The dangers of manufactured food were firmly hammered home in my previous post Redefining Healthy Food: Part 1 (I’ve got the calluses to prove it). So, today we can move on. We’re leaving behind the barren and treacherous wasteland of fake, harmful food. And heading to the lush, safe pastures of real, natural food. The journey is not easy, but we have an evolutionary map, and our own body as a guide.
“The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.” Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
Homo sapiens evolved in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. For the next 190,000 years (95% of our time on earth), our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Then the Agricultural Revolution happened and changed everything. Sadly, neither me nor this blog post has the capacity to cover everything, so we’ll focus on food.
Our ancestors not only survived. They thrived. And nutrition was an incredibly important factor in their success. They hunted animals of all shapes and sizes, eating the organs and fat preferentially. They gathered an enormous variety of wild plants and, when available, fruits and nuts. This gave our ancestors an energy-dense and nutrient-dense diet that was perfectly suited to their bodies and activities. Eating like this wasn’t a conscious decision, of course. They had no concept of nutrients. It was purely instinctive. Honed by 2.5 million years of natural selection.
Around 9,500 to 8,500 BC, things began to change. Our ancestors learned how to domesticate a very small number of plants and animals. This early domestication formed the basis of the modern human diet. Prior to the Agricultural Revolution, crops like wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, millet, and barley comprised a minuscule fraction of the human diet. They now account for more than 90% of all calories consumed globally. Take wheat as an example. 10,000 years ago wheat was just one of many types of wild grass growing in a small part of the Middle East. It now covers 2.25 million square kilometres of the earth’s surface, and is the staple of the Western diet. While such cultivation has allowed the human race to expand exponentially, our health has suffered greatly. Home sapiens evolved to eat thousands of species of wild plants and animals. Not a small selection of grains and beans. Today’s staple crops are lacking in vitamins and minerals, are difficult for the body to digest and absorb, and are actually damaging to the human gut. Even if they had been available, early humans most likely wouldn’t have eaten them. Healthy food, then, should be defined accordingly. The food our early ancestors ate. The food we have evolved to eat. Think diverse and colourful piles of vegetables, naturally-raised and naturally-fed meat (remember, organs and fat first), wild caught fish, and some fruits and nuts.
I’m afraid, though, that we’re not quite at the end of the story. Because, annoyingly everybody’s a bit different. And there are exceptions. For example, some people are thriving on a plant-based diet, despite it being based on agricultural crops. Lots of vegetables and fruit mean a decent supply of vitamins and minerals. But large volumes of grains and legumes are required, and the valuable fats, vitamins and minerals from meat and fish are excluded. It seems, however, that some people may have evolved to function well on this diet. I’m not referring here to the pale, skinny vegan stereotype. Some of the most accomplished athletes on the planet live and race entirely on plants. Rich Roll was an overweight booze, drug and junk food addict who turned to plants and endurance sports to save his own life. He placed 6th overall in the Hawaii Ultraman World Championships, despite a serious bike crash. Oh, and he was in his 40s. Then there’s Scott Jurek, who became the most successful ultra-runner of all time. While eating only plants. I guess it’s possible that Rich and Scott could have done even better eating like hunter-gatherers, but it seems unlikely. Amazing people, but exceptions none the less. I mention this because you might be an exception. Unlikely. But possible.
As for the rest of us, the early human diet appears to be the right framework on which to start our nutrition journey. Whatever road we find ourselves on, our body will soon tell us if we are heading in the wrong direction. But we need to develop an awareness of the (often subtle) signals it gives out. It takes a bit of practice (a lot in my case) but the messages can be heard. We just have to listen. The constant fatigue. The bloating after a meal. The recurring skin problem. The aching joints. The cognition issues. The annoying cough. The excess weight that just won’t go no matter how much time you spend in the gym. Sound familiar? This is your body telling you that something is wrong, very often with the food you are eating. And it’s a good idea to pay attention. Adopting an ancestral-type diet is the fastest way to getting your body functioning optimally. Further adjustments will be required along the way in order to really personalise your nutrition, so those communication lines with the body must be kept fully open.
I’d like to say that this sort of connection to myself and my evolutionary history came quickly and naturally to me. It didn’t. The truth is, I took the wrong road many times, and ignored my body’s attempts to redirect me. Buoyed by the progress I had made by switching to a whole-food diet in 2014, I wanted more. My research took me down the vegan route. I was convinced it was the healthiest way to eat. And, at least initially, I felt great. I became committed to the lifestyle. But I was wedded to the idea, rather than an objective reality. Even as my health started to deteriorate, I refused to consider that my choice of diet was wrong. Certain foods maybe. But not the whole thing. I was eventually shoved in the direction of reality by a a skilled (and patient) nutritional therapist. The grains and beans were destroying my gut and sending my blood sugar soaring. The lack of meat, fish and fat was leaving me with deficiencies in essential nutrients. The plant-based diet wasn’t working. Finally I was listening! Pride-swallowed, I started to make the necessary changes and, after much research, moved towards an ancestrally-appropriate diet. I saw some improvements pretty quickly. People say I look better. I certainly feel better. But I’ve had to make continual modifications along the way. Foods have been excluded or reduced based on my body’s reaction to them. I’ve become quite attuned to the messaging. As I’m writing this my eyes are itching. This is my body reacting to the dark chocolate I ate earlier this evening. The sneezing will start later.
I hope all this will leave you with a different, hopefully more objective, perspective on what healthy food really is. I’m not suggesting you decamp to the nearest forest, start foraging for mushrooms and throwing spears at badgers. We live in the modern world. And it’s a nice place to be. But we can still make the right food choices. Choices which meet our evolutionary needs and therefore promote health. Health is not the only factor to consider when deciding what to eat. It’s at the top of my list, and this compels me to be diligent in our food choices. But wherever it features in your priorities, do the best you can by it. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good. By all means takes some risks – that’s what makes life interesting. Just remember that’s what they are.
Making big changes and commitments in what you feed yourself and your family is far from easy. But ask yourself this: Of all the important and rewarding things you’ve achieved in your life, how many of them were easy?
Do you have any thoughts on nutrition and healthy eating? Please share in the comments below.
Own your health.