The Evolution of the Human DietDec 15, 2021
Maximal Being developed The Perfect Human Diet to teach you the secrets behind a sophisticated and unique diet that you can build yourself.
Evolution of the Human Diet
The dietary patterns of early humans have been a significant focus of current scientific research. What did our ancestors eat, and is their diet best suited to the human genome? Recent studies on modern nomadic tribes show promise in reverting to the diets of early hunter-gatherers. Going back to our dietary roots may be a way to combat the current epidemic of obesity and chronic disease.
Early Human Diet
Evidence suggests that the earliest humans relied on hunting and gathering for their nutritional needs. As a result, Hunter-gatherer humans relied on protein sources such as meat and fish, coupled with berries and other starchy plant foods.
Although early humans did not have the sharp teeth of other carnivores, they developed stone tools to hunt and obtain meat from large animals. Studies on modern hunter-gatherers suggest that meat made up at least 40% of the early human diet, much more than other primates. In addition, a relatively small digestive tract implies that humans were not suited for a solely plant-based diet. Calorie-dense meat and bone marrow early humans ate helped the size of the human brain increase through evolution. However, humans cannot be pure carnivores, as too much protein is damaging to human physiology.
Because of this, early humans were omnivores who ate carbohydrates sourced from plants in addition to meat. In terms of evolution, the presence of amylase, a digestive enzyme meant for breaking down starchy carbohydrates, indicates a uniquely human adaptation to plant foods. Overall, the early human diet consisted of a relatively large amount of meat supplemented by raw carbohydrates.
Evolution Into the Modern Diet
These dietary patterns changed rapidly with the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution. Agriculture had several adverse effects on human health. First of all, it decreased the diversity of the human diet. According to Clark Spencer Lawson, a biological anthropologist at the Ohio State University, eating similar domesticated grains gave way to periodontal disease in many farmers. Additionally, they began suffering from parasites and new diseases when animal domestication began. Finally, they had nutrient deficiencies, specifically in iron, and as a result, developmental delays ensued.
Some remnants of early human dietary patterns persist in today’s eating habits. For example, one of the leading evolutionary similarities is that modern humans still crave sugar, which was often scarce for our ancestors. However, this can become problematic in the modern era, where our primary sources of nutrition are refined carbohydrates.
Refined carbohydrates lack the fiber and nutrients of complex carbohydrates, meaning that they have less nutritional value and do not promote fullness. As a result, modern humans who eat too many refined carbohydrates to relieve their natural sugar cravings tend to be deficient in critical nutrients and snack more, leading to weight gain and health problems. An evolutionary adaptation also causes this weight gain to store fat in “lean periods,” where food was less plentiful. Unfortunately, this adaptation has now become a liability in a time where carbohydrate-rich and nutrient-poor foods are widely available.
Cooking has also made our modern-day diet more calorie-dense, according to Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham. Eating cooked foods is a kind of double-edged sword. Cooking food predigests it, so our bodies expend fewer calories through the digestive process. It also allows the human body to absorb more calories from the cooked food than it would if it were raw. These two factors together create a recipe for weight gain and the chronic diseases that accompany it. We should not cook any of our food- the digestive tract has evolved to rely on a certain amount of cooked foods. However, it is essential to increase whole foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, in your diet.
There is strong evidence for a disconnect between human genetic programming and the foods we eat in the modern Western diet. A diet abundant in processed foods and refined carbohydrates has led to prolific weight gain and chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Benefits of Eating Like Our Ancestors
Supporters of the Paleo diet argue that it helps us rediscover healthy eating by taking us back to our dietary roots. They claim that our bodies are still suited to a Stone Age diet and have not adapted to today’s processed foods and fast food. However, as previously mentioned, there are benefits to eating whole, unprocessed foods. These include:
- Providing essential nutrients and vitamins: The variety of a diet rich in whole foods ensures that you will get all of your nutritional necessities, solving the common problem of nutrient deficiencies.
- Helping prevent chronic disease: It shows that eating a diet rich in whole foods promotes heart health, clear skin, healthy triglyceride levels, decreased risk of cancer, and blood sugar regulation.
- Promoting gut health: Raw, whole foods rich in antioxidants and healthy fats are beneficial to the gut microbiome as well, often functioning as prebiotics.
- Staving off weight gain: The dietary fiber and healthy fat contained in many natural foods promotes feelings of fullness, which reduces the risk of overeating and gaining weight.
However, there are also nutritional factors that the Paleo diet does not take into account. For example, early humans exercised far more than modern humans. As a result, they needed a more significant amount of protein from meat as well. There is evidence that eating a diet so heavy in meat products is not suitable for modern humans, as it links to clogged arteries and heart disease from too much-saturated fat.
Finally, the Paleo diet fails to account for continued human evolution past the Paleolithic period. After all, humans have changed a great deal since the Stone Age and will continue to do so in the future. Therefore, our diet cannot be the same as that of our early ancestors, although their diet can provide us with helpful insight and general guidelines for healthy eating.
Overall, the human diet has evolved a great deal since the Paleolithic period. Evidence indicates that early Stone Age humans ate an omnivorous diet rich in meat from hunting and raw, unprocessed carbohydrates from gathering. In addition, there are several evolutionary indicators that humans were omnivores, including dull teeth, a short digestive tract, and the presence of amylase.
This ancient diet has evolved into the modern one through the Agricultural Revolution, cooking, and the increase in refined, processed foods. Unfortunately, these changes have negatively impacted human health, causing weight gain and chronic disease to become far more common.
There are certainly benefits to eating raw, whole, unprocessed foods as our ancestors did. These foods are abundant in essential nutrients, aid in preventing chronic disease, promoting gut health, and help maintain healthy body weight. However, the increasingly common Paleo and caveman diets fail to account for the decreased exercise of modern humans and continued human evolution past the Stone Age. In addition, there is no special diet for all humans due to the vast diversity of individuals. However, all healthy diets have some commonalities: they are balanced and include various lean proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.