The 'Natural' diet of humans
Updated - 02 Jan 21
Is a ‘healthy diet’ really a ‘healthy diet’?
The bottom line. At the Canadian Bison Association Annual Conference in 2013, the keynote speaker held a PhD in Agriculture, Food and Nutritional Science. During the speech he emphatically stated, ‘If you want to die young of a heart attack, just follow the Canada Food Guide’. He was, and remains, 100% correct.
The closer one follows the USDA food pyramid or the dietary advice of Health Canada, the more likely you are to develop autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, or cancer. Humans are not physiologically adapted to eating plant-based ‘foods’ as a staple and the overconsumption of calorie rich but nutrient deficient grains, pulses and other vegetable-based products is, quite literally, killing us and costing the taxpayer, through health system costs, a fortune.
The detail. We often hear the terms ‘healthy diet’ or ‘eating healthy’ or ‘eat healthy food’, but what do they mean? In the western world, most people use these terms to describe eating ‘whole foods’ or eating in accordance with the Canadian Food Guide, or the USDA’s food pyramid, or variations on that theme.
However, this ‘healthy diet’ is largely the product of a dedicated campaign by a fringe 19th century religious cult (see sidebar article for more details) and the corporate business interests that have learned to make large profits out of cheap, nutrient deficient but calorie rich product of industrialised monoculture agriculture. If you believe that government agencies and food processors have your best interests, physical and mental health in mind, please think again. It is the nature of corporate entities, public or private, to act in the self-interest of the corporate entity, which is merely a proxy for the personal self-interest of the leaders who manage or command the organization.
A much better way to define a ‘healthy diet’ is to look at human physiology and morphology and take note of the physical adaptations of the human body and what food sources they favour. In addition, it is valuable to look at anthropological studies to see, not only what our ancestors ate, but what sources of nutrients were even available. What we call ‘modern agriculture’ is precisely that, ‘modern’. We live in the ‘Neolithic’ era, but humans lived for much longer during what is known as the ‘Paleolithic’ or ‘Hunter Gatherer’ pre-agricultural era.
It is important to separate out data collected on modern Paleolithic societies. The pressures of modern industrialised societies on the environment have forced many modern Paleolithic societies to radically change their diets in only the last two centuries. For instance, large scale ivory hunting in the 19th and 20th centuries combined with the effects of agricultural encroachment on their territory have meant the ‘Hadza’, a Tanzanian hunter-gatherer society, now obtain a large percentage of their food from the Baobab tree in the form of Baobab fruit and honey. However, prior to 1850, their homeland had few Baobab trees because huge herds of elephants killed them all and maintained the grassland savannah, they lived in. The Hadza lived primarily on elephant meat until two centuries ago.
So ‘modern Paleolithic’ and ‘ancient Paleolithic’ are two very distinct categories and it’s important to note this distinction when determining what diet humans are best adapted to.
When one goes through this process, it becomes obvious that the ‘healthy diet’ of the modern westerner isn’t so ‘healthy’. In fact, the adoption of the calorie rich but nutrient poor western diet has been matched by an explosion of autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, psychological and mental disfunction and cancer.
Calories do not equal nutrition!
‘Man the Fat Hunter’ – Humans are a unique high trophic level carnivore!
The research of Dr Miki Ben-Door PhD, one of the world’s leading paleoanthropologists, led to his excellent paper entitled ‘Man the Fat Hunter: The Demise of Homo erectus and the Emergence of a New Hominin Lineage in the Middle Pleistocene (ca. 400 kyr) Levant.’ [Miki Ben-Dor, Avi Gopher, Israel Hershkovitz, Ran Barkai. Man the Fat Hunter: The Demise of Homo erectus and the Emergence of a New Hominin Lineage in the Middle Pleistocene (ca. 400 kyr) Levant. December 9, 2011 PLoS ONE 6(12): e28689.]
In this work, Dr Ben-Dor examined anthropological and physiological evidence to determine what the most likely drivers behind the replacement of H.Erectus by H.Sapien were. Simply put, stone age humans were physiologically dependent on a very specific diet, high in animal fat, due to having a smaller liver (and other protein processing infrastructure) than other carnivores. This dependence on fat, and the demise of the highly fatty megafauna of the late Pleistocene, meant that only a ‘lighter, more agile and cognitively capable hominin’ could survive.
Modern humans are a unique carnivore hunter that specifically targets the animals that carry the most fat. Unlike modern canines and felines who catch what they can, often the sick, old or young with low fat stores, humans have hunted the prime animals. While having, in terms of gut surface area an almost identical digestive capacity compared to body weight to canines (wolves, dogs, coyotes, etc), humans are equipped with much smaller livers. This limits our ability to process protein through liver glycolysis and precludes us surviving on the lean animals that canines and felines do.
While no exact limit on protein consumption is known, with 35-45% of total calories being a commonly discussed range, it is clear that a food source too rich in protein and too low in fat results in a condition known as ‘rabbit starvation’.
This reliance on fat is so ingrained in human history that many cultures and languages equate fat to health, wealth and wellbeing. Not ‘being fat’, but ‘having enough fat’. Unfortunately, our modern plant-based diet has replaced eating fat with getting fat, with all the attendant metabolic disease we see in western society.
Interestingly, Neandertal remains show a different rib cage structure to modern humans. Their rib cage was bell shaped, opening the hypothesis that Neandertals had larger livers and may have had a considerably higher protein limit.
Their physiques were adapted to greater bursts of strength and speed over short distances, compared with modern humans and their upper body structure more suited to thrusting with a spear than throwing.
In addition, their cranial structure indicates that they may have had a higher IQ than modern humans with respect spatial reasoning, giving them advantage in ‘mapping’ and navigation.
These characteristics, perhaps, are an indication that they were intercept or ‘ambush’ hunters, rather than persistence hunters.
Their spatial intelligence, raw strength and short distance speed would have been an advantage in rough and/or forested terrain and against larger prey species but a disadvantage in open savannah with smaller, swifter prey.
I’m not too sure what to conclude from these facts, but it would seem that the ability to eat leaner animals, if that’s what the Neandertal rib cage shape indicates, did not make up for the relative lack of endurance compared to modern humans as larger megafauna disappeared during late Pleistocene.