04 February 2010

The 'Natural' Human Diet

Creation Museum - Kentucky
Oftentimes, I have an idea for a post and I procrastinate. Then something else comes to my attention that dovetails with the original idea.

Such is the case now when I watched the Daily Colbert tonight, where the guest was John Durant. He spoke about his new "caveman" diet/way-of-life that he thinks is our one true diet. We should be eating more meat, and no bread. People in paleolithic societies live to ripe old ages as long as they don't die in early childhood. All our diseases are due to our eating "modern" (read: 'processed') foods. And other such nuggets of folk wisdom.

Now you may think that the whole fAtkins diet rebranding gets my knickers in a twist because it's contrary to the vegan thing you heard I like. But that's only a small reason, if any. Mainly it's this whole nostalgia for the past that never was. The cartoon version of primitive humans taking a bite out of a mammoth simply isn't true. I think Wikipedia has a good summary. The concept is just a continuation of the whole natural-is-automatically-good-for-you mantra that just bugs the heck out of me (arsenic, uranium, strychnine, poliovirus, all natural! they must be good for you!)

Durant's main point seems to be that we should eat the diet we have evolved to eat. He just thinks that in the 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture humans have not evolved.

This brings me to the original item I was going to post, that shows that we have evolved since then. It points to an event that changed our bodies more than agriculture has, that being that Promethean moment we started cooking. Primatologist Richard Wrangham has many interesting points in the podcast, and I plan on digging in to his book (pun intended) for more.

The point that stuck out for me, especially as someone who has done more polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (PAGE) than is probably good for them. As anyone who has poured their own gels, or had to dispose of used gels knows (or perhaps, only those of the above who read the MSDS), the acrylamide monomer of the gel is described as a potent neurotoxin (atleast when tested on cats).

Yet our friend C3H5NO is found in starchy cooked foods that most of us eat every day. Those very same unnatural breads and pastas and baked potatoes that raw-foodists and paleo-dieters flee from. How can this be? Richard Wrangham and others (including your humble narrator) think this is one of many evolutionary adaptations that modern H. sapiens has gained since cooking and processing food.

And I find it especially funny (if morbidly) that much of the negative health indications derive from animal tests, as in the aforementioned one with the poor kitties. If we tested chocolate on dogs, we'd never be able to eat that either (and that's a processed food too). But if we tested all-natural raw strychnine in guinea pigs we'd be in for a shock when that product hit the shelves.

Im not saying we should all load up on deep-fried vegan twinkies, I just think we should eat healthy, and not eat something because it's natural. And of course, eat without killing animals. But you knew that.


  1. Hi, Veg Lab Rat (Is that the nickname you go by? did I get it right?)

    Just an hour or so ago I stumbled upon you blog and I finished reading all of your entries a few minutes ago. I congratulate you on your blog and I think it's a shame that you only have 2 comments amongst all the entries). There should be way more, but unlike you, I think there are really few of us.

    Well, to say "of us" is really just me crawling up to a seat I don't deserve. I've always been a science buff and, though I studied astronomy for a while, I dropped out. I'm currently studying linguistics, but plan on becoming a cognitive scientist after that (evolutionary psychology sounds pretty good to me too). So, I like to think of myself as a vegan scientist any way.

    I find it interesting that this happens to be the last entry on the blog because it is the one topic I'm most familiar with (namely, evolution and human evolution, especially). I think a lot of evidence zeroes in on the probability of our eating meat at the Pleistocene. Interestingly though, this doesn't matter in any ethical way. A neither does a health concern, as you cleverly point out.

    As Steven Pinker has said, so called natural products can be even more dangerous than human-manipulated ones, for it is only reasonable that they evolved defences against being eaten. Actually, it was imperative for them to do so. Evolution didn't just design foods to suit our intestines --that's nuts. And that's were natural-food advocates fail to grasp the logic, I think. In my opinion, the safest food items of the future will be the ones designed by us to suit our exact needs. So, sadly for those nostalgic about the past,they won't be 'natural' in any of the commonly understood meanings.

    I'll keep on visiting.

    Once again, kudos on the blog.

  2. By the way, I'm Diego (It's just that my blog is shared, that's why there are two names on my google account).

  3. Thanks for posting, Diego!

    I think we are approaching synthetic diets now. Power bars are basically puppy chow for humans, with chocolate flavoring.

    And while plants for the most part are evolving not to be eaten, we are evolving to get around the chemical defenses and other barriers they put up. Plus with selective breeding and genetic engineering we are lowering the plants defenses as well.

    Plus some plants want their fruit eaten, and leave it defenseless so that animals will spread the seeds. So it's a complicated scenario.

  4. Great post, mind if I share this one Facebook / quote some parts of your blog in a Facebook note?

    Keep up the great work!

  5. @Therese: Please do! Just post a link back here if you could.


Be nice! Remember everyone is entitled to their opinion.