Are Grains Really Dangerous to Our Health?

By Brane Žilavec, May 2015

1. Are we Genetically Predetermined for A no-Grain Diet?

In the book Dangerous Grains – published in 2002 – there are set up many fundamental tenets of the members of the anti-grain movement. Among them is the following evolutionary genetic argument: "Research shows that agriculture and grain farming have ex­isted at most for ten to fifteen thousand years, and humanity has been on this planet for much longer than that. For over 2 million years, our remote hunter-gatherer ancestors ate absolutely no grains at all! Agriculture and grain-eating have been around for ½ percent or less of the history of humanity, and many of us still haven't adapted to grains, especially gluten-containing grains." [1]

In 2013 this argument is rephrased in the Grain Brain: "We have consumed a high-fat diet for the past two million years, and it is only since the advent of agriculture about ten thousand years ago that carbohydrates have become abundant in our food supply. We still have a hunter-gatherer genome." [2]

Dr Mercola is repeating this argument on his website: "For several million years, humans existed on a diet of animals and vegetation. It was only with the advent of agriculture a mere 10,000 years ago – a fraction of a second in evolutionary time – that humans began ingesting large amounts of sugar and starch in the form of grains (and potatoes) into their diets. Indeed, 99.99% of our genes were formed before the advent of agriculture; in biological terms, our bodies are still those of hunter-gatherers." [3]

One just wonders how they can be so sure that we know what people were eating for over 2 million years, for the archaeological evidence about eating habits of our ancestors depends on what has been found so far and this has its limit. There might still be things waiting to be excavated and there are many types of foods, traces of which cannot be found because they have perished in the meantime. However, there is one piece of scientific evidence which is much closer in time and – according to the authors – provides solid proof that this is not just a theory.

The Distribution of Genetic Markers for Gluten Sensitivity

"Archeologists and other researchers have found that gluten-grain eating originated in the Middle East (Mesopotamia) and spread westward to the Mediterranean basin and northward into Europe. Since gluten sensitivity can cause or contribute to infertility, recurrent spontaneous miscarriage, amenorrhea (no menstrual periods), and low birth weight, there should be less surviving individuals with the HLA-B8 genetic characteristic in the areas first (and therefore longest) exposed to gluten-gliadin grains. This is, in fact, the case: The highest percentage of individuals who still have HLA-B8 (and other gluten sensi­tivity) genetic markers is found in the areas of Europe furthest away from the original source of gluten grains." [4]

Now this argument has one serious drawback: the map of the distribution of genetic markers (see Appendix 2) does not support this story as one would expect from reliable scientific proof. Of course, one can find with little effort the evidence in the sequence of Jordan (3.8%), Tunisia (4.6%), Italy (5.3%), Spain (9.1%), Belgium (12.6%), and Ireland (18.2%). One could add a few more countries to this map of distribution, but all the rest doesn't fit into this story or is in stark contradiction to it.

For example, how can it be explained that Romania (7.3%) has more than a fourfold increase in the frequency of HLA-B8 in comparison with neighbouring Bulgaria (1.8%)? Or why people in Croatia (1.7%) have a lower frequency of this genetic marker than people in south Portugal (2%) which is further away from the Middle East? And why many countries very close to this place of origin of modern agriculture – such as Oman (11%), Morocco (8.7%), Iran (7.6%), and Saudi Arabia (7.1%) – have high occurrences of the HLA-B8, when they should be (according to the proponents of this theory) very low? In fact, the lowest occurrences of this genetic marker are in the countries far away from the Fertile Crescent, such as India (1%), Taiwan (1%), China (1.4%), and Argentina (1.7%). According to the authors of Dangerous Grains – from where the above quote about genetic markers is taken – "Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, Native Americans, Polynesians, and people of similar racial backgrounds … have had significantly less time to adapt to consumption of gluten." [5] For that reason they should have the highest frequencies of HLA-B8 marker. But if you look at the list (Appendix 2) you'll see that many of these populations have the lowest!

