As we look 30 years into the future, it is said that we will need to feed two billion more people and the question of diet has taken on a worrying urgency and the foods we consume over the approaching decades will have profound implications for the planet. Some scientists claim that a diet that is high in meat and dairy will deplete the planet’s resources and therefore push for everyone to consume grains, nuts, fruit and vegetables.
Before the advent of agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago, all humans existed on hunting and gathering but as farming expanded, the hunter gather became constrained to forests, arid grasslands, remote islands and arctic Tundra’s. Only a few of these tribes still exist and the race is on to learn as much as we can about the ancient diet and way of life of the hunter gatherer before these “living fossils” disappear completely.
Studies of these remaining tribes such as the Hadza of northern Tanzania don’t succumb to the typical “Western” diseases we have. Very rare are the conditions of high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, or cardiovascular disease. The theory that we are still essentially Stone Age bodies consuming a fast-food diet is something that Loren Cordain, an evolutionary nutritionist at Colorado State University, is studying and advocates a Paleolithic way of eating if we are to regain a level of health enjoyed by these remaining hunter gatherer tribes and that our genes haven’t had enough time to adapt to farmed and processed foods. After studying the diets of these living hunter gatherers, Cordain concludes that 73 percent of these tribes obtained over half of their calories from meat and advocates that if we emulate this way of eating (avoiding grains, beans and dairy) we can avoid the diseases of civilisation like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.
According to Raymond Dart, the discoverer of the first fossil of a human ancestor in 1924 we were “carnivorous creatures” and some scientists now believe that the consumption of meat led to the evolution of our ancestors who went on to develop larger brains with this calorie dense food instead of the low-quality plant diet that preceded.
A few million years later, the human diet took another turn (some say for the worse) with the invention of agriculture which with the massive consumption of grains, created an explosion in the population.
So, did this abandonment of hunting and gathering and dependence on crops and livestock force us to give up a healthier way of eating in exchange for food security? Some anthropologists believe that the dawn of agriculture created a perfect storm when the daily consumption of grain gave these farmers cavities, periodontal disease, parasites and infectious diseases. They also suffered from iron deficiency and shrank in height. Despite this, the farmers produced more babies and the population increased but the disturbing evidence is that you don’t have to be disease free to reproduce.
It seems that a Paleolithic diet wasn’t all meat though and there were lean times. Observations of these remaining hunter gathers reveal that the success rate of a hunt is pretty dismal and the foraging members of a tribe would collect nuts and tubers to sustain them.
Are humans still evolving? It seems yes if we look at lactose tolerance. Until the domestication of cattle 10,000 years ago, humans didn’t consume milk after weaning but as a result of consuming animal milk lactose tolerance evolved among cattle herders in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa and interestingly, groups such as Chinese (where dairy consumption is very low) remain lactose intolerant.
These examples suggest that it’s not “You are what you eat” it’s more like you are what your ancestors ate. Studies have suggested that indigenous groups that switch to a Western diet high in sugars and processed foods have experienced massive increases in cases of diabetes and other Western ailments and this shift towards an abundance of processed foods that is engulfing the world is contributing to, if not, the reason for, the rising epidemic of obesity and related diseases.
Bad news for our health and for the planet.