A form of carbohydrate-based foods have been part of many cultures as long as humans have roamed the planet. Some populations ate more plant foods than others, but they all included some form of animal food. In fact, the population groups that ate almost solely animal foods were the healthiest. That is not to say that people eating plant foods as a supplement to their diet cannot thrive as well, but it is an important concept to understand. Today, health agencies and practitioners recommend eating 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates, which is very contradictory to how humans ate in the past. The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends as high as 300 grams of carbohydrates per day. With the advent of industrialization, refined grains and sugar became a major source of the modern diet, which is estimated at approximately 42% of daily caloric intake. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) actually recommends processed grains over animal foods due to the belief that animal fats cause obesity, heart disease, and cancer. This has unfortunately been heavily promoted for over half a century, and to no avail because the health of many Americans' is worse than ever before. Nevertheless, carbohydrates are still promoted by our health officials as a healthier option in comparison to animal based foods.
Many scientists and health-conscious Americans are already aware of the health risks associated with high carbohydrate consumption—insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut, arthritis, heart disease, obesity, depression, and anxiety, just to name a few. If we know that high-carbohydrate diets commonly lead to the consumption of refined grains and sugar, which in turn leave Americans susceptible to a range of chronic diseases, then why are our health officials promoting these foods? More importantly, why are our health officials demonizing the very foods our ancestors praised? The answer to this question—like most related to modern nutrition—leads us back to Ancel Keys' Seven Countries Study.
The Seven Countries Study: The Beginning of the Plant-Based Approach
This study, although widely criticized due to its misleading conclusions based on shaky science, is the basis of America's and many other countries' dietary guidelines today, and the health ramifications of the near-plant-based recommendations are evident. Keys, along with many of his supporters, effectively deprecated most animal foods while promoting the consumption of plant foods, mainly fruits, vegetables, grains, and polyunsaturated fats. This has led Americans to believe that fat is bad and carbohydrates are good. The 'fat makes you fat' hypothesis is false, to put it lightly. In fact, the combination of carbohydrates and fat, especially polyunsaturated fats, is the primary contributor to disease. Once the majority of plant-based carbohydrates and fats are replaced with animal fats, these diseases have been anecdotally shown to subside. Despite this, the new 'fat hypothesis' is touted as gospel to the public by our medical and nutrition industries, which has led to a remarkable increase in our carbohydrate and plant fat consumption over the past century.
To be fair, carbohydrates cannot be struck down altogether. They have played a role in the human diet for thousands of years; however, the quality and method of preparation for modern-carbohydrates is very different when compared to ancient carbohydrates.
Ancient Grains versus Modern Grains
Ancient grains differ from most modern grains in two distinct fashions. First of all, ancient grains, in the unrefined form, contain three components: The germ, the bran, and the endosperm. By the late 1800s when the roller mill was invented, humans were able to mill grain into a highly refined, white flour. This process removed the bran and the endosperm of the grain, therefore reducing the overall fiber content and increasing the starch content. This depletes these grains of their naturally occurring nutrients. The grains are then refortified with synthetic nutrients, which are not processed by the body in the same way as natural foods, leading to impaired micronutrient absorption. Secondly, ancient grains were much more nutrient dense in comparison to modern grains primarily due to soil health and a lack of industrial production methods during the times they were eaten. Furthermore, many plant foods have been genetically modified for reasons of production and profit. In other words, if you were shown a version of a plant food from hundreds of years ago, it would likely be hardly recognizable in comparison to today's genetically modified plant food. A research study analyzing the changes in nutrient quality of various fruits and vegetables from 1950-1999 shows as much as a 38% decrease in the availability of some nutrients found in plant foods, which gives us reason to believe the nutrient-qualities of our grains are significantly lower than that of previous generations. Unfortunately, these nutrient-depleted grains make up a large percentage of the modern diet. But here's the catch, unrefined grains still have a major downside: Lectins.
Lectins, A Plant Defense Mechanism
Lectins are a carbohydrate binding protein found predominately in grains and beans, but also in A1 milk, fruits, and vegetables. The consumption of lectins can lead to a myriad of issues, including gastrointestinal problems, inhibited absorption of various minerals, and inflammatory diseases. Quite recently, humans began consuming larger amounts of lectin-containing foods at the start of the Agricultural Revolution, which was approximately twelve thousand years ago. From an evolutionary perspective, this is a very short period of time given that the ancestors of most grazing animals have been consuming lectin-containing foods much longer. This is likely why grazing animals have the ability to digest these lectin-containing foods, because their gastrointestinal tract and gut microbiome has evolved to break down these foods and prevent the toxic lectins from harming their bodies.
