While this might sound like pure fantasy today, anthropological evidence
suggests that this is exactly how human beings lived for the vast
majority of our evolutionary history.
Today, most people accept diseases like obesity, diabetes, infertility
and Alzheimer’s as “normal”. But while these diseases may now be common,
but normal. Humans evolved roughly 2.5 million years ago, and for
roughly 84,000 generations we were naturally free of the modern diseases
which kill millions of people each year and make countless others
miserable. In fact, the world I asked you to imagine above – which may
seem preposterous and unattainable today – was the natural human state
for our entire history on this planet up until a couple hundred years
What was responsible for the change? What transformed us from naturally
healthy and vital people free of degenerative disease into a world of
sick, fat, infertile and unhappy people?
What is a toxin?
At the simplest level, a toxin is something capable of causing
disease or damaging tissue when it enters the body. When most
people hear the word “toxin”, they think of chemicals like
pesticides, heavy metals or other industrial pollutants. But even
beneficial nutrients like water, which are necessary to sustain
life, are toxic at high doses.
In their book The
Perfect Health Diet, Paul & Shou-Ching Jaminet apply the
economic principle of declining marginal benefits to toxins:
that the first bit eaten of any toxin has low toxicity. Each
additional bit is slightly more toxic than the bit before. At
higher doses, the toxicity of each bit continues to increase,
so that the toxin is increasingly poisonous.
This is important to understand as we discuss the role of dietary
toxins in contributing to modern disease. Most of us won’t get
sick from eating a small amount of sugar, cereal grain, soy and
industrial seed oil. But if we eat those nutrients (or rather
anti-nutrients) in excessive quantities, our risk of developing
modern diseases rises significantly.
That’s exactly what’s happening today. These four food toxins –
refined cereal grains, industrial seed oils, sugar and processed
soy – comprise the bulk of the modern diet. Bread, pastries,
muffins, crackers, cookies, soda, fruit juice, fast food and other
convenience foods are all loaded with these toxins. And when the
majority of what most people eat on a daily basis is toxic, it’s
not hard to understand why our health is failing.
Let’s look at each of these food toxins in more detail.
Cereal grains: the unhealthiest “health food” on the planet?
The major cereal grains – wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum,
oats, rye and millet – have become the staple crops of the modern
human diet. They’ve also become the “poster children” of the
low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet promoted by organizations like the
American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association
(ADA). If you say the phrase “whole grains” to most people, the
first word that probably comes to their mind is “healthy”.
But the fact is that most animals, including our closest relative
(the chimpanzee) aren’t adapted to eating cereal grains and don’t
eat them in large quantities. And humans have only been eating
them for the past 10,000 years (a tiny blip of time on the scale
of evolution). Why?
Because plants like cereal grains are always competing against
predators (like us) for survival. Unlike animals, plants can’t run
away from us when we decide to eat them. They had to evolve other
mechanisms for protecting themselves. These include:
producing toxins that damage the lining of the gut;
producing toxins that bind essential minerals, making them
unavailable to the body; and,
producing toxins that inhibit digestion and absorption of
other essential nutrients, including protein.
One of these toxic compounds is the protein gluten, which is
present in wheat and many of the other most commonly eaten cereal
grains. In short, gluten damages the intestine and makes it leaky.
And researchers now believe that a leaky gut is one of the major
predisposing factors for conditions like obesity, diabetes and
Celiac disease (CD) – a condition of severe gluten intolerance –
has been well known for decades. Celiacs have a dramatic and, in
some cases, potentially fatal immune response to even the smallest
amounts of gluten.
But celiac disease is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to
intolerance to wheat and other gluten containing grains. Celiac
disease is characterized by antibodies to two components of the
gluten compound: alpha-gliadin, and transglutaminase. But we now
know that people can and do react to several other components of
wheat and gluten. The diagram below shows how wheat and gluten are
broken down in the body:
Current laboratory testing for gluten intolerance only tests for
alpha-gliadin and transglutaminase, the two components of gluten
implicated in celiac disease (highlighted in red in the diagram).
