It was around 10, 000 years ago that we decided to settle. This meant that we could keep animals for food and grow some of the tastier plants. We also began growing grain. It is generally believed, due to the examination of human bones and teeth from this era, that farming heralded the beginning of the deterioration of aspects of our health. However, over subsequent millennia, we have adapted to this diet. When nature sees a genetic advantage, it is quick to switch off some genes and switch on others.
People in the Northern Hemisphere ate and tolerated dairy products at this time. We had the digestive equipment in place for most of the nutrients. The milk sugar lactose needs the enzyme lactase to digest it. We naturally produce this during infancy so as to digest breast milk, but then the gene is sometimes switched off. With a small genetic adjustment to switch it back on and the fact that raw milk contains lactase, we were then able to benefit from raw dairy products. In fact much of the milk at that time would have soured into “yogurt” and some, ultimately used as a type of cheese. These products contain less lactose anyway, as the sugar is used by the bacteria and yeasts that ferment milk.
Grains, peas and beans are a relatively new food for humans too. It was only when we settled that we were able to choose the biggest and the best of the seeds to produce future plants. These may well have been grown for fodder initially. Whilst they undoubtedly have some decent nutrients for humans, most are unavailable to us until the grains are processed thoroughly. All plants contain “antinutrients”. These are natural chemicals that aid the survival of plant species – they do not want to be eaten into extinction! We are all fighting for our place on the planet and we all have to defend ourselves.
These substances have the ability to make us unwell or at least uncomfortable. They can stop us digesting proteins properly (protease inhibitors); slow down starch digestion (amylase inhibitors); they can prevent the absorption of vital minerals (phytates, oxalates, glucosinolates, tannins and more). Plants are out to get us!
Back in those times, slow food was the only way. We would have learned very quickly that grains and beans cannot be eaten raw without lengthy processing. Even then, some are just not edible raw due to the presence of lectins, another antinutrient. Red kidney beans are a good example. During the 1960s, it became trendy to become vegetarian, but little had been published on the subject and people just did their own thing. Consumption of raw beans is downright dangerous and hundreds of new vegetarians were hospitalised with varying degrees of digestive distress. Death can occur as we have no digestive way of processing this lectin, to make it non-toxic. It can enter the bloodstream unchanged.
Processing beans and grains involves soaking and fermenting or sprouting, which renders the antinutrients less harmful. There are usually still traces which today, can still be problematic for some.
This, and part 1 of Me Jane – You Tarzan!, gives you a little insight to how our digestive systems have evolved. It is my belief that if we eat the diet we have evolved with, we are less likely to suffer the modern illnesses. Eggs, nuts, fish, meat, green vegetables, roots and a little fruit. (Remember that the fruit and veg we have now, bear no resemblance to those we ate in the past.)
However – we have evolved to be able to tolerate, without too much problem – the odd slice of cake or a meal in a restaurant. Just as well I’d say!