Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

How Our Diets Changed

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A previous post described how our bodies have not changed, but our diets have.  Our genes evolved in ancient days as our species became Homo sapiens.  We can compare the components of the diet from Paleolithic  days to the present day.

CARBOHYDRATES:  Early humans obtained about half of their calories from carbohydrates.  However, they were not in the form of our present day carbohydrate sources – refined grains, pastas, starchy vegetables, and products high in fat and sugar especially high-fructose corn syrup.   They ate carbs as vegetables and fruits.  What a difference.  When they found sweets, it was more than likely in the form of honey if they could even obtain it easily.

FRUITS, VEGETABLES, AND FIBER:  Our ancestors ate an estimated 100 grams of fiber a day from around 100 different species of fruits and vegetables (dependent on the region).  The fiber came primarily from roots, fruits, legumes, nuts, and other naturally occurring noncereal plant sources, says S. Boyd Eaton, a foremost authority on Paleolithic diets.

Today, few Americans eat the recommended five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables and when we do, the foods are usually potatoes as French fries, some form of corn, lettuce, and some tomatoes.  In other words, our choices do not provide much variety in quality, form or color.

PROTEIN AND FAT:  Early H. sapiens ate about 30% protein that was regionally and seasonally determined.  They ate primarily wild game meats such as deer and bison, along with small game they could hunt.  These animals were lean and higher in omega-3 fatty acids.  Domesticated animals contain much more saturated fat and provide us with about  an 11:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.  A more ideal ratio that is currently recommended varies from 1:1 to 4:1.

VITAMINS AND MINERALS:  Fruits and vegetables were consumed quickly and not stored or carried great distances.  Often they were uncooked.  The variety alone would provide all the vitamins and minerals our bodies needed.  Today, processing destroys many vitamins by high heat and additives.

SODIUM AND POTASSIUM: The Daily Value for sodium intake is less than 2400 mg/day and about 3500 mg/day for potassium. Our intake is about 4000 mg/day of sodium and about 3000 mg/day of potassium.   Early humans had little sodium estimated to be around 600 mg/day and potassium intake at about 7,000 mg/day.  So the ratio is reversed which contributes to the risk of hypertension in many people.

Where do we go from here in our present society?  Based on our dietary evolutionary past, we are clearly on the wrong track. Since most of us do not wish to hunt and gather,  Michael Pollan wrote an article published in the New York Times, January, 2007 entitled “Unhappy Meals” which addresses this problem.  The article is long, but worth it.  He lists four changes that have occurred in the Western Diet compared to our original diets:

  • From whole foods to refined foods
  • From complexity to simplicity (four crops provide 2/3 of our calories – corn, soybeans, wheat, rice)
  • From leaves to seeds (grains instead of greens)
  • From food culture to food science (from “Mom” to advertising)

He offers this advice:

  • Eat food – don’t eat anything your Grandmother would not recognize.
  • Avoid food products with health claims – claims are shaky and usually the product is highly processed.
  • Avoid products containing unfamiliar ingredients – if you cannot pronounce most of them, you know they are highly processed.
  • Get out of the supermarket when possible – eat local, pay more, eat less; eat mostly plants
  • Eat more like the French, Japanese, or Greeks.
  • Plant a garden and cook.
  • Eat like an omnivore – try new species for more variety

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