Nutritional Anthropology

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The science and art of living the way nature intended

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Nutritional Anthropology: 
Eating in harmony with our genetic programming


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As a small boy in war-torn Britain, I lived with my grandparents. My grandmother was a special person. A vegetarian with a mission. She strongly believed in eating lots of raw fruit and vegetables. Even in wartime Britain, sliced raw carrots, celery sticks and cucumbers were constantly on the table. If I felt hungry, I only had to fill up as I ran past the bowl of raw salads.

War over, father back from the Indian front and all back in the family home, the same eating patterns were maintained. Growing up, I would be known as “baby face” due to my clear complexion and cheeks glowing with good health. Strong, well muscled and stocky I was never off sick. But like any eight year old I was a ripe subject for any idea, good or bad, that wanted to take up residence in my mind.  

Ideas, good or bad, readily take up residence in a youngster’s mind.

 At school I read glossy brochures, produced by the Milk Marketing Board extolling the calcium-bearing virtues of dairy products. “Milk and cheese are vital for a growing child - they help build bones!”

It was then that my interest in nutrition began.

But there was a problem. Our family abstained from dairy products. To drink milk was, to me, as bizarre and unpleasant as taking cod-liver oil! In fact, when I was forced to drink the school milk[1], it made me throw up . At school I was treated as an ungrateful oddball.

Those well-meaning teachers were determined that I shouldn’t suffer a calcium deficiency. “Drink up your milk” they said, “it’s good for you!”

But having a small kid throw up over you isn’t much fun, even for a hardened infant teacher. After a short battle, I remained gloriously milk-free, even at school.

Yet here I was, an eight year old “not getting his calcium because he doesn’t drink milk.” My father brought down from the bookshelf a copy of the MAFF[2] Manual of Nutrition. This was (and still is) a guide to the current ‘orthodox’ wisdom on eating for good health.

From this book I learned that the British diet was considered by the ‘authorities’ to be deficient in calcium. To remedy this, the government had ordained that powdered chalk should be added to the white flour used for making bread.

I drew the obvious conclusion – eat more white bread - and if possible add yet more chalk to it!

Reassurance was found in the MAFF food composition tables. Sardines, with their bones, contained calcium. My parents were less strict than my grandmother, and the first compromise was made. Fish entered my diet and we had sardines on toast for tea several times a week.

I was only eight years old and I had not fully developed the scepticism needed to properly interpret this information. Even at that tender age, I was uneasy at the assumption that, by eating a sardine’s bones, they would somehow find their way into my bones.

This was also the first example too of a common phenomenon. In wanting to do better, I was meddling in matters I only half understood. I had rejected the wholewheat bread, the staple of my earlier years for the nutritionally inferior (but calcium ‘enriched’) white bread.

Since World War II, governments everywhere have been ordaining that more and more nutrients be added to the staple foods of their peoples. It was only decades later that I started to question this practice. Why is the average diet deficient in so many minerals and vitamins? Why is it that staples like bread, flour, and breakfast cereals have to be ‘enriched’?

Around the same time, I was getting awkward questions from schoolfriends’ parents about protein. “What did we do for protein?” It bothered me that slogans were urging us to eat lamb chops “for the protein”. The MAFF food tables reassured me. Protein is present in nearly all vegetation, particularly the omnipresent baked beans of the post war diet.

It was much later that I discovered that this simplistic approach to nutrition by itself is not enough. Just because this or that molecule can be detected by a laboratory test doesn’t mean that the body is going to make use of it Furthermore, there are many molecules essential to health, which haven’t even been identified yet. Indeed, one of the extraordinary gaps in human knowledge, is our ignorance about what exactly is in food, how our bodies absorb food and the uses our body makes of it.

But we are getting ahead of the story.

I became fascinated with body and food chemistry. I had my own laboratory in the tool shed and regularly came top of the class. I was well on my way to becoming a mechanistic food scientist dreaming of the day when we could get all our nutrients from a couple of tablets.

My doubts started during my first university work-placement with a large brewery company. I worked in the laboratory, the sole function of which was to discover ever cheaper ingredients to replace the hops and malt from which beer is traditionally made. I was aghast at the ‘progress’ that had been made.  

This nationally drunk beer was nothing more than fermented sugar-water with a variety of flavourings and colourings. But even that was not cheap enough for the brewer. There was still a colouring that was unacceptably expensive – caramel. It was used to give the fermented sugar-water a dark ‘beer’ colour. Our mission was to find a cheaper substitute for the expensive substitute!

Deservedly this beer finally lost all credibility with the drinking public. Sales went flat and it was withdrawn from the market. Nevertheless, in my wildest dreams I never imagined that the same process might also be happening to fundamentally important staple foods like bread.

Another university work-placement found me in Zaragoza, Spain a large regional town. In the early sixties, Spain was still a poor country, frozen in a pre-civil war, General Franco, time-warp.

I was billeted with a Spanish family. Wanting to please me they asked what I liked for breakfast. I had not liked the pungent oil that came with the hard Spanish bread, so I asked if they had any butter.

They looked at each other in puzzlement. I checked with the English-Spanish dictionary to make sure of the word and showed it to them. They were even more puzzled, so they looked up the word in a Spanish language dictionary. There they found the definition of “butter.”

These Spaniards, a European people who had colonised large parts of the world, a people who had battled England down the centuries, had hardly heard of butter!

This was my first encounter with the notion that dairy products are regarded by most peoples of the world as an exotic and bizarre foodstuff.