But as you can see, wheat contains several other components
including lectins like wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), other epitopes
of the gliadin protein like beta-gliadin, gamma-gliadin and
omega-gliadin, another protein called glutenin, an opioid peptide
called gluteomorphin, and a compound called deamidated gliadin
produced by the industrial processing or digestion of gluten.
So here’s the thing. Studies now clearly show that people can
react negatively to all of these components of wheat – not just
the alpha-gliadin and transglutaminase that celiacs react to. And
the worst part of this is that up until about 2 weeks ago, no
commercial labs were testing for sensitivity to these other
subfractions of wheat.
This means, of course, that it’s extremely likely that far more
people are intolerant to wheat and gluten than conventional wisdom
would tell us. In fact, that’s exactly what the latest research
shows. Dr. Kenneth Fine, a pioneer in gluten intolerance research,
has demonstrated that 1
in 3 Americans
are gluten intolerant, and that 8
in 10 have the
genes that predispose them to developing gluten intolerance.
This is nothing short of a public health catastrophe in a nation
where the #1 source of calories is refined flour. But while most
are at least aware of the dangers of sugar, trans-fat and other
unhealthy foods, fewer
than 1 in 8 people with
celiac disease are aware of their condition. A
1999 paper in the
British Medical Journal illustrated this well:
Patients with clinically obvious celiac disease (observable
inflammation and destruction of the gut tissue) comprise only
12.5% of the total population of people with CD. 87.5% of those
with celiac have no obvious gut symptoms. For every symptomatic
patient with CD, there are 8 patients with CD and no
But does that mean patients with CD without gut symptoms are
healthy? Not at all. It was long believed that the pathological
manifestations of CD were limited to the gastrointestinal tract.
But research over the past few decades has revealed that gluten
intolerance can affect almost every other tissue and system in the
stomach and liver;
nucleus of cells;
blood vessels; and,
just to name a few!
This explains why CD and gluten intolerance are associated with
several different diseases, including type 1 diabetes, thyroid
disorders, osteoporosis, neurodegenerative conditions like
Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia, psychiatric illness, ADHD,
rheumatoid arthritis, migraine, obesity and more. The table below
from the same
1999 BMJ paper depicts
the increased incidence of other diseases in patients with CD:
As you can see, up to 17% of people with CD have an “undefined
neurological disorder”. But even that alarmingly high statistic
only accounts for people withdiagnosed CD.
We know that only 1 in 8 people with CD are diagnosed. We also
know that those with CD represent only a small fraction of the
population of people with gluten intolerance. With this in mind,
it’s not hard to imagine that the number of people with gluten
intolerance that have “undefined neurological disorders” (and
other associated conditions on the list above) could be
significantly higher than current research suggests.
Finally, we also now know that when you are gluten intolerant –
which 33% (if not more) of you are – you will also “cross-react”
with other foods that have a similar “molecular signature” to
gluten and its components. Unfortunately, the list of these foods
(shown below) contains all grains, which is why some medical
practitioners (myself included) recommend not just a gluten-free
diet, but an entirely grain-free diet. As you can see, it also
contains other foods like dairy (alpha & beta casein, casomorphin,
milk butyrophilin) and coffee (which is a very common
all cereal grains
Industrial seed oils: unnatural and unfit for human consumption
Industrial seed oils (corn, cottonseed, soybean, safflower,
sunflower, etc.) have not been a part of the human diet up until
relatively recently, when misguided groups like the AHA and the
ADA started promoting them as “heart-healthy” alternatives to
The graph below shows how dramatically seed oil consumption has
risen over the past several decades:
Throughout 4-5 million years of hominid evolution, diets were
abundant in seafood and other sources of omega-3 long chain fatty
acids (EPA & DHA), but relatively low in omega-6 seed oils.
