What the Heck is Healthy to Eat?

by Mark on October 12, 2014

There are a million different nutritional strategies out there – the South Beach diet, the Atkins diet, the Mediterranean diet, and on and on. So how do we decide what is healthiest for us? Unfortunately, science has failed us. It is a mess of contradictions. Until science can get it straightened out, what can we do?

How do we decide?

A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

The most promising principle to use in guiding our eating decisions is also very simple: it is healthy to eat what we EVOLVED to eat.

Think about this. Through evolution, every organism has developed different requirements to thrive. We wouldn’t expect a blue whale to thrive eating fruits and vegetables. We wouldn’t expect krill to thrive eating antelope. Humans are no different. We must eat in a way that is consistent with our evolution and our genetics.

A Brief History of Human Nutrition

  • From about 200,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago, modern man (homo sapiens) ate largely a hunter-gatherer diet (i.e. game, fish, fruits, nuts, legumes, etc.). Humans had a very diverse diet of whatever food they could find in the wild.
  • About 10,000 years ago, agriculture began to develop. Our diet began to shift from wild plants and animals towards “domesticated” plants and animals (i.e. we engaged in selective breeding). Our diet became less diverse. We began to eat less meat and shifted towards a diet concentrated on grains (and a little later, dairy).
  • Beginning in the 1800s and accelerating in the late 20th century, we began transitioning to “industrial food” that has been manufactured rather than grown on farms or found in the wild. Manufacturers began to add chemicals developed in a lab. Sugar consumption steadily increased, and in the early 1980s, high fructose corn syrup was introduced. Beginning in 1992, the USDA’s “Food Guide Pyramid” encouraged us to eat more highly processed grains (e.g. breads, pasta, and cereals).

During most of our evolution, we ate wild foods, but now much of the food we eat bears little resemblance to anything from our evolutionary history.

What was the result?

There is a pretty strong consensus among archaeologists and anthropologists that the transition from a hunter-gatherer diet to an agricultural diet had a clear detrimental impact on our health. During the agricultural revolution, the average height of males declined from about 5’ 10” to about 5’ 5”. The average height of females declined from about 5’ 6” to about 5’ 1”. It wasn’t until the 20th century that average heights returned to these levels. Life expectancy decreased. The incidence of disease, nutritional deficiencies, anemia, and dental caries all increased. Even dental malformations (such as crooked teeth) increased as our jaws got smaller.

Not surprisingly, the transition to industrial foods has also had a negative impact on our health, a trend that began to accelerate in the second half of the 20th century. The percentage of the population that is obese or overweight has seen a staggering increase since the 1960s. The percentage with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes have all been increasing. Autoimmune diseases such as celiac are on the rise.

Channel the hunter-gatherer in you.

While the causes of these trends continue to be debated by scientists, I think it is quite reasonable to expect that the farther removed we are from the diet we evolved to eat, the less healthy we are going to be. Evolution tends to be a very slow process, so humans have changed very little since the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

It has only been about 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution, which is a very short period of time from an evolutionary standpoint. While we have clearly evolved some adaptations since then (such as “lactase persistence” in many people), we still haven’t come close to fully adapting to an agricultural diet. And we definitely haven’t come close to adapting to our modern diet of processed foods, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and other chemicals.

The solution is to eat more of what a hunter-gatherer would eat. Try to limit foods not found in nature and instead focus on things such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs, poultry, fish, and an occasional wooly mammoth. Okay, so I’m joking about the wooly mammoth. It is too difficult to fit them in your freezer. 😉

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