Principal food for human beings. By Dean Cooling
Every species of animal, man included, arose on this earth being sustained by the environment in which they live. More specifically, each of these species came into existence by eating the food that was available in that environment. They flourish or diminish due to the availability of food. Human beings are no different to other animals in that we are continually dependent on the plant kingdom for food either directly, by consuming plants, or indirectly by eating animals that feed on plants. The origin of all animal species is the plant kingdom.
Humans can eat almost anything. But in understanding what foods are most suitable for us to eat, we need to look at how we came into existence. Briefly, we will trace this fascinating journey. Approximately three thousand million years ago, the first ancient primordial life forms and invertebrates arose by feeding on enzymes and algae that existed in the environment of fresh water that covered the earth at that time. Then, over time, as the sea became mineralised, or salty, sea vertebrates evolved. This salty environment created the hardness and bones of crustaceans and fish. As land began to move and rise above water and primitive land plants emerged, the early land animals emerged by feeding on them – there were the amphibians. As climates changed and as land plants further evolved and changed, new species of reptiles, birds and mammals came into existence as they fed on these new plant species.
Primates, including apes, developed more recently by consuming fruits, nuts and seeds which are more recent plant species. And the direct ancestors of human beings fed on the most recently developed plant species – the cereal grains. After eating grains for millions of years the most recent animal species formed, evolved and developed – they are human beings.
During this evolution, as the earth’s climate became colder, the use of fire in cooking allowed mankind to survive these extreme temperatures and accelerated our development towards our present biological form.
Diagram of biological evolution
We will discuss further on why grains are so unique, and how, with continual consumption over many millions of years, they could cause man to develop his advanced thinking and upright posture. But first, there are two physiological indicators of our evolution by the consumption of mostly plant foods of which the primary part were grains. We have 32 teeth; four undeveloped canine teeth – canines being the teeth of animals who tear the meat from their prey; eight incisors – which are used for cutting and slicing vegetable quality food; and twenty molars and pre-molars – which are used primarily for crushing and grinding grains, beans, seeds and other plant foods. Incidentally, molar is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘mill-stone’. The proportion of the different teeth indicates that plant food and particularly grains should comprise the major part of our diet, while animal foods, if eaten, should comprise a very small part of our diet.
The second physiological characteristic is that humans have a relatively long intestinal tract which is unsuitable for the toxic effects of digesting meat which remains in the body for 48 hours or more. Dogs and cats for example, primarily meat eaters, have quite short intestines relative to their size. Our digestive system is more suited to the slow metabolism of plant foods – particularly complex carbohydrates, the cereal grains.
“Give us this day our daily bread.”
It is argued by some that grains are not suitable for human consumption as they have only been in existence for some few thousands of years. However on application to Kew Gardens, the prestigious botanic society in London, I was shown a paper titled ‘Structure and evolution of cereal genomes‘. In it the authors state that “cereals such as maize, rice, sorghum, and wheat diverged from a common ancestor… 50–70 million years ago.” These cereal grains flourished in the wild in most regions of the world, and it is only since the relatively recent advent of agriculture did these grains become cultivated as crops. It stands to reason they would have been a significant source of dietary energy for our early human ancestors.
Since the cultivation of cereals several thousand years ago, and up until the last 100 years or so, all the major civilisations of the world used cereal grains as the central and largest part of their diet. Rice and millet was the principal food in the Far East; wheat, oats and rye in Europe; buckwheat in Russia and central Asia; sorghum, millet and rice in Africa; barley and wheat in the Middle East; wild rice and corn in North America; and amaranth and quinoa in South America. (Corn and buckwheat are not true cereal grains but are closely related and can be used as substitutes). Grains are the most abundant crop on earth. They demonstrate the greatest flexibility by growing in different climates ranging from very hot to very cold. In many cultures, grains were deified. Special celebrations were held around the harvesting of grains and in many ceremonies grains were offered in respect to the Gods. It is interesting to note that the English word ‘meal’, by which we mean food or dinner, literally means ground grain. Whereas the Japanese equivalent of meal is ‘gohan’, which literally translates as cooked rice.
