Canaries Among Us

Recently, a friend and I were talking about Dr. Terry Wahls and her amazing recovery from crippling MS after changing from the Standard American Diet of grains, sugars, and vegetable oils to one consisting of nutrient-rich, grain-free, natural foods. I observed to my friend that the Standard American Diet is harming us all and we would all do well to follow Dr. Wahl’s advice. My friend, who is not entirely convinced that much of the mainstream dietary advice we hear today is deeply flawed, observed that Dr. Wahls must have a specific susceptibility to MS and implied that Dr. Wahls’ genetic susceptibility, more than her diet, was the culprit.

While I certainly concede that genetics likely plays a role in MS, and in many other disorders, I argue that it’s misguided to think that the absence of the genetic factors means that the rest of us are without risk.

Consider the following statistics on some modern diseases:

  • A 50-year long study on celiac disease reveals that the rate of celiac disease has increased fourfold in the past 50 years.[1]
  • According to the journal Diabetes,[2] “The best evidence available suggests that childhood diabetes showed a stable and relatively low incidence over the first half of the 20th century…and showed an upturn from the 1950s onwards.” The researchers go on to say that “…from 1960–1996…the average annual increase was 3.0%.” For those of you without a calculator at hand, a 3% average increase for 35 years is approximately a threefold increase in Type 1 diabetes.
  • Type 2 diabetes, once an affliction of the middle-aged, is now rampant among children and young adults. According to Clinical Diabetes, in the seven year period beginning 1992, pediatric Type 2 diabetes went from rare to accounting for 8–45% of new patients, depending upon geographic location.[3]
  • According to the medical journal Lancet, the rate of MS among females in Canada has tripled in the past 60 years.[4] The study authors state that “…given the short duration over which this is occurring, genetic change can be excluded.”

I could easily list similar trends for other diseases, but the pattern is clear: in the past half-century, the incidence of virtually every modern disease has increased dramatically, far more rapidly than could be explained by a shift in human genetics.

As my friend and I were talking, I couldn’t help but think of canaries. Canaries, you see, are extremely susceptible to toxins such as carbon monoxide or methane in the air and would succumb long before humans were affected. In the days before reliable monitoring equipment, miners would take canaries into mine shafts and monitor the health of the birds very carefully. If the birds fell ill or died, the miners knew that conditions were unsafe.

If the rates of today’s modern diseases are increasing too rapidly to be explained by genetics, then the absence of genetic change leaves only environment. And few environmental factors are more relevant than diet.

Instead of thinking of Dr. Wahls and other MS sufferers as the unlucky few who are misfortunate enough to suffer a genetic flaw, it may be more accurate to view them as the canaries among us, warning of environmental dangers lurking beneath our detection threshold.

Then again, when I look at the skyrocketing rates of these diseases, it becomes apparent to me that we’re all canaries. Some of us just haven’t fallen over yet.

[1] Gastroenterology, Volume 137, July 2009

[2] Diabetes, Volume 51, December 2002

[3] Clinical Diabetes, Volume 20, 2002

[4] Lancet, Vol 5 November 2006,

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