You know gluten is “this thing” that you can’t eat. But beyond your gluten-free diet, do you understand how it came to be so prevalent in the Western diet to begin with?
When you were first diagnosed with celiac disease or figured out you were intolerant to gluten, initially you thought you couldn’t eat bread, pasta, or baked goods. But the more you continue to learn, the more foods you realize contain gluten.
It sure is everywhere.
So, what is gluten, and how did it make its way into so many things? Let’s start at the beginning…
Here’s a startling fact: when humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture, millions of years ago, they lost roughly five to six inches in height and over ten percent of their brain.
Almost immediately after the switch from a meat-based diet to a grain-based diet, the human body went through tremendous change. But why? One leading theory contends that the switch to agriculture, which introduced gluten into the diet, caused it.
What Is Gluten: An Introduction to the Paleolithic Diet
Cavemen consumed unprocessed carbohydrates and hunted animals to feed themselves and their families. They ate a high fat and no-to-low carbohydrate diet, today known as a Paleo diet (named for the Paleolithic era).
The first part of this diet consisted of foods that were in season and ready to be consumed. These included carbohydrates that by nature were complex, gluten-free carbohydrates: things cavemen could find anywhere in the wild and simply pop into their mouths like berries, edible wild plants, and roots.
The second part of the diet was fresh game. These meats supplied them with fat and protein and kept the body running at optimal levels because meats and high protein foods are the fuel that drives the body.
Cavemen never ate things like sugar, dairy products, or grains because they didn’t raise animals or cultivate crops. Because they found things (and didn’t produce anything themselves), food was never refined or went through any type of process (such as milling, grinding, or cooking) before consumption.
The Paleolithic era technically accounts for about 99% of human technological prehistory. That’s a long time! The Paleolithic human was the product of millions of years of evolution, and the diet that they followed was what brought their ancestors to that particular point in time in the evolutionary cycle.
This Paleo diet was the diet of choice for perhaps millions of years. So, if the human body around ten thousand years ago was still designed to run best when eating this way, what changed, and how did gluten get introduced?
Gluten Hits the Scene: The Agricultural Era
Around 10,000 years ago, human beings started working together to build communities. To help these communities grow, they hunted collectively, constructed houses, introduced basic agricultural techniques, and raised livestock to avoid dangerous hunting conditions.
One key to surviving in large groups was planning and guaranteeing the food supply. They wanted to make the food supply last longer, which would make people healthier and decrease the risk of starvation. The answer was raising and cultivating crops, which led to new widely available grains that were introduced into the diet. Farmers realized they could create a large supply of grains (which included wheat, rye, barley, and oats) that could be stored for the winter seasons and used in many ways to feed large numbers of people.
What these farmers didn’t anticipate is that a sudden change from meat-based diets to grain-based diets would introduce a new variable, gluten.
This post is the first in a series about nutrition, and how the gluten-free diet became what it is today. If you enjoyed this post, read the second post on Why Gluten-Free Living Is Popular (and Isn't Just a Fad).