we know how much was diet and how much were all the other lifestyle factors?

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on March 25, 2012
at 12:20 AM

yeah, the data isn't good though since medicine was more art than science until recently, but it's there. A good place to start would be gout, which has plagued middle and upper-middle class agrarian folks for quite some time. I would say that past generations were healthier when young. They did get degenerative diseases, but not until they were much older than today. You didn't see teenagers with type 2 diabetes until recently.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:05 AM

If anthropologists can make guesses about what paleo people ate I expect them to be able to make guesses about the rate of chronic disease in our grandparents. Does anyone know if this data exists?

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41747)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:04 AM

Don't get me wrong, they did better than we're doing today. But I think we can do even better than that.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:03 AM

Is there any statistical data pointing to poor health among our grandparents? I imagine that many of us on PH do Paleo because our grandparents and parents are/were sick and we don't want to end up like them. That's certainly my draw to Paleo. So, comments about our own grandparents having been sick may skew the data. Healthy non-Paleo people with health non-Paleo grandparents aren't being counted in these comments.

80890193d74240cab6dda920665bfb6c

(1528)

on March 24, 2012
at 11:59 PM

The dwarf wheat of today ain't the 4-ft tall stuff they ate, which in turn is far different than spelt or einkorn

A2c38be4c54c91a15071f82f14cac0b3

(12682)

on March 24, 2012
at 11:55 PM

However, I don't really think grains are "so bad for us", that's highly dependent on the person, the grain, and the method of preparation.

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13 Answers

best answer

24
1d9af5db8833413037be3ac48964714f

on March 25, 2012
at 12:12 AM

Several points:

  • The wheat they were eating was not the modern dwarf variety. In many cases the grains they ate were traditionally processed to remove many toxic properties.
  • Most of their food was made at home, from scratch. There was no fast food.
  • All the meat they ate was pastured/grass fed. All of the eggs were from pastured chickens. None of the veggies were grown in an environment destroyed by pesticides.
  • There was much less of what we would consider processed food.
  • They were not burdened with health experts insisting that they eliminate arterycloggingsaturatedfat.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:25 AM

Nice summary! Your short list makes it clear why it's such a challenge for us to avoid more damamge let alone heal.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:32 AM

There may be another factor here that perhaps grains are problematic for those of us with health challenges that we're trying to heal and not problematic, or less so, in healthy people.

8
A2c38be4c54c91a15071f82f14cac0b3

(12682)

on March 24, 2012
at 11:50 PM

Eating whole grain sourdough bread is preferable to eating Cheetos, but that doesn't make the former optimal. Our grandparents may have been healthier than we are today, but they were not free from degenerative illness and for all we know may have improved by eating less grain and more animal products, fruit, tubers, etc.

A2c38be4c54c91a15071f82f14cac0b3

(12682)

on March 24, 2012
at 11:55 PM

However, I don't really think grains are "so bad for us", that's highly dependent on the person, the grain, and the method of preparation.

6
32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41747)

on March 24, 2012
at 11:54 PM

I'll echo what others are saying, our grandparents aren't/weren't necessarily healthy. But at least they didn't live through the perfect shitstorm of crappy nutrition and problematic chemical exposure we're living through now.

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41747)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:04 AM

Don't get me wrong, they did better than we're doing today. But I think we can do even better than that.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:57 AM

My dad was paranoid about trichinosis because he knew people who had it. Say what you want about modern poisons but I'll take the improved sanitation and food inspection of today over what they had 50 years ago.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:03 AM

Is there any statistical data pointing to poor health among our grandparents? I imagine that many of us on PH do Paleo because our grandparents and parents are/were sick and we don't want to end up like them. That's certainly my draw to Paleo. So, comments about our own grandparents having been sick may skew the data. Healthy non-Paleo people with health non-Paleo grandparents aren't being counted in these comments.

5
21b36b3de8ff31b0d41e7f0f4b5c1e03

(1688)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:29 AM

Interesting question.

Cardiovascular disease was already a leading cause of death back in 1935: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db88.htm#heart - which is my great-grandparent's generation.Rates of stroke haven't changed much; the only thing going up is cancer. But that might just be because life expectancy has increased. The discovery of penicillin, better treatment for TB, better treatment for injuries, ability to get to hospitals faster etc meant that many more people lived to an age where they could have developed cancer. Also, like other people point out, cancer was perhaps not always diagnosed with accuracy in days of yore.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:53 AM

I wonder whether my obese grandparents were Type 2 diabetic. We have so much more inexpensive testing capability now than 50 years ago.

21b36b3de8ff31b0d41e7f0f4b5c1e03

(1688)

on March 25, 2012
at 11:58 AM

Heart disease appears to have been common among (upper class) ancient Egyptians, who ate a lot of grain. "Commonly considered a result of our modern lifestyle, atherosclerosis was surprisingly widespread in ancient Egypt. The researchers pointed out that 45 percent of the mummies they put through CT scans show signs of atherosclerosis." http://news.discovery.com/history/mummy-heart-disease-110520.html

4
Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:47 AM

My parents are healthier than my grandparents were, despite both generations eating a lot of grain products. Longevity has increased substantially over the past 10 generations for a number of reasons unrelated to grains. Modern humans have been eating grains and grain products as staple foods for at least 500 generations. We thrive on them and it's silly to argue that we don't.

