Post VII: The Evolution Issue

This post follows on from the last, but is something of an aside delving more into the ideas of living based on evolutionary biology, and as The Dude puts it so succinctly, “new sh*t has come to light”. I want to make you privy to this new sh*t. The key point that I want to put across is the way to look at human evolution and how it affects our health and fitness today. The last post tried to balance out two different schools of thought which claim that humans evolved to either run long distances, or to walk, sprint and lift. Or all of that. The importance of this post is to show that evolution works in such a way that it favours traits which help a species to reproduce. And that there is the bottom line. Every living thing lives to reproduce and the traits which they develop are what at that particular period was the most efficient way of acquiring the energy to reproduce.

With that in mind, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, humans began to switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle based in small, sparse populations, to farming and the enormous changes this brought to culture and civilization as we know it. It is the contention of this blog that human diets since the birth of farming and agriculture are worse than they were when humans lived as hunter-gatherers, but that with the knowledge we now have about evolution, the biological and health effects of the food we eat and the physical effects of particular exercises, we can adapt to essentially have the best of both worlds. We can eat as healthily and be as active as hunter-gatherers, but still enjoy the benefits which farming and subsequently civilization and modernity has brought us. Sounds great right?

Most people are familiar with the story of Genesis in the Bible: the Garden of Eden, inhabited by Adam and Eve. The archetypal humans lived in paradise until committing the original sin by consuming the forbidden fruit, following which man was condemned to “toil the fields” the rest of his days. There is increasing belief that this story is derived from perceptions that standards of living fell dramatically after humans began to farm instead of hunt and gather their food, that humans shifted from a place where they could simply pluck at fruits whenever they pleased to having to toil for every calorie of energy they consume. The hours of work which farmers put in (before mechanization) are certainly more than the hours hunter-gatherers need to get the energy they need on a daily basis. So why did people change?

Geological records show that the receding ice age of the epoch, although ultimately heating the planet, was by no means a smooth transition. Decades of heat were followed by decades of cold, leading to intense fluctuations and rapid changes in ecology. At some point, it must have been beneficial for people in South West Asia (modern day Syria, Lebanon and Turkey) to develop agriculture to provide them with enough energy to reproduce, rather than hunt and gather their food, which was not providing enough energy. The benefits of farming at the time became quickly apparent: a lot of energy could be gathered from the grains planted in the earth, and the surplus energy allowed the Neolithic farmers to reproduce more, which allowed their children to work the fields, and continue to produce more energy to increase the population. The surpluses which the farmers could create freed up labour to work on other things, and civilization began to grow on the basis of farming.

But these advances came at a cost. Although the increase in energy led to increases in population and, initially, increases in height, intense farming led to malnutrition, more incidences of disease and cavities in teeth, with significant reductions in height after a few generations. The very monotonous diet coupled with consumption of the less nutritious grains which the farmers grew was the cause of this malnutrition. Although they consumed more calories than hunter-gatherers, the quality of the food was lower and less diverse. The increased amount of starch led to dental cavities, less diverse vitamins and minerals led to increased disease and less protein consumption led to smaller, weaker people.

In our time we have passed through the agricultural revolution as well as the industrial revolution which have led to huge increases in population and the amount of food required to feed it, as well as the technologies we use to create more, and larger food (compare the size of the strawberries in the supermarket to wild strawberries, or supermarket apples compared to crab apples). The current problem is that the food that is used to feed people on an industrial scale is often made industrially, to the detriment of quality as vitamins and minerals are extracted from the soil over and over again. Grains and starches are easily the cheapest and most efficient way of feeding people, but although they provide energy, they provide little in the way of vitamins and minerals. They fill the belly, but they cannot provide you with the nutrition you need. If most of your energy comes from grains, you are likely malnourished, in spite of what the wholegrain cereal packets say!

So if our eating culture is based on relatively new developments in evolution (10,000 years is a drop in the ocean in evolutionary terms) but a very long time in terms of human memory, we have an issue. The vast majority of people look to grains like grain, rice, oats and the like as the basis of meals, the bulk to fill out a plate, and many will consider replacing the beige with the colourful veg as something too expensive, and perhaps time-consuming. But I do think that people intuitively understand that it is not so satisfying: for example, oats have been a staple food in Scotland for centuries because they can grow in difficult conditions, can take a good lashing from the rain and the wind, and can be stored over the winter. In Dr Samuel Johnson’s first English dictionary released in the 18th century, however, the definition of oats was “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Although he seemed to have become bored while writing his first dictionary and in need of humour, his definition seems to belie something intuitive, that the body knows that meals high in starch are lacking in nutrition, and are in fact better fed to support other animals besides humans (although I would dispute the health benefits for horses as well!) I challenge you to try and change the focus of the meals you make, to shift it from being mainly brown-coloured and based on grains to something very colourful with a variety of fruits and vegetables, and some meat which has been produced locally and organically. For example, this morning my breakfast consisted of two chicken drumsticks, tripe (a Zulu dish called usu; I’m staying in South Africa at the moment), spinach, carrots and green beans. My lunch was grilled fish with lemon which took up half of the plate, the other half being cabbage, pepper, cucumber, lettuce, parsley and onion. My dinner will likely consist of beef in a tomato sauce made with garlic and onions, and sweet potato. As snacks I have eaten a couple of handfuls of raw unsalted cashew nuts, two tangerines and half a melon. I am very far from being hungry! I strongly believe that eating in this way provides the body with a great deal more than standard ways of eating, based on starchy carbohydrates. A great deal more information is provided in publications like the Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, or New Evolution Fitness by Art de Vany, and it is not the purpose of this blog to parrot this information. It is already out there and easily accessible.

This post is to show the mismatch between how we eat and how we are designed to eat through millions of years of evolution. Farming has brought many wonderful things (I would not be sitting drinking coffee and writing on a laptop without it), but it has also brought negative consequences for our bodies. We have reached a stage where we are aware of the medical consequences of the way we eat, and it must be changed. This will come from how we produce our food: if the focus of an average diet shifts away from grains, this will radically change the look of your average farm. The next post will therefore look more into the issue of farming, agriculture, the environment and the resonance of individual choices.