Today the western diet bears little resemblance to what our bodies have evolved to eat. While we might like to think of ourselves as completely different to our ancestors of 40,000 years ago, the truth is 99.9% of our genetics are the same! Of course our intelligence has expanded exponentially, but physiologically we aren’t very different.
Just as our genetics haven’t changed, nor has our requirement for an array of nutrients required for the body to perform its millions of chemical reactions that keep us alive and well. Yet instead of eating naturally occurring foods that are rich in minerals and vitamins, so much of our food now comes out of a packet.
Much of the food that comes out of brightly coloured boxes and advertise added nutrients wouldn’t be recognised by our ancestors that share our genetics. Industrial scale farming and food manufacturing has profoundly changed the way we eat and with very damaging consequences.
So how did we get so lost?
In this two part series we will look at five key milestones in human history that have profoundly shaped modern day diets in the Western developed world.
Starting from when humans existed as hunter-gatherers we will trace history through to the modern diet we consume today to see what catalysts caused so much change. The end result is a diet high in damaging compounds like trans-fats and sugar and too low in minerals and vitamins and increasingly unwell populations in developed countries.
Early humans at wild foods such as animals and occasioanlly fruits
Where it all began: our diets 40,000 years ago
Prior to the agricultural revolution, humans lived like animals. We hunted and we gathered. Food was provided by nature. We lived in a state of feast when we managed to kill another animal, and famine much of the time in between. Meat was the most prized food source because it contained the most nutrition including fat, protein and every kind of vitamin and mineral. In eating the entire animal we obtained all the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that the primal human body required to perform its functions.
In between our feasts of meat human hunter-gathers ate leaves, wild fruits and vegetables and very occasionally some honey if we got very luck. These carbohydrate sources contained fewer nutrients than meat but provide good variety in between our kills. To me it is an indisputable fact that humans have evolved to eat meat. The very structure of our digestive system is indicative of this. Rather than having four stomachs like vegetarian cows, humans have a hydrochloric acid based stomach, which is at the core of our digestive system. Hydrochloric acid and bile produced by the liver, when in sufficient quantities actively breaks down proteins and fats respectively. Of course we have capacity to digest carbohydrates too but the fact that our biggest digestive organs produce specifically designed enzymes for protein and fat is evidence that humans evolved to consume animal products.
Of course our ancestors are not a homogenous group of people and no hunter-gatherer population ate in exactly the same way. Depending on where a population lived the climate obviously dictated the variety of food available and as such the nutritional profile of diets varied. Populations developed different nutritional capacity for different diets, which is why today we are all chemically individual and work better eating different foods.
Today our food supply would be almost unrecognisable to our early ancestors.
While features of diets varied, the basic principles of hunter gatherer diets were the same. As nutritional pioneer Weston A Price observed in his studies on numerous hunter-gatherer populations, all healthy groups consumed animal products. Animal products are inarguably the most nutrient dense food. When I talk about animal products I am not merely referring to lean chicken breast or heart-smart lamb. I am talking about the entire animal including its organs, bone marrow and skin. These parts of the animal, which many people in modern society will turn their nose up at are nutritionally superior to the standard cuts of meat you can buy today.
Modern day lessons from hunter gatherer populations
Weston A Price was a dentist who studied physical degeneration as the result of poor nutrition. After noticing an increasing number of his patients presenting with dental caries and other structural deformities he took his clinical study to the field and spent time living and observing multiple hunter-gatherer populations. These populations included the Eskimos of Alaska, Melanesians and Polynesians from eight archipelagos in the South Pacific, tribes from eastern and central Africa, Australian Aborigines, Maoris from New Zealand and many more. His findings are captured in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A comparison of primitive and modern diets and their effects.
Key findings from Price’s observations include:
- There were no truly healthy vegan populations. All populations that were strong and free of disease consumed fat-soluble vitamins from animal products.
- Four times the amount of calcium and other minerals than modern diets.
- Ten times higher in fat-soluble vitamins.
- Very high enzyme content – enzymes support proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
- Fat accounted for up to 80% of calories in some diets. The fatty acid composition varied, but polyunsaturated fats were much lower than in modern diets.
- Diets contained a balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Modern diets are highly skewed towards more Omega-6s due to refined vegetable oil consumption.
The key takeaways from Weston A Price’s findings are that hunter-gatherer populations ate significant animal products and no processed or refined foods. Humans were designed to consume other animals and their products. Even our pre-human ancestors like chimpanzees ate insects.
This article has examine the characteristics of the hunter gatherer diet that allowed our early ancestors to thrive. Yet today despite having constant access to food, we are getting sicker than ever. In part II of this series we look at five key milestones in our history that caused significant changes in our diets and have led us to where we are today.
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