I don't think digestibility or longevity have much to do with the current problem with grains. I think that we have lost the ability to eat them rationally. They're cheap - much cheaper than protein of any kind - and in our stupidity we overeat them. I stupidly overate cheap dry wheat breakfast cereal (free actually, they were giving away cases of it at work) until I was obese and diabetic. It tasted great and I stuffed myself with it. My adipose fat cells showed their gratitude by expanding and filling up my abdominal cavity.

My grandparents had problems similar to mine. My parents are smarter and control their eating of sugary and starchy foods. So far they've outlived their parents by 10 years. Would they do better on a paleo diet? Maybe, but they're doing pretty well as it is.

4
1d0497f8781845ab371b479455bfee8e

(11157)

on March 24, 2012
at 11:48 PM

I don't know about that. My grandpa died in his late 70's several years ago from bone and prostate cancer. Granny is still kicking, but she lost all of her teeth years ago and all of her sunbathing over the decades has really added years to her.

We might need to go even further back, to great or great-great-grandparents. Even then, who knows if they had chronic illnesses which they kept hidden out of shame/misdiagnosis/social stigma? Back then, illnesses were treated by doctors at home, and remedies were often ineffective if not outright dangerous (bloodletting, anyone?). Also, diagnostic technology was primitive, and these people could have been riddled with tumors or other degenerative diseases and no one would have known about it.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:05 AM

If anthropologists can make guesses about what paleo people ate I expect them to be able to make guesses about the rate of chronic disease in our grandparents. Does anyone know if this data exists?

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:29 AM

Melissa, if we don't have great data about disease rates 100 years ago , how can we make guesses about the data going back tens of thousands of years? I'm not playing devil's advocate, this is a sincere question.

0b8e2def29520ec9526577c35fddcaa0

(105)

on March 25, 2012
at 01:12 AM

My great-grandmother outlived all my grandparents. She passed in 1993 at 97 years old, when her body finally shut down 2 months after breaking her hip. She was an otherwise healthy active woman who refused to go to a "retirement" community because she wasn't "old." She grew up in the UK and always cooked from scratch.

80890193d74240cab6dda920665bfb6c

(1528)

on March 25, 2012
at 01:34 AM

Actually Sol we have excellent public health records in several countries that go back a long time, some based on parish and church records. The UK has very good public health information - the first scientific stab at public health and epidemiology was written by Graunt in 1662. The London Epidemiological Society kept good records for the Victorian era as well.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on March 25, 2012
at 01:33 AM

Yeah, I have healthy people in my family who ate grains who are 93-99. Diet isn't everything, though those women I would note are under-eaters, so perhaps caloric restriction played a role. There is no way to know about heart disease in paleolithic populations, but you can know about other health conditions. The problem is that healthy skeletal populations aren't only hunter-gatherers, there are some farmers in the collection too.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on March 25, 2012
at 12:29 AM

We don't know that. There is only so much you can learn from bones. Most cancers don't show up and heart disease/diabetes doesn't either. Most of the degenerative disease speculation is based on studies like the Kitavan study, on modern foraging populations. Based on that and other studies, I'd rather be an old person on Kitavan than my great-great-grandmother. No gout on Kitava.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:23 AM

Nemesis, your answer makes me wonder how we know that Paleo people didn't have a high rate of chronic disease, and, even, if they were healthy, how do we know how much was diet and how much were all the other lifestyle factors?

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on March 25, 2012
at 12:20 AM

yeah, the data isn't good though since medicine was more art than science until recently, but it's there. A good place to start would be gout, which has plagued middle and upper-middle class agrarian folks for quite some time. I would say that past generations were healthier when young. They did get degenerative diseases, but not until they were much older than today. You didn't see teenagers with type 2 diabetes until recently.

35b2cb4d450e5288895c255dfdfff35d

(5828)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:43 AM

Melissa, I see your point (about getting data from modern foraging populations.) Another question, which may be worth posting as a new question, is how we know how much diet affects health vs. all the other factors. Could the Kitavans eat properly prepared grains and still be healthy if no other lifestyle factors changed?

3
4b5be253ac1981c690689cab7e4bf06d

(3043)

on July 02, 2012
at 02:35 AM

There is a lot of mouse research that suggests that the "problems" with diet are cumulative over generations. Pottenger's cats ended up sterile after 4 generations (which, granted, was probably about lack of an amino acid necessary for cats, but still.).

Our grandparents had very little access to restaurant food, additives, trans fats, genetically altered food, and all the other crap that we have ready access to now. The types of damages that we are seeing now are cumulative, and getting worse.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 02, 2012
at 03:42 PM

Over 4 generations I think they are reversible. For instance, over 500 generations we have become increasingly sedentary. Olympic records continue to improve, demonstrating that our ability to reverse the negative effects of sedentism has not declined.

