In part I of this series on the evolution of the human diet, we looked at how our ancestors of 40,000 years ago ate. While our brains have developed exponentially since our hunter gatherer times, the majority of our genetics, including those that digest and metabolise nutrients from food have not change. Yet our diets are starkly different to what they once were.
Here in part II we look at five key milestones that took us away from a diet of wild caught meats and plants to the processed food we consume today.
Milestone 1: The agricultural revolution
About 12,000 years ago humans harnessed the skills to mass-produce food through farming. We learned to properly keep and rear animals and to harvest crops.
- Less wild caught animals
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Shorter with skeletal deformaties.
The agricultural revolution inarguably enabled humans to develop the social structures that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. This gradual transition to the organised production of food began as the intelligence of humans to organise and utilise things like fire and weapons improved.
The ability to harvest crops and the domestication of animals allowed us to provide food for the masses, freeing up other groups of the population to develop social order, study the arts and pursue academia that ultimately led to technological advances and machinery. This is how human civilisations were established and class structure began to develop.
However, the food for the masses were things like grains that could be harvested en mass. Nutrient deficiencies became endemic as a result of the switch from more animal products grains.
We went from eating a very nutrient dense diet rich in bio-available minerals and vitamins, to a diet from crops that contained far fewer nutrients per calorie. As a result of our diets shifting from predominantly animal products to things like bread, humans became shorter and developed structural deformities in our skeletons and teeth.
Read my articles on Why grains are not a health food to further understand why grains damaged our development.
Milestone 2: Introduction of refined sugar in the 1600s
- Tooth decay
- Shift in metabolic health
- Detrimental impacts on indigenous populations in British colonies.
The first people to harvest refined sugar were the British in the late 1600s in their colonies in the Carribean and West Indies. They discovered how to cultivate the sugar cane and turn it into the crystallised substance to which we are so addicted today. Sugar rapidly became a widely traded commodity like tea and consumption back home in Britain increased.
Rapidly, those who could afford it began to consume sugar. Adding sugar to tea to reduce its bitterness and the introduction of cakes and sweets marked a significant change from the occasional honey that our ancestors stumbled upon in our hunter gatherer days.
Initially sugar consumption was confined to the upper classes as it was unaffordable to those with less means. Sugar consumption increased to the extent that the teeth of the wealthy people consuming it became black and rotten.
Poorer people saw these black teeth as a sign of wealth and copied the black teeth style by colouring their own with coal! Into the 1700s sugar consumption was no longer restricted to the upper classes as foods like cakes and jam became commonplace. Sugar consumption per capita while less than 2kg in 1704 grew rapidly to 8kgs in 1800 and 40kgs in 1901 – a 22-fold increase to the point where Britons had the highest sugar intake in Europe. (1)
Today sugar infiltrates our entire food supply. Most things that come out of a pack will contain sugar as both a flavour enhancer and preservative. Americans are thought to consume 126g of sugar a day on average! (2) That’s almonst 45kg a year!! While Australia and the UK aren’t quite as bad, we should all actively avoid sugar in our diets.
Human nutrition began to degrade 12,000 years ago as we began to utilise agriculture.
Milestone 3: Industrial revolution of the 1800s
- food mass-produced in factories
- even less nutrition
The industrial revolution in Britain in the late 1700s saw further shifts towards mass food produced food that was inevitably less rich in nutrients than before. Meals for the poor were starchy and designed to fill the stomach rather than provide nutritional value.
During this period people flocked to the cities were the most economic growth took place and living conditions were harsh as people shared very small and uncomfortable spaces. Living in such close proximity the risk of disease spreading and infections was high and so means to preserve foods were found. Fermentation and salting foods while healthy measures, eventually gave way to less nutritious ways of preventing food from spoiling.
The industrial revolution led us to produce food on a large scale that would last and travel.
Milestone 4: Food giants of the 1900s
- War climate necessitated food that could be transported would last
- Big companies appearing in grocery/food market.
By the 1900s America had asserted itself as a world power and the big companies were beginning to dominate certain markets, including the food industry. Factories churned out cheap, calorie dense food that contained little nutritional value and bore less and less resemblance to the whole foods that humans had once thrived off.
Rapidly industrialising countries saw an influx of even more people to cities and the ability to store and transport food became even more important. As the threat of war loomed it was essential that large-scale supply chains were developed to produce rations that would last for very long periods and could be dropped from planes.
The big food giants played a big role in supporting the government’s strategy and the technologies developed as result of the war would continue to be utilised in food production.
Milestone 5: Chemical revolution of WII to present
- Technology to manipulate food structure
- Use of pesticides
- Man-made food products like margarine
- Beginning of low-fat era saw growth in substitutes.
The technology harnessed through world warfare included significant gains in chemical technology, the ability to manipulate foods through processes like hydrogenation and the wide scale use of pesticides.
In response to the serious famine experienced by many countries during the war, American scientists were able to study the impacts of starvation and over-feeding on human metabolism. Unfortunately the hypothesis developed lay the finger of blame firmly with saturated fat and cholesterol and so begun decades of low-fat products and vegetable oil consumption. This suited the big food giants very nicely and they got on board promoting the fear of fat.
Find your way back to real food
Today our diets are far closer to the damaged, processed mess that they became after the War period than the hunter-gatherer diets on which we thrived 10,000 years ago. The reason real and whole food diets like those espoused by the Paleo movement is becoming so popular is because it encourages us to get back to consuming real, nutrient dense foods in their whole form. People are getting sicker, fatter and showing various manifestations of nutrient deficiencies that can be remedied by increasing diversity of nutrients in the diet and reducing inflammatory foods such as refined sugar, vegetable oils and processed grains.
While I do not encourage any diet that is too restrictive, I do see benefit in a Paleo template. For more information and ways to incorporate more nutrient dense, real food that our ancestors would also actually recognise then check out my nutrition articles and recipes.
For a more tailored approach to your health please and to work with a nutritional therapist get in touch.