The grains used in these various parts of the world were usually eaten in their whole unpolished form, or crushed and made into unleavened bread, noodles, meals, rolled or cracked grain and other natural foods. In recent times we began to process these grains by removing the fibre-rich and nutritionally valuable outer layers. Furthermore, only in the last 100 years or so have we abandoned grains as the main part of our diet – its consumption declining in developed countries where meat and sugar consumption has increased proportionally – resulting in the degeneration of physical and mental health.
The Earth-Mother blew her soul into corn.
Hopi Emergence Myth
The early Greek philosophers and physicians, one of the most notable being Hippocrates, taught their followers, patients and students, to observe nature and harmonise with it through diet, the daily way of eating. If we had to sum up Hippocrates entire way of healing, we would state his famous proverb: “let food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be food.” The principal food in that area, throughout the Mediterranean world was whole cereal grains, especially wheat and barley.
Hippocrates lived to be over one hundred and he became a symbol of health and longevity. His naturalistic approach is encapsulated in the Hippocratic Oath, the ethical decree followed by Western physicians. Its central tenet states: “I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according the my ability and judgement. I will keep them from harm and injustice.”
However, this is no longer the present day oath taken by graduating medical students and the word ‘dietetic’ is usually omitted. Dietary means as an aid to healing being largely overlooked by orthodox medicine. Until only recently, there was little or no required training in nutrition for medical students.
Very interestingly, in one of his essays on medicine, Hippocrates observed: “How can any physician possibly hope to heal the diseases of mankind who does not know the different grains, how they are planted, harvested, cooked and combined with other foods, and the effect they have on all who eat them?” Hippocrates’ healing diet consisted of giving the patient whole-grain barley in a softly prepared form, at every meal for about ten days, or until the person got well. Originally adopted in early Western medical traditions, his methods falling out of favour in time, we can see the importance put on grains in these early periods.
Traditional Eastern Medicine goes back to the ‘Yellow Emperor’s Classic’, the world’s oldest medical book. It is set during the reign of the first Chinese dynasty about 5,000 years ago. In it the Yellow Emperor is advised by Ch’i Po, his physician, on how to run his empire. Ch’i Po advises the emperor that to be a successful ruler he must take care of his own health on all levels, including physical and psychological health. He can achieve this through careful selection of preparation of food, including cooking. If this is done, a harmonious blend of energies will result, which will then radiate outwards to society. The foundation of life is cereal grains, and for sickness Ch’i Po instructs the Yellow Emperor to take softly prepared millet or rice, everyday, every meal, for 10 days. This is that same teaching we found in Hippocrates and early Greek medicine. The only difference is that the grains vary according to the environment in which they originate.
On a nutritional level, whole grains are high in complex carbohydrates and fibre, which contribute to smooth digestive and eliminatory function; B vitamins, which stimulate the nervous system and ensure smooth mental functioning; high-quality protein, which contributes to improved body growth and maintenance and better hormonal functioning; calcium and other minerals that make strong bones and teeth; and iron and other minerals and vitamins that make strong blood and circulation. Grains, particularly eaten in their whole form, give strong, steady ongoing energy to our body and mind.
It’s not the horse but the oats that pull the cart.
End of Part 1… read Part 2!
This article is a compilation of the written and spoken teachings of various macrobiotic educators I have had the privilege of being exposed to over the last 20 years or so. Particularly the inspiring works of Michio Kushi, Alex Jack and George Ohsawa. And closer to home, the ongoing work of Ken McLean. – Dean Cooling.
The Book of Macrobiotics – Michio Kushi
The Macrobiotic Path to Total Health – Michio Kushi and Alex Jack
Amber waves of Grain – Alex and Gale Jack