Sunday, June 13, 2010

I ate bread and the world did not end

Also, I didn't gain any weight, binge out on crappy food, or go on a rampage and kill small woodland critters. I didn't turn into a carb-zombie or immediately lose all my energy.
As I stated a few posts back, I'm currently taking a Field Geology course, which involves spending most of the day hiking around and mapping the geology of a given area. This course is part of my senior capstone as a geology major, and thus far, the weather has been good and the class has been relatively enjoyable. The past two weeks have been spent mapping Upper Paleozoic and Mesozoic rocks along the Elk Range Thrust near Brush Creek, an area to the northeast of Mt. Crested Butte.

Because of all the hiking we've been doing (this area has much more topographic relief than Beaver Creek -- where we looked at Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rocks the first week), I have been bringing sandwiches with lunch. And I don't worry about the carbs in the bread, because after lunch, we get up and keep on hiking, and they get used to fuel me for the remainder of the day. Many of the arguments against bread rest on the fact that it is simply "empty calories" and doesn't have the vitamins/minerals/etc that other carbohydrate sources such as fruits and veggies do. While this is true, I'm not under the illusion that bread is anything other than a convenient way to eat meat/cheese/avocado/mustard. I'm eating it because it's convenient, not because of it's nutritional value. And, in certain settings, convenience is something that should be considered.

Sandwiches are convenient for this type of activity -- they don't take up a lot of space in my pack (a tupperware container with salad would take up a lot of space, and realistically, it wouldn't fill me up with all the hiking we've been doing), and I can eat them quickly. If I was out hiking on my own just for the hell of it, or even doing some sort of field geology project on my own, I might consider bringing something a little more complicated and grain-free, but that isn't the case. This is a class, and the goals of the group as a whole outweigh the preferences of the individual.

However, enough with that... back to the original topic: grains and their place in the human diet.

As a future scientist, I have a good understanding of the concepts of evolution and how they relate to human physiology. Saying "I believe that we evolved as hunter-gatherers" is, to me, the equivalent of saying "I believe in evolution." There's nothing to believe -- either you look at the evidence and accept it or you're an ignorant ultra-religious nutjob (I'm not going to sugar-coat that one). And if you stubbornly argue that an animal-based diet didn't play a role in human evolution, then you're just plain ignorant.

For the vast majority of human history (and by human, I mean to include everything since the evolutionary split humans and chimpanzees, which occurred sometime between 4.6 and 6.2 million years ago), grains have NOT been a part of our diet. We ate meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. However, at this point, I don't see this as a reason to avoid them entirely. It's easy to see how grains -- especially refined ones -- can, in large quantities, lead to a plethora of health problems, but eating a slice of two of bread once in a while is not the same as eating a bagel with cream cheese and jelly for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch and a bowl of pasta/rice with dinner on a daily basis.

I don't think that grains should be the basis of the human diet. The fact that they were not a part of our evolution, however, does not mean they're inherently bad. Equating the fact that they weren't part of our evolution with the idea that they are the root of all evil is a bit on the absurd side.

In my opinion, a considerable amount of the stigma associated with grains among the primal and paleo communities comes from the recent hype surrounding the concept of eating "whole grains." As a result of this hype, numerous food companies have introduced the "whole grain" line of products that are still loaded with refined corn products and artificial sweeteners, making them just as unhealthy as their "pre-whole grain" products. It is probably true to say that most people don't read ingredients on boxes and will buy something solely based on some sort of label touting its "healthy" qualities, despite how healthy it actually is. I read the ingredients on everything I buy (if there are ingredients to be read... hard to do that on a stalk of broccoli though).

I read the recent post regarding lectins on Mark's Daily Apple. Frankly, that in and of itself didn't really present any reason for me to completely eliminate grains.
Some people with certain medical conditions, food sensitivities, and allergies would probably be better off avoiding them. I'm not one of those people. So, what about this post? Well, first of all, demonizing grains by equating them with carbs in and of itself doesn't work, especially in the proper context. This goes back to the difference between taking a sandwich on a hike because it's convenient and gorging oneself on pasta and bagels and ice cream while sitting in front of the TV all day.

The conclusion that I have drawn is that while grains should not be consumed in large quantities or on a regular basis, they are not inherently toxic when consumed occasionally and in small amounts. I'm not going to go back to eating them every day, but if I'm not going to worry about taking a sandwich on an all-day hike or climb.

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