Science of Food column: History of the human diet
December 27, 2016
Our modernized "Western diet" is vastly different from the natural diets that humans have evolved with for the past millions of years.
"There is growing awareness that the profound changes in the environment (e.g, in diet and other lifestyle conditions) that began with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry about 10,000 years ago occurred too recently on an evolutionary time scale for the human genome to adjust," writes Dr. Loren Cordain in the American Journal of Human Nutrition.
As a result of the Industrial Revolution, we have "fundamentally altered … crucial nutritional characteristics of ancestral hominin diets. The evolutionary collision of our ancient genome with the nutritional qualities of recently introduced foods may underlie many of the chronic diseases of Western civilization."
Cordain, professor in the Department of Health at Colorado State University and author of "The Paleo Diet," is describing a typical Western diet that is high in sodium salt, refined sugars and grains and unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats) and low in macro- and micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fats and fiber that can lead to various chronic conditions, such as type II diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer and even acne and unnecessary dental problems.
It is no surprise that most humans enjoy the taste of processed foods loaded with salt and sugar, since our brains and bodies are hardwired for their taste. Sugary foods used to be rare in nature. And when they were found in nature, they were paired with healthy nutrients and fiber. Similarly, sodium salt and saturated fats were also rare. Now that we have unlimited access to food products containing these ingredients, these so-called "diseases of civilization" have skyrocketed, affecting millions of people.
WHAT not TO EAT
Over the course of our long human history, humans evolved and prospered on a variety of different diets depending on location, climate and cultural influences, but consisting generally of wild plants and animals. What they did not eat was refined cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, fatty corn-fed meats and dairy products (after the initial suckling period), which make up the majority of total daily energy consumed by all people in the United States.
And they didn't eat pesticides or other synthetic chemical preservatives that can further damage the body. While I don't necessarily recommend a strict "paleo diet," start by becoming more aware of how much of these processed foods you are consuming. Before eating any of these tasty snacks, eat real food that is not produced in a laboratory. Eat organic meats and eggs that are "grass-fed" or "pasture-raised" without hormones and antibiotics or further preserved with nitrates.
When thinking about carbohydrates and sugars, never use an artificial sweetener. We thought science could outwit the intelligence of the human body when we invented artificial sweeteners, but we were wrong. Without actually being sugar (glucose), substances such as Splenda, Sweet N' Low and aspartame are made in a laboratory and designed to be the highly praised "zero-calorie sweetener." This ultimately leads to confusion in the body as soon as that synthetic sweet taste hits the tongue.
Studies have now shown that, in addition to their potential to cause cancer, eating artificial sweeteners may actually cause people to eat more overall since the body thinks it is receiving nutrients when it experiences the sweet taste, and after not receiving any, it keeps searching for more.
Use a natural source of sugar in small doses. Avoid sodas and sugary beverages. The recommended daily allowance for sugar is less than 50 grams per day, and just one soda contains 39 grams of sugar, all "empty calories." Consuming large quantities of sugar (sucrose, glucose or fructose) can lead to type II diabetes, excess fat production and liver problems and creates general inflammation inside the body. Balance is key.
In your holiday recipes, make substitutions to incorporate healthy fats and use less sugar. Instead of using refined white sugar, try using honey, maple syrup or smashed bananas and reduce the amount of sugar the recipe calls for. Use whole-grain flours that are more nutrient dense instead of refined white flour, and experiment with blending gluten-free flours such as amaranth or oat flour. Try substituting coconut oil or olive oil for butter or vegetable oils that are high in saturated and omega-6 fatty acids. If you do use butter, then make sure it is real organic butter, not margarine or other synthetic oils such as Crisco.
From an evolutionary perspective and from mounting medical evidence, we are not able to eat a Western diet for too long without getting fat and sick. As soon as you switch to a diet based on quality whole foods, you will lose weight and your cardiovascular function will improve as sodium levels drop and potassium levels rise naturally.
Eat mindfully, take smaller portion sizes and listen to your body when it's telling you that you are full. It is important to stay active; even just a 20-minute walk after a meal can help. This article is not about cutting out all those holiday treats, it's about understanding how to find the right balance to be happy and healthy through this holiday season and beyond.
Lisa Julian, Ph.D., has a passion for organic chemistry — the "molecules of life" — and its application to food and health. She's the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches science and nutrition at the University of Colorado Denver and Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-401-2071. For more information about services offered at her studio, visit http://www.elevatedyogacolorado.com.