I’ve heard just about every health ailment in existence attributed to the evils of gluten and dairy. The argument is, that because of the relatively recent introduction of grass family plants and dairy into the human diet, we are evolutionarily ill-equipped to digest these foods, and they pass through the digestive tract without getting properly broken down. The undigested food particles cause inflammation in our guts, and overtime, this inflammation alerts the immune system, which becomes reactive to the undigested proteins (such as gluten). The big problem arises from the fact that gluten and other proteins found in grass family plants as well as those found in dairy products, can resemble signaling proteins (those that identify cells as self) found on our own cells – potentially confusing the immune system into reacting and attacking self. This is believed by many in the health field to be the spark behind many if not all allergic and auto-immune reactions, from seasonal allergies and eczema to rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Now I certainly agree that this process likely does contribute to many inflammatory and hyper-sensitivity reactions in the body. But, I don’t believe that the fault lies with the foods themselves, but rather in the way these foods are currently cultivated and prepared in our modern culture. Ever since Louis Pasteur, we have been obsessed with identifying the germ, the food, the chemical that is responsible for the problem. Certainly there is some good reasoning behind this obsession, and many medical advances have been made on the basis of this paradigm. But, as Louis is said to have proclaimed on his death bed – “It’s the terrain, not the germ!.” So it is with wheat and dairy. Before we incriminate these foods, we aught to consider the the role of the terrain in why they have become so problematic.
Lack of Diversity:
When I went to Italy a few years back, I got the great pleasure of visiting the heirloom grain and bean museum created by Nicola Di Novella. There were no less than 19 varieties of wheat and that is just wheat! There were many varieties of spelt, kamut and grains I had never even heard of before such as emmer and einkorn. But today, instead of being exposed to a wide variety of grass family grains in our diets – each with slightly different nutritional profiles and protein compositions – we eat the same grain, and mostly the same variety of that grain – day in and day out. The same goes for dairy cattle – what once was a wide pool of genetic diversity (over 800 varieties) has been narrowed to a small selection of high-producing breeds (5 varieties). The human body, like most things in life, is not designed for monotony – but for variety and diversity. Exposing it to the same thing over and over again sets us up for reactivity, not to mention poor nutrition.
Poor Quality Foods:
Herbalist Rebecca Hartman, of the Herbwife’s Kitchen blog, says, ” most people feel better when they eliminate wheat and dairy from their diets because most wheat and dairy products people eat are just plain bad food.” I couldn’t agree more. Conventional dairy is one of the most horrible foods at the store – the product of cows crammed together, standing in their own feces, fed grains that they can’t digest and which make them sick (if they aren’t already), jacked up on antibiotics and growth hormones to make up for the lack of vitality and health caused by their diet and living conditions. Sounds lovely. Not surprisingly, the milk from such cows just happens to be loaded with pro-inflammatory fatty acids. As for milk from those cows feasting leisurely on the grass? It’s just brimming with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids shown to prevent numerous diseases. Hmmm, isn’t that interesting?
Wheat products are no better. Bleached and stripped of all their nutrition (and flavor), they come to us in shiny packages with food additives, artificial flavorings and bad fats. Even the whole wheat bread usually has white flour as the first ingredient (cleverly disguised as “wheat flour”). White flour behaves just like sugar in the body – with none of the nutrients and fiber to orchestrate it’s proper metabolism and entry into the bloodstream, it rapidly spikes blood sugar levels and upsets balance. More and more research is now coming to light showing that escalating rates of heart disease and obesity correlate more with the advent of refined flour products into our diets than they do with those horrible “villains” – saturated fat and cholesterol.
So, if you eat conventional dairy and white flour for breakfast, lunch and dinner, of course you will feel bad. But it isn’t something inherent to the food that makes you feel that way – rather it reflects the lack of vitality and nutrition that comes from the way these foods are cultivated and processed. What you are feeling is poor terrain!
