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An Evolutionary Explanation for Gluten Intolerance 07/04/2012 - It is becoming increasingly clear that celiac disease (or some form of gluten sensitivity) affects many more people in the world than estimates from the past few decades suggested. In the 1950s, celiac disease was estimated as affecting 1 in 8000 individuals worldwide, while today that number has grown to 1 in 100. Seeking to explain why this sizable portion of our population cannot tolerate gluten, Professor David Sanders, who is a Consultant Gastroenterologist at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital and University of Sheffield, looks to evolution for answers.

It is hard to think of a world without bread, as even Ancient Romans harvested grain. But wheat is actually a new food for us: it was only widely introduced into the human diet roughly ten thousand years ago, which is a very small percentage (0.4%) of the 2.5 million years our species has walked the planet.

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So what were we eating that other 99.6% of our life as a species? We ate things that are edible raw, without the need for processing or refinement (which wheat is not). Our ability to process grains to an edible form was a technological development that did not occur until a relatively recent chapter in our history.

In a sense, then, our ingenuity is ahead of our biology. As Dr. Sanders says, “... it makes sense that our bodies are still adapting to this food, and more specifically, the gluten it contains.” After millions of years of what is essentially gluten-free dieting, our bodies might be ill-equipped to process gluten, as it is still a relatively foreign substance.

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13 Responses:

Heather Twist
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said this on
05 Jul 2012 12:37:16 AM PST
The problem with this article is that wheat really has not been in the diet of MOST people for 10,000 years. A relatively few people have had it that long, but for most of the world ... it's only been around for say, 100 to 200 years. Since the time of sailing ships.

Wheat was altered when the "new world" was colonized, and "winter wheat" was bred. Wheat became the main crop for America, and then later, corn. America changed the entire world cuisine, contributing peppers, corn, squash, and beans. Wheat, on the other hand, came to the Americas, and was altered for the climate. It turned out to be a good fit, and "waves of amber grain" became our symbol.

Wheat these days is exported pretty much everywhere, and has become the "main starch" in many cultures. Unfortunately, yes, most humans are not adapted for it. It's a highly problematic food, since it acts as a drug on many people (addictive) and also ellicits an immune reaction.

( Author)
said this on
05 Jul 2012 11:23:35 AM PST
I agree.

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said this on
03 Jul 2013 1:21:01 PM PST
Not trying to be a jerk here, but you seem to underestimate the length of time that humans have been navigating the oceans and seas - by a LOT. Tobacco and "new world" plant remains found in urns and amphorae in the Mediterranean etc.

Peter Olins
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said this on
06 Jul 2012 3:47:42 PM PST
Almost everything that we eat is the result of domestication, not just wheat (seafood is an exception). As omnivores we are well adapted to being opportunistic in our diet (unlike, say, sheep).

We have almost no idea about the true worldwide prevalence of CD in 1950, since accurate diagnostics are a relatively recent invention.

Apart from the issues for celiacs, I disagree that wheat (or other grains) is a "highly problematic food": grains are arguably the key to the current state of development of our civilization, since they permitted transportation and storage of an energy-dense food, which was vital for the development of cities.

As far as evolution goes, there is a current hypothesis that the high prevalence of a harmful disease like CD is actually the result of a POSITIVE selection advantage conferred by CD-related genes, as a result of greater resistance to gut pathogens.

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said this on
16 Oct 2012 6:58:39 PM PST
Has anyone studied the hypothesis that the GMO wheat that we are eating is killing our gut bacteria cause indigestion problems and might be the cause of celiac disease? My thoughts are that if the wheat is designed to resist insects (contain insecticide), we may be ingesting man-made chemicals that kill natural bacteria found in our stomachs and therefore can no longer tolerate wheat as our body's natural defense system creates a warning that something is not right... hence celiac disease, stomach problems, indigestion, etc.

Has anyone researched this theory?

fed up!
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said this on
16 Jan 2013 7:13:14 AM PST
There is no such thing as GMO wheat! Do a little research and you'll find out the changes that occurred with wheat was done with hybridization - natural process using two varieties of wheat.

Mary Thorpe
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said this on
10 Jul 2012 8:49:20 AM PST
I knew this and was hoping to learn something new, that perhaps celiac disease confers a selective advantage, as the last commenter, Peter, suggested or something like the heterozygote advantage conferred by the cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia genes.

I would remind the Peter about GMO salmon!

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said this on
10 Jul 2012 9:01:11 AM PST
Why not just admit we've totally screwed with our food sources and engineered seed enough to mutate everything?

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said this on
11 Jul 2012 8:20:16 AM PST
Could it be posible that the reason for the high prevalence of celiac disease at the present time compared to the past century is due to the fact that in the past, (i.e. 1950s), wheat, (and other gluten containing cereals) were only in bread, cereals, pasta, cakes etc., whereas nowadays it's in almost every processed/prepared food that we eat? The only way to avoid it seems to be to go back to a fresh food diet.
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said this on
12 Nov 2012 11:32:27 AM PST
Mr. Myers it seems, makes some reasonable points, but his lifelong commitment to vegetarianism should be reason enough to disqualify him from making any statement on the evolutionary diet.

( Author)
said this on
12 Nov 2012 12:02:11 PM PST
Just to clarify, these are the thoughts/findings of someone else... I just summarized.

Even so, vegetarianism doesn't figure into this... we're talking about processed foods here. Since our earliest years, we could eat both vegetation and meat. The versatility of our diet is evidenced by our dentition. We have canines, incisors and molars: we essentially have the choice of eating whatever we want. Thus, meat and vegetables are equally "correct" for a human diet.

Processed foods, on the other hand, were NOT available when we evolved. These are the foods that the research calls into question.

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said this on
04 May 2015 3:36:56 PM PST
The author points to "meat and vegetables are equally "correct" for a human diet." WRONG meat and vegetables are not equally correct. Without meat the lack of vital sustaining nutrients is amplified and less than optimal. B-12 comes quickly to mind. Processed foods are of another nature all together and are not part of the author's vegetarianism.

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said this on
16 May 2013 12:10:58 AM PST
Whether you choose to call it GMO or hybridization, the results are the same. The issue Fed Up did not address is that prior to the 1970s, most wheat farmers held back part of their crop yield as seed wheat for the following season. The large conglomerates that developed the newer strains of wheat to be more drought resistant and produce higher yields convinced farmers it was in their best interest to sell all of their harvest and purchase hybrid/GMO seed wheat from the various seed (chemical) companies who developed them in the first place. What this "new seed" did was contain more gluten than the "old wheat," and there is more than just random conjecture that the alarming increase in gluten intolerance and celiacs is directly related to the higher gluten content in the "new" wheat. My cousin was diagnosed with the disorder in the 1960s and no one knew of it. There were no gluten-free products to be purchased off grocery or health food shelves. Now - gluten free is all the rage. Problem is, research is showing that wheat gluten - because it is in virtually everything we purchase when it doesn't need to be - is causing more and more people, myself included, to be gluten intolerant. Physicians and researchers are linking more and more modern-day disorders and allergies to gluten - including ADHD, NOS auto-immune/connective tissue disorders, and even some believe depression and other chemical imbalance disorders as well. With all of the artificial food we consume these days in the name of convenience - it would be difficult to place all of the blame on gluten. But given that there are so many problems cropping up surrounding gluten, combined with the consumption of petroleum-based, artificial foods - it's a wonder our livers and our guts have not exploded. As for me - I love wheat flour in most of its forms, but I have become virtually gluten free because I just feel better. A moment on the lips is not worth a week's worth of joint pain and diarrhea.

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