Do we actually need science to tell us how we got here or what we should eat today? My view is that the evidence is embedded within our history and it doesn’t need to be proved. WE ARE HERE! That said, everything I write here is backed by science and is referenced. The trouble with this sort of research is that it won’t make anyone rich, so it remains buried for the most part.
We are uniquely equipped for life in our world. Evolution has ensured that we are a finely honed animal species – capable of evaluating and responding to a multitude of stimuli. There are numerous mechanisms in place, within and beyond our control, to ensure survival. Here are a few:
- Insulin production in the pancreas. This preserved our lives thousands of years ago by storing a surplus of available carbohydrates (fruit or honey maybe) as fat reserves. Today however, the very same hormone is killing us. We now store far too much glucose which results from carbohydrate digestion – and we store it (in part) as fat, which never has a chance to be used up. Obesity and diabetes can result with all the health issues that accompany these illnesses.
- The Omega fatty acids – the balance of these ensures that we can deal with a microbial attack by providing inflammation and anti-inflammation.
- Cholesterol – the balance of hdl (“good” cholesterol) and ldl (“bad” cholesterol) ensures that we can form hormones (including the “new” pre-steroid hormone Vitamin D), line our cells, repair damage to our bodies and more. Cholesterol is so important that we not only manufacture it, but we also recycle it.
- The starvation sequence – every stage of this is designed to preserve life. Low calorie diets fire up this reaction.
- Thirst, to ensure we stay hydrated.
- Hunger, to ensure that we obtain the necessary nutrients.
- Sensing heat and cold, to ensure that we take measures to control our temperatures.
- Sensing pain, to tell us that the woolly mammoth is standing on our foot!
We take them as a given – no one would argue this. They are, by and large, proven and accepted by all - health professionals, scientists and the general public So why do we choose to either ignore these instincts or fight them? For example, we only think that we have done enough if we have endured some discomfort or even pain when we exercise. Evolution tells us to STOP when this happens.
Why must we employ our brains when their use is unnecessary? We think we’re so clever, outdoing nature but in reality we are creating problems for ourselves or even making ourselves ill. Instincts are ignored at our peril – we must listen to our bodies.
Genetically, we are still programmed for the diet we ate 10,000 years ago. People living at that time did not have dieticians, the internet or governments to tell them what they should eat, when they should eat it or how much they should eat. Consider this; wild animals don’t need this help; they just get on with it, responding to their instinctive needs – and, interestingly, neither do they generally suffer chronic illness, but domestic animals do. I’ll leave that one for another time but of course, it involves us!
The diet we are programmed for is the hunter-gatherer diet. What was good for us then is good for us now. Taste buds were the only guide to the foods that contained the necessary nutrients in a form that would be easy to absorb.
Imagine that you knew nothing of nutrition. You are stranded in the wilderness and there is an abundance of plants and animals. You have fire to cook with, so how will you decide what to eat? You can try a few leaves and some grass but your taste buds will tell you in no uncertain terms that you do not have the correct digestive system to deal with these “foods”. There may be a few roots that you could dig up, but whilst they may be sweeter than the leaves, you still are unlikely to make a feast of them. Are you going to look for seeds or grain? You could starve by the time you have enough to make a meal for the family especially if it is spring time! In any case, grain is indigestible without lengthy preparation and really only became a part of everyday food when we settled into a life of farming 10,000 years ago. Corn did not exist as it does today – it is “man-made” – so don’t waste your time looking for it! (Dairy foods were introduced soon after this time, but that’s another story too.)
Now you see a duck swimming on a river. If you accurately throw a hefty stone at it (my apologies to the vegetarians but I am trying to create a realistic scene), you have a meal. After removing the feathers and roasting it, even your sense of smell will tell you that this is the real deal. Your digestive juices and enzymes prepare you for digestion even before you have even tasted it. This is nature working the way it should. The fat and skin are the most delicious (and nutritious) part of a duck and there is no way you are going to remove them before eating – as we are advised now.
If you had lobbed a rock at a wild pig for your meal, I think we might see the same dining-room scene as we see now – the whole family arguing over the last piece of crackling! In those times of course, they would have eaten the lot. Everything that was chewable and tasted good would have been eaten as waste was just not an option and organ meats are the most nutrient-dense part of the animal.
It is doubtful that our ancient ancestors had the sense of squeamishness that we do, because they ate what was available and did not have the preconceived ideas of what was not “nice”. This just means that they would have eaten lungs, kidneys, liver, gonads, eyes (great source of vitamin A), ears, brain and every other morsel possible. They would all have tasted good but we are now conditioned, for many reasons, to consider these parts at best unhealthy (due to the BSE problem years ago) and at worst, disgusting! It is a sad fact that we, in the Western World, now choose muscle meats over offal. Offal, historically and amongst primitive people today, was and is, highly prized as a magnificent source of nutrients. Now, we take frequent trips to the supermarket which means that we can have our choice of foods available all the time – in our fridges, or in cans and packets in our cupboards. Offal – even organic offal, is cheap.
Our conditioning is, at least in part, to blame for our confused taste buds. Children of the Inuit are used to the taste and texture of raw seal liver and relish it – because they have always had it. Our children gain the taste for baby rice – and just where does that lead? To a lifetime of seeking out simple, nutrient-poor carbohydrate foods at the expense of proper nutrient-dense food! How on earth did babies born 10,000 years ago manage without it?! Breast feeding would have been offered for longer than present day. I suspect that as teeth began to form, mothers would have partially chewed their baby’s food to make weaning easier – and that food would have been the full hunter-gatherer diet.
“When we eat cake, we unconsciously detect that some of the right nutrients are there. Mixing food groups together like this, our taste-buds are fooled.”
Nutritionists and dieticians are fond of blaming “processed foods” for the devastating effects on our health, but just what does that mean? Much processed food is made from poor quality ingredients combined and flavoured to make cheap food appealing to our confused, modern palates. Breakfast cereals and bread are highly processed foods – even if they do claim to be free of added chemicals. Remember too, that it is perfectly possible to use the best quality organic butter, flour, eggs and sugar to make a cake or biscuits. Does this make them better for us? They taste good because we naturally like sweet things and fats (probably due stored information about breast milk). The fats that taste the best are the ones that have the most nutrients – animal fats, butter in this case, but when we eat cake, we unconsciously detect that some of the right nutrients are there. Mixing food groups together like this, fools our taste-buds. Even if margarine has been used, the less-than-pleasant taste is disguised with sugar and we happily have a second helping.
So, what’s on the menu for you in the wilderness? Exactly what we should be eating now – meat, offal, fat, fish, shellfish, eggs, nuts, seeds (if they are a reasonable size and taste good), some leaves and a few roots, fruits when in season and honey once in a while. Fortunately we have evolved as omnivores which meant that during the times when our genetic diet was scarce, we could live for a while, on foods that were less nutrient-dense.This means that today, on the odd occasion, we can still enjoy an ice-cream or piece of cake without any lasting damage. And just what would life be without these treats?
This article was originally published in Positive Health PH Online Issue 186 – Sept 2011 – the present.