Anthropological research suggests
that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3
fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1. It also indicatesthat
both ancient and modern hunter-gatherers were free of the modern
inflammatory diseases, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes,
that are the primary causes of death and morbidity today.
At the onset of the industrial revolution (about 140 years ago),
there was a marked shift in the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids in
the diet. Consumption of n-6 fatsincreased at
the expense of n-3 fats. This change was due to both the advent of
the modern vegetable oil industry and the increased use of cereal
grains as feed for domestic livestock (which in turn altered the
fatty acid profile of meat that humans consumed).
The following chart lists the omega-6 and omega-3 content of
various vegetable oils and foods:
Vegetable oil consumption rose dramatically between the beginning
and end of the 20th century, and this had an entirely predictable
effect on the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the American
diet. Between 1935 and 1939, the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids
was reported to
be 8.4:1. From 1935 to 1985, this ratio increased to 10.3:1 (a 23%
increase). Other calculations put the ratio as high as 12.4:1 in
1985. Today, estimates of the ratio range from an average of 10:1
to 20:1, with a ratio as
high as 25:1 in
In fact, Americans now get almost 20% of their calories from a
single food source – soybean oil – with almost 9% of all calories
from the omega-6 fat linoleic acid (LA) alone! (PDF)
This reveals that our average intake of n-6 fatty acids is between
10 and 25 times higher than evolutionary norms. The consequences
of this dramatic shift cannot be underestimated.
So what are the consequences to human health of an n-6:n-3 ratio
that is up to 25 times higher than it should be?
The short answer is that elevated n-6 intakes are associated with
in all inflammatory diseases –
which is to say virtually all diseases. The list includes (but
isn’t limited to):
type 2 diabetes
irritable bowel syndrome & inflammatory bowel disease
The relationship between intake n-6 fats and cardiovascular
mortality is particularly striking. The following chart, from an
article entitled Eicosanoids
and Ischemic Heart Disease by
Stephan Guyenet, clearly illustrates the correlation between a
rising intake of n-6 and increased mortality from heart disease:
As you can see, the USA is right up there at the top with the
highest intake of n-6 fat and the greatest risk of death from
On the other hand, several clinical studies have shown that
decreasing the n-6:n-3 ratio protects against chronic,
degenerative diseases. One study showed that replacing corn oil
with olive oil and canola oil to reach an n-6:n-3 ratio of 4:1 led
to a 70%
decrease in total
mortality. That is no small difference.
Joseph Hibbeln, a researcher at the National
Institute of Health (NIH)
who has published several papers on n-3 and n-6 intakes, didn’t
mince words when he commented on the rising intake of n-6 in a
increases in world LA consumption over the past century may be
considered a very large uncontrolled experiment that may have
contributed to increased societal burdens of aggression,
depression and cardiovascular mortality.
And those are just the conditions we have the strongest evidence
for. It’s likely that the increase in n-6 consumption has played
an equally significant role in the rise of nearly every
inflammatory disease. Since it is now known that inflammation is
involved in nearly all diseases, including obesity and metabolic
syndrome, it’s hard to overstate the negative effects of too much
Sugar: the sweetest way to wreck your health
About 20 years ago, Nancy Appleton, PhD, began researching all of
the ways in which sugar destroys our health. Over the years the
list has continuously expanded, and now includes 141 points.
Here’s just a small sampling (the entire list can befound
on her blog).
Sugar feeds cancer cells and has been connected with the
development of cancer of the breast, ovaries, prostate,
rectum, pancreas, lung, gallbladder and stomach.
Sugar can increase fasting levels of glucose and can cause
Sugar can cause many problems with the gastrointestinal tract,
including an acidic digestive tract, indigestion,
malabsorption in patients with functional bowel disease,
increased risk of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Sugar can interfere with your absorption of protein.
Sugar can cause food allergies.
Sugar contributes to obesity.
But not all sugar is created alike. White table sugar (sucrose) is
composed of two sugars: glucose and fructose. Glucose is an
important nutrient in our bodies and is healthy, as long as it’s
consumed in moderation. Fructose is a different story.