Unfortunately, the discussion of lectins in the scientific community is an incredibly controversial topic. Many proponents of plant-based diets advocate for lectins because they can activate the immune system in similar ways to exercise and sunlight. However, exercise and sunlight do not aggravate the gastrointestinal tract and delicate gut microbiome like these harmful substances. Additionally, humans have built-in mechanisms to adapt to stressors like exercise (protein synthesis, increased appetite, sweating, heavy breathing, etc) and sunlight (melanin production, new skin formation), but we have not yet evolved to adapt to lectins.
Should we continue to eat lectins in order to allow our bodies to adapt?
I feel that this is a very important question, and it brings up a crucial theory that many people do not know about. This is called the expensive tissue hypothesis.
The expensive tissue hypothesis suggests that the body has a limited ability to support energetically expensive organs, such as the brain and the gut. Therefore, the body must compensate by dedicating more energy to one versus the other. This explains why cattle have very large guts, and smaller brains, while humans have smaller guts, and much larger brains. In fact, we have found that once humans began eating more animal-based foods, the size of our brain actually increased. Unfortunately, our brain size has decreased very recently, which is likely due to the fact that we have been eating more plants than our ancestors as a global population. If we were to continue eating a predominantly plant-based diet, similar to herbivores, it is very possible that our brain size would decrease to compensate for the larger gut necessary to process the fiber-rich plants, and we may very well lose the intelligence that has set us apart from so many other species on the planet. Of course, this would take thousands of years, but it is something to consider when making dietary decisions.
From a broader perspective, this gives us even more reasoning to avoid lectin-containing foods, because they are predominantly fiber-rich plants, which our digestive systems are too small to handle copious amounts.
Thankfully, there are a few methods that have proven effective in breaking down lectins in foods. These include soaking, fermenting, cooking, and sprouting. Although these methods have not been proven to eradicate all of the lectins, they should be implemented when consuming lectin-containing foods.
Sugar: An Evolutionary Savior, A Modern Catastrophe
Humans, like other omnivores, have been eating sugar for thousands of years, and for good reason. Sugar, both from oranges and from soda pop, is broken down into glucose and fructose which causes an insulin response, leading to weight gain. From an evolutionary perspective, this is ideal. Omnivores, such as humans and bears, may eat sugar-containing fruits in the summertime in order to more efficiently store fat in order to survive the winter time. This prevented starvation, which allowed these species to continue their evolutionary path here on earth. This is what many species on the planet are naturally drawn to sweet foods. Unfortunately, the very evolutionary instinct that kept us alive is now killing us.
Rather than eating sugar containing foods during only certain times of the year, we are now eating them year-round and in much larger quantities. As of 2011, the average American eat 150 pounds of sugar per year, in comparison 17.5 pounds in 1915. This has caused severe hormonal disruptions leading to a chronic disease epidemic.
There are three main hormones that sugar affects. Most are very familiar with insulin, which has the role of maintaining blood sugar levels by pulling sugar into the cells. When sugar is consistently eaten in high amounts, the insulin-response is stressed, leading to an imbalance of blood-sugar and insulin secretion. Two additional hormones, known as the 'hunger hormones,' are ghrelin and lectin. A surplus of sugar intake commonly leads people to a never-ending rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows, throwing off the hunger hormone response, which generally causes increased food consumption, primarily in the form of sugar because that is what the body believes it needs. This is why individuals on low or zero-carb diets commonly report lack of hunger, because their ghrelin and leptin levels are naturally regulated to meet energetic requirements when not unnaturally disrupted by high amounts of sugar.
Grains and Sugar, A Note of Caution
To sum up, grains and sugar should be generally avoided in the diet for a multitude of reasons. First of all, these refined carbohydrates continuously stress the insulin and ghrelin/leptin response, leading to hormonal imbalance. Secondly, refined carbohydrates generally replace more nutrient dense foods, leading to a depletion of required micronutrients. Although these foods are often refortified with synthetic nutrients, the synthetic versions generally are not absorbed by the body in the same manner as natural nutrients. These two factors can lead to a host of issues, as shown below.
If grains and sugar cause such problems, what do I eat?
It is important to note that grains and sugar do not need to be completely forbidden from the diet, but they should instead be consumed in an evolutionary consistent manner. This includes eating foods when they are seasonal and local, as well as properly preparing lectin-containing foods with the methods mentioned above. Additionally, animal foods should still make up the majority of the diet, because we know that the healthiest populations in history—such as the Inuits of North America and the Maasai tribe of Africa—had diets that contained mainly animal foods.
This graphic represents a good foundation to get you started on an ancestrally-aligned nutrition plan:
Tori is the founder and CEO of Gym Rats Only LLC. She is an expert in holistic nutrition and has a passion for helping others achieve their physical fitness and nutrition goals.
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