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on July 02, 2012
at 06:51 PM

Amanda, you beat me to it! I was going to bring up Pottenger and how the damage compounds through successive generations. Look at children today - they are suffering the most...more than we do, and we're getting sicker younger than our parents, and *they* got sicker younger than *their* parents.....

4b5be253ac1981c690689cab7e4bf06d

(3043)

on July 17, 2012
at 04:01 PM

Basically, Pottenger did not know that cats needed taurine, which is destroyed when food is cooked. Thus, the cooked cats could have diet from this deficiency. I didn't use it for this example specifically, but as a more general "bad eating/deficiencies can cause effects through the generations."

A3c56c85290f748410a6f340ddd552b3

(321)

on July 17, 2012
at 03:44 PM

I've heard that the Pottenger cat "thing" was hugely flawed and not a good study to use to draw any conclusions about humans. I wish I could find that reference.... anyone know?

3
Ce41c230e8c2a4295db31aec3ef4b2ab

(32564)

on March 25, 2012
at 12:49 AM

I don't know if your premise is true --especially for city-raised people, or for those born in poverty. All my relatives were urbanites and poor working-class folk.

My Maternal Grandmother died of diabetes-related complications at 88.

(Maternal Grandfather is unknown.)

My Paternal Grandfather died of a stroke at 82.

My Paternal Grandmother died of a heart attack at 84.

So I have a relatively long-lived family, but they have all died of degenerative diseases. I'm 49.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 02, 2012
at 03:34 PM

If we're not killed by disease or accident, autophagy sets in and we die of a degenerative disease. Exercise can forestall the effects and extend our lives. I'm not sure diet has a big effect per se, though overeating/obesity do.

2
0b8e2def29520ec9526577c35fddcaa0

on March 25, 2012
at 01:08 AM

I would think a lot of it has to do with the intensive agriculture that we have today. We have lost so many varieties of grains by breeding only what was the best producer, etc. The biggest problem is when you continually breed something for a good dominant trait you end up with a abundance of bad recessive traits as well, you see it a lot in livestock breeding and we don't think about it as much on plants but when you decrease the size of the gene pool you have problems and we are then putting those problems in our bodies, well that and the amount of processing of foods.

1
03a4ec34751186201a56da298ac843ce

on July 02, 2012
at 02:48 AM

Maybe it's not the amount of grain, but how processed it's become. Ever see those wrapped pastries they sell at the gas stations? Or the tons of Little Debbie/Hostess type things at the market? Much more common today than in my grandparents day when they ate bakery bread.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 02, 2012
at 03:46 PM

And how convenient, and how cheap. My nemesis was frosted mini wheats.

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on July 02, 2012
at 06:53 PM

Yeah - I think even the most anti-gluten folks here can admit that for someone with strong digestion and no allergies, there's a *huge* difference between a homemade wheatberry salad and that same wheat being milled and processed into, say, Frosted Flakes or Little Debbie brownies.

1
Cacf3bd2d5606b83dd32057537577b68

on July 02, 2012
at 02:19 AM

Diet and grains are not the only things that cause degenerative diseases. There are so many variables beyond what you eat.

1
De267f213b375efca5da07890e5efc25

(3747)

on March 25, 2012
at 01:10 AM

My grandparents were afflicted with the following disorders: cancer, possible diabetes, suspected alzheimer's, and stroke. They grew up and died in various places, none in the US. It is a fallacy that our grandparents are healthy but I don't think it's correct to point out that they weren't healthier than we will be. Within 20 years, one out of two Americans is expect to have type 2 diabetes. That alone substantially increases risks for lots of other diseases. There's no way that degenerative diseases won't increase in prevalence. Some if it will certainly be better ability to detect it but I don't think that can fully or even mostly account for the increase. My great grandparents all died in war so I can't comment on them but I know one was diabetic.

0
A3c56c85290f748410a6f340ddd552b3

on July 02, 2012
at 01:44 AM

Maybe great grandparents is the better question. My grandparents came of age in the depression and ate boatloads of refined flour, margarine, crisco, etc. They died of things like CVD, diabetes (type 1, though), stroke, kidney failure, dementia, and etc. No cancer in that group, though. I never knew their parents but maybe it was better for them.

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on July 02, 2012
at 06:49 PM

Agree -- depending on how old we all are, some of our grandparents were only in their 30s-50s when good ol' Ancel Keys made the scene, so they spent their later decades eating lots of low-fat and fat-free stuff, margarine, skim milk, sugary cereals, etc. We probably have to go back to at least our great-great grandparents to find people who spent their whole lives on much better food. (And even then, there was still candy and bread and all that, but nothing like we have today.)

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on July 02, 2012
at 06:48 PM

Agree -- depending on how old we all are, some of our grandparents were only their 30s-50s when good ol' Ancel Keys made the scene, so they spent their later decades eating lots of low-fat and fat-free stuff, margarine, skim milk, sugary cereals, etc. We probably have to go back to at least our great-great grandparents to find people who spent their *whole* lives on much better food. (And even then, there was still candy and bread and all that, but *nothing* like we have today.)

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