Because of all these anomalies the map of the distribution of genetic marker HLA-B8 cannot be taken as proof of the proposed evolutionary genetic theory. But even in the case that there were no such anomalies the explanation presented above is not the only way to explain the instances of increased distribution of HLA-B8 from original places of agriculture. One can explain it in the following way: In the first phase of adaptation to the consumption of gluten grains there were people who could adapt with ease and those who struggled with this change. These people acquired HLA-B8 genetic markers. But because those who adapted were in the great majority it was statistically more likely that those who had this genetic weakness married someone without and thus have strengthened their digestive abilities. In the course of centuries and millennia more and more these people have thus learned to adapt to consumption of grains. This means that in the beginning the percentage of people with this genetic marker was higher, and then has been slowly decreasing. But with the spread of the consumption of gluten grains into new territories this process of adaption starter later. Then it would be logical that one finds more people with HLA-B8 "in the areas of Europe furthest away from the original source of gluten grains." [6]

This is not an attempt to explain the origin of gluten sensitivity, but just to demonstrate how the same scientific evidence can be explained in two perfectly sensible ways, but with different, often completely contradictory conclusions.

Wheat versus Maize Sensitivity in the Modern Time

There is a very recent historical case of the introduction of wheat to Native Americans and maize to European peoples. It happened after the discovery of America by Columbus. If the evolutionary genetic argument were correct then people from European countries should be less adapted to consumption of maize than to consumption of wheat. And American indigenous populations should be suffering more from the consumption of wheat because people had only about 500 years in time to adapt to it. There should be a noticeable difference on the American continent in the levels of gluten intolerance between indigenous peoples and peoples of European origin.

Usually no information is given about the racial origins of people who are involved in medical studies and statistical data. But there are some good reasons for which we can assume that there is no significant difference or it might be even the case that gluten intolerance is more widespread among people of European ancestry. For example, what we are witnessing now in the UK and in the USA (both with the majority of people with white racial origins) is the prevalence of health problems related to wheat or gluten, and not so much with maize. And "according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California … white Americans still make up the overwhelming majority of clinical trials. Non-white people represent fewer than five percent of overall participants." [7] Besides this we can find in the map of the distribution of genetic markers for gluten sensitivity (Appendix 2) two indigenous peoples from Mexico with very low frequency of HLA-B8: Zapotecs (3%), and Mestizos (2.4%). White people from USA and British are not included on the list, but if we look at the nearest to them, the Irish, the occurrence ranges from 16.2 to 18.2%. All this evidence clearly suggests that gluten intolerance is higher in people of European origins.

The anti-grain proponents might respond that the reason for the difference in the levels of adaption to wheat and maize is in gluten, the specific type of protein which is absent in maize. If they think this is so then they should stop talking about how human beings have not yet adapted from a hunter-gatherers' diet to consuming grains. The fact is that all grains contain proteins, and – if they persist with the argument of the supposed inability of humanity to adapt to a new diet of grains – then they should explain why Asiatic people have adapted to consumption of rice, or Native South American to consumption of maize, or European people to the consumption of maize in a few hundred years while they are still struggling with great difficulties to adapt to consumption of wheat, rye and barley, millennia after their introduction. Why should the problem be only with the gluten proteins and not with other proteins in other grains? Or maybe there are problems with the negative health effects of other proteins in maize, millet, rice and oats which have not yet been discovered?

Instead of recognising such incongruences the proponents of evolutionary theory go even further. "The truth is that we're living a life that's not suited to what we're genetically supposed to do. Period. The diseases we see nowadays are largely brought on by our lifestyle not being in harmony with our genetic predisposition. But we can change this and return our DNA back to its original programming" [8] by switching to various forms of the diet of primeval hunter-gatherers, such as paleo diet or no-grain diet – all low in carbohydrates and rich with proteins and fats of animal origins.

Genetic versus Epigenetic Influences in the Course of Evolution

The members of the anti-grain movement – with the aim to encourage people that they can switch from modern diets to the radically different diet of our primeval ancestors – use one argument provided by the new branch of genetics which demonstrate that we are not just the outcome of our genes. This branch is called epigenetics.