Fructose is found primarily in fruits and vegetables, and
sweeteners like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). A
recent USDA report found
that the average American eats 152 pounds of sugar each year,
including almost 64 pounds of HFCS.
Unlike glucose, which is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and
taken up by the cells, fructose is shunted directly to the liver
where it is converted to fat. Excess fructose consumption causes a
condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which
linked to both diabetes and obesity.
A 2009 study showed that shifting 25% of dietary calories from glucose
to fructose caused a 4-fold increase in abdominal fat.
Abdominal fat is an independent
insulin sensitivity, impaired glucose tolerance, high blood
pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides and several other
In a widely
popular talk on YouTube, Dr. Robert H. Lustig explains that
fructose has all of the qualities of a poison.
It causes damage, provides no benefit and is sent directly to the
liver to be detoxified so that it doesn’t harm the body.
For more on the toxic effects of fructose, see The
Perfect Health Diet and
Robert Lustig’s YouTube talk: Sugar,
The Bitter Truth.
Soy: another toxin promoted as a health food
Like cereal grains, soy is another toxin often promoted as a
health food. It’s now ubiquitous in the modern diet, present in
just about every packaged and processed food in the form of soy
protein isolate, soy flour, soy lecithin and soybean oil.
For this reason, most people are unaware of how much soy they
consume. You don’t have to be a tofu-loving hippie to eat a lot of
soy. In fact, the average American – who is most definitely not a
tofu-loving hippie – gets up to 9% of total calories from soybean
Whenever I mention the dangers of soy in my public talks, someone
always protests that soy can’t be unhealthy because it’s been
consumed safely in Asia for thousands of years. There are several
reasons why this isn’t a valid argument.
First, the soy products consumed traditionally in Asia were
typically fermented and unprocessed – including tempeh, miso,
natto and tamari. This is important because the fermentation
process partially neutralizes the toxins in soybeans.
Second, Asians consumed soy foods as a condiment, not as a
replacement for animal foods. The average consumption of soy foods
in China is 10 grams (about 2 teaspoons) per day and is 30 to 60
grams in Japan. These are not large amounts of soy.
Contrast this with the U.S. and other western countries, where
almost all of the soy consumed is highly processed and
unfermented, and eaten in much larger amounts than in Asia.
How does soy impact our health? The following is just a partial
Soy contains trypsin inhibitors that inhibit protein digestion
and affect pancreatic function;
Soy contains phytic acid, which reduces absorption of minerals
like calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc;
Soy increases our requirement for vitamin D, which 50% of
American are already deficient in;
Soy phytoestrogens disrupt endocrine function and have the
potential to cause infertility and to promote breast cancer in
Vitamin B12 analogs in soy are not absorbed and actually
increase the body’s requirement for B12;
Processing of soy protein results in the formation of toxic
lysinoalanine and highly carcinogenic nitrosamines;
Free glutamic acid or MSG, a potent neurotoxin, is formed
during soy food processing and additional amounts are added to
many soy foods to mask soy’s unpleasant taste; and,
Soy can stimulate the growth of estrogen-dependent tumors and
cause thyroid problems, especially in women.
Perhaps most alarmingly, a study
at the Harvard Public School of Health in
2008 found that men who consumed the equivalent of one cup of soy
milk per day had a 50% lower sperm count than men who didn’t eat
In 1992, the Swiss Health Service estimated that women consuming
the equivalent of two cups of soy milk per day provides the
estrogenic equivalent of one birth control pill. That means women
eating cereal with soy milk and drinking a soy latte each day are
effectively getting the same estrogen effect as if they were
taking a birth control pill.
This effect is even more dramatic in infants fed soy formula.
Babies fed soy-based formula have 13,000 to 22,000 times more
estrogen compounds in their blood than babies fed milk-based
formula. Infants exclusively fed soy formula receive the
estrogenic equivalent (based on body weight) of at least five
birth control pills per day.