Loss of Traditional Wisdom
The biggest crisis in our modern food culture is the separation of food from the traditions on how to prepare and eat it. Wheat and dairy are perfect examples. In almost every culture that has existed on this planet, grains and dairy products have been fermented – not only to help preserve the foods and prevent contamination with harmful bacteria, but to enhance digestibility. Now isn’t that an interesting concept? The apparent problem with these foods is their lack of digestibility right? So perhaps, the problem really lies in the loss of traditional preparation methods that made these foods edible and nutritious.
Dairy, for instance, contains the sugar lactose – which many people lack the enzyme to break down into usable monosaccharide components. This is commonly referred to as lactose intolerance – and causes such symptoms as diarrhea and gastrointestinal cramping (it’s worth noting that cultures with little or no traditional use of dairy – such as the Japanese – have the highest incidence of lactose intolerance). Now, what happens when dairy is cultured and made into yogurt, kefir, buttermilk or cheese? Bacteria convert the sugar lactose into lactic acid, and break down many of the difficult to digest proteins such as casein. Furthermore -the bacteria that accomplish this beautiful transaction have shown to be highly beneficial to our digestive tracts – helping us breakdown and absorb certain nutrients and promoting healthy intestinal ecology (keeping away the harmful bacteria) as well as modulating immune activity!
So I need to pause and make a point here – the problem with dairy and wheat, as I stated above, is poor digestibility leading to inflammation and immune reactivity, right? Culturing your foods not only makes these foods more digestible but supports and modulates normal immune activity. Brilliant!
Wheat, rye, barley and oats – the gluten containing grains – have been present in the human diet since the advent of grain agriculture in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East (about 10,000 – 13,000 years ago). One of the main ways these grains were prepared was sprouting or partial germination Why? The bran and germ of these seeds contain phytic acid, which interferes with mineral absorption, as well as enzyme inhibitors which inhibit the ability of our digestive enzymes to breakdown proteins and complex carbohydrates into their absorbable components (basically – the seed wants to make it through our digestive tract undigested, so that it can be deposited somewhere and grow). Sprouting the grains neutralizes such compounds, increases Vitamin C and B vitamin content and converts starch molecules into easier to digest sugars. In Ireland and Scotland, where oats and barley were staples, these grains were typically soaked for 1-3 days before being made into delicious gruels. The Scots would even pour oatmeal gruel into a special drawer in the kitchen, where it would ferment until it was ready to use.
The other traditional method of grain preparation was pro-longed fermentation with wild yeasts. Pure yeasts were not commercially available until the 1870s – before this, wild fermentation using a biodiverse concoction of yeast, lactobacilli and other beneficial bacteria was the norm. Because wild yeast is slower acting than commercial yeast – and because grains typically had less gluten than they do today (the protein responsible for elasticity and rising properties of bread), dough had to ferment over a period of days in order to rise. During this time, proteins (such as gluten) were broken down, B vitamin levels increased, and a delicious and complex flavored bread was created.
Now, when I first read that bacteria and yeast in sourdough breads possessed the ability to breakdown gluten – I was highly skeptical. But I did some research, and sure enough it’s true. If you want to read more, read this or this. It seems that the bacteria are the shining stars here – possessing proteolytic (the ability to break down proteins) properties that yeast all by itself just doesn’t have – so sourdough is the thing!
To sum this all up, it seems the real problem here is the accelerated haste of modern life, with no time for the slowness of the traditional wisdom that turns “toxic” foods into nourishing ones.
So, if you want to eat bread and dairy, eat them in ways that embrace diversity, vitality and traditional wisdom. Follow these guidelines:
- Eat dairy from cows that ate grass with plenty of room to roam, preferably raw (go here to find out where to get raw milk in your state) or cultured
- Eat cultured dairy on a daily basis, and culture it yourself!
- Soak your grains overnight before you cook them, adding a little vinegar, yogurt or whey to speed up the process of germination
- Eat only sourdough or sprouted grain bread – make it yourself if you can!
- Soak flour for baked goods overnight in yogurt to help breakdown the gluten and improve digestibility (see Nourishing Traditions for recipes) or purchase sprouted grain flours to bake with
Keep your eye out in the coming days for some soaked-whole grain recipes and cultured dairy recipes.