When I was a young medical student, we were not taught a lot about food. No dietician ever gave us a lecture during the six years of our studies or the year of residency to become a family physician. Food as an important part of our health was not on the radar. Sure, vitamins were something one should take, and one should be careful to not consume too much meat that was barbequed. That was about the extent of the medical knowledge conveyed to us.
Today, we are getting more aware that food intake, or diet, is a crucial part of our health.
I am going to talk about food as health for the next few months, in a short series I call “Food as Health”.
Today, let’s look at the problem of changes in our diet that happens too quickly.
Historically, our diet changed slowly, which gave us, as a species, the chance to adapt and remain healthy. At first, about 1.8 million years ago when mankind’s ancestor Homo erectus started to have a different diet than our primate family—less bulky plant fiber, more meat and marrow; much more energy efficient—we developed a much larger brain than them. From then on, we got all of our food from fishing, hunting and foraging. We ate it raw.
Then, around one million years ago, Homo erectus learned how to tame fire. It was the biggest change in the diet of humanity. Pounding and then heating food helped us to “pre-digest” our food; making it less energy expensive for our intestines to break it down and to absorb more food, and therefore for us to get much more energy from our diet than any other animal. We were able to store fat better than ever before and we probably had more children who flourished and made it into adulthood.
It was not only meat that accelerated our brain development. Hunting and fishing were not very efficient and often was hit and miss. Estimates are that those ancestors consumed about 30% of their food intake as meat, and the rest was made up with such plants as tubers, yams, plantains or water chestnuts.
About ten thousand years ago, which to the human gene is relatively recently, recent enough that it still troubles our health to this day, Homo sapiens invented agriculture. Grains, such as barley, sorghum, corn, rice and wheat became a dependable food staple, and became our dominant food intake. Now our population exploded, accelerating from babies every 2.5 years instead of every 3.5 years. Our diet lost a major part of its diversity. Tooth cavities and periodontal disease made their appearance. Parasites, new infectious diseases, iron deficiency and developmental delays started to happen. We became shorter.
Yet, we are working on adapting to this recent change: our teeth, jaws and faces decreased in size and those population groups who had access to milk from cattle and goats, developed lactose tolerance, from the default position of being lactose intolerant.
About 1,400 years ago, just a blink of an eye in terms of our evolution, far too recent to have adapted to its deleterious effects, sugar became widely known in Arabic countries, and, after the Crusades, in the wider Western world.
Towards the end of the last century we were told that carbohydrates should be the bulk of our food intake, and that we should significantly restrict our fat intake. As a result, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and obesity skyrocketed. To add insult to injury, we heavily refine and process our foods, add additives and use chemicals to “protect” our crops.
The health results have been nothing but catastrophic.
Dr. Strauss l Wellness Lead
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