"No doubt our genetic heritage does play a role in determining our risk for various health conditions. But what leading-edge medical research now understands is that we have the power to change our genetic destiny… Our day-to-day lifestyle choices have a profound effect on the activity of our genes. And this is empower­ing. We now know that the food choices we make, the stress we experi­ence or avoid, the exercise we get or avoid, the quality of our sleep, and even the relationships we choose actually choreograph to a significant degree which of our genes are active and which remain suppressed. Here's what is most compelling: We can change the expression of more than 70 percent of the genes that have a direct bearing on our health and longevity." [9]

This knowledge of epigenetic influences is now used by the members of the anti-grain movement to promote reversion to the genetic pool of our remote ancestors. For what reasons? We do not live anymore in caves and hunt and fight with stone weapons. We live in different environments, especially if we live in the town or the city. We have – as all other species in the nature have – evolved through adaptation to the changes in our environment. And if we find that our modern environment and life-style are making us ill then we need to change our environment to the better and not try to reverse our human genome backwards to the time of Stone Age.

On top of this the argument that we can change our genetic destiny by our day-to-day lifestyle choices is in stark contrast with the argument that human beings could not adapt to consumption of grains in ten to fifteen thousand years since the introduction of farming, because "it takes forty to seventy thousand years [10] for any significant changes to take place in the genome that might allow us to adapt to such drastic change in our diet." [11]

Sayer Ji in one of his numerous articles explain very clearly that this is not true. "The concept – the meme – that hereditary determines one's biological destiny is archaic. After the first draft of the human genome project was completed in 2005, they only found 23,000 genes! That's not enough protein-coding genes to explain the existence of our body, which contains at least 100,000 different proteins. What this epic failure revealed is that it is not the genes themselves that determine health or disease, rather, what factors in our environment, lifestyle and nutrition that activate the expression of certain genes, and silence the expression of others." [12] There are some genes about which "we now know that silencing these genes from the 'outside in' results in the same result as being born with a defective gene from the 'inside out,' with the important difference that epigenetic – 'outside in' – gene silencing can actually be reversed or mitigated. Our genome results from millions of years of evolution, whereas our epigenome is influenced by day to day decisions, many of which depend on what we decide to eat or avoid eating, right now. Choice, therefore, becomes central to determining disease risk." [13]

So this means that "we have the power to change our genetic destiny," [14] even inside our current life span. Then all talk that we have not yet genetically adapted to consumption of grains since the emergence of agriculture is patently wrong. And the best argument for this conclusion has been provided by the members of anti-grain movement themselves!


  1. Jonathan V. Wright, MD, foreword in the book Dangerous Grains (see note 5)
  2. Dr David Perlmutter, Grain Brain, The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs and Sugar – Your Brain's Silent Killers, Yellow Kite Books, London, 2014
  3. Dr Mercola, Reduce Grains and Sugar to Lose Weight and Improve Health,
  4. See note 1
  5. James Braly, MD, Ron Hoggan, MA, Dangerous Grains, Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous to Your Health, Avery, New York, 2002
  6. See note 1
  7. There Are Too Many White People in Clinical Trials and it's a Bigger Problem Than You Think, by ThinkProgress, 6.04.2014
  8. See note 2
  9. See note 2
  10. There is no reference given to enable us to know how they arrived at this number. This is not just a single instance when something very important is stated without any attempt to explain how the author has arrived to the 'fact' in question. This method is traditionally used in religious communities where the priest has the authority of knowledge, bestowed upon him by initiation in the sacred wisdom. The only task of believers is to accept as truth whatever priests are transmitting to them.
  11. See note 2
  12. Sayer Ji, Beware of Organ Removal for 'Cancer Prevention': Jolie's Precautionary Tale, 24.03.2015
  13. As above
  14. William Davis, MD, Wheat Belly, Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health, Harper Thorsons, London, 2014