It was at about this same time that many West Indians migrated to Britain. A circular went out to the schools advising “don’t insist that these newcomers drink the school milk, many of them are intolerant of it.” Official recognition at last! But what about the rest of us?

It was a question to be answered later, but fortune took a turn. I was much inspired by the stories of the great explorations. Of “taming the great forces of nature for the use and purpose of man[3]”. I determined to study the hard sciences and develop the skills to contribute to underdeveloped parts of the world.

I had visions of climbing mountain ranges with a theodolite, laying down the first routes of railway lines and canals. I was imbued with the spirit of the pioneering types who had opened up obscure parts in remote continents. Like Dr. Livingstone, I would live among the local population, live as they do, speak their language.

When I had finished those professional qualifications I did indeed bring water supply to remote villages, and hack out the lines of new roads through the bush – West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East.

All the while my interests in the peoples, language and culture were dominant. I wanted to know their history, their ancient migrations, their cultural identity. Above all, I was looking for some common nutritional theme.

I continued my travels: Asia, Polynesia, Australasia. My lifelong assumptions about dietary eating patterns came under pressure. Everywhere I went, people ate a wide variety of foodstuffs. Some peoples seemed to do better than others. But universally, when an early culture adopted Western eating habits, their health deteriorated and their life-span shortened. How could this be? Is it that different peoples are adapted to different eating patterns?

There had only been a couple of thousand generations since the initial Homo sapiens dispersal out of Africa 50,000 years ago. Enough certainly for superficial racial differences to come about, but little more than that. Is the Western diet just as bad, then, for Westerners?

On one occasion I was invited to eat with a Berber tribal chieftain in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Being a special occasion, it was to be a great feast. We were to eat a ‘mechoui’ - a baked ram. Smouldering embers were put in a hollow in the earth. The whole sheep was placed on the embers and the lot covered over with earth. It was left to cook for several hours.

The roasted ram was presented, still whole, on a huge brass platter with little indentations around the rim. Each indentation served to hold a spice: cumin, pepper, saffron, pimento… There were dozens.

The chief presided and personally buried his hands into the roasted flesh and pulled out the choice parts for distribution. I was guest of honour, and watched in horror as he peeled the testicles out of their membrane and handed them to me. Me a quasi-vegetarian!

I made a valiant effort to show enthusiasm as I played at nibbling on a morsel while the chief regarded me with generous bonhomie. As soon as he averted his gaze, I slipped these choice morsels under the rim of the brass platter.

I looked around for something else to eat. There was nothing. No French fries, no rice, not even any cous-cous, much less was there any sign of green vegetables. Just the roast sheep - that was it. It was a lesson that I was to learn many times over. When some cultures eat meat, they eat it on its own. Halfway around the world, the cannibalistic Fijians used to cook and serve their grisly human meal in exactly the same way. Not a French-fry in sight!

It was not until much later that I came across the physiological justification for keeping certain foodstuffs separate from others. Popular diet books were recycling the early theories of Dr. Shelton and of the even earlier Dr. Hay. They suggested that food separation is an important element in controlling indigestion, ill health and obesity.

Why hadn’t I heard about food separation? I looked up my old college books on human nutrition. There, mentioned in passing, would be little nuggets: “…to be digested, starch needs an alkaline environment, protein needs an acid environment. It is as well …[to eat] starchy foods at the end of the meal[4]”.

So the notion that it is advisable to pay attention to how different types of food react with each other was acknowledged back in 1948! This diffident throwaway phrase was just the tip of the iceberg. Slowly the huge complexity of the digestive process is being uncovered, and the physiological basis for what is now known as ‘the principle of proper food combining’ is being established.

Meanwhile, I had been keeping up with my professional journals. Discoveries were being made on many fronts. It was found that the peoples who first developed agriculture by growing cereals in the Middle East, 10,000 years ago, must have done so under duress. Indeed they had phases of doing it and then abandoning it over a couple of centuries. Grinding the seeds to flour was found to be hard work. Their bones showed abnormal wear and tear. They lost stature, their lifespan shortened. Why did they put up with it then?

There was speculation about how they ate the flour that they made. (It would be another 3,000 years before bread was invented.) From my knowledge of the aborigines I knew the answer: the aborigines, when times are really bad, will collect seeds and grind them between two stones. The resulting flour is moulded into patties and baked in the embers of a fire. The cooking is important because humans don’t secrete the enzymes to digest raw flour.

I thought about this: humans are not naturally adapted to the consumption and digestion of grains. Does this mean that our bio-chemistry is also put under stress by these foods?

More discoveries were being made about our early ancestors in our ancient homeland on the edges of the tropical rain forest in East Africa. We understood more about the ways they must have lived, and their eating patterns. I pondered the fact that it is only 2,000 generations since our ancestors left the area. Our bodies are, to all intents and purposes, the same.

What were these Pleistocene ancestors eating? Clearly they were ‘browsing’ the land for whatever they could find. Researches were showing that they weren’t the great hunters that they were cracked up to be, so meat was not such an important part of the diet. But research was also showing that the nature of wild meat is quite different to the meat in the supermarket today.

On one of my trips back to London I had a dental check up. It was a new dentist, a South African. After he had finished his inspection he said “ You have a very healthy mouth and very strong teeth - just like an African’s.”

“What so you mean by that,” I asked.

He answered a bit vaguely, “Africans have a saliva that has a better balance and it kills bacteria.”

When I pressed him for more details he couldn’t be more precise. I looked into it. Now we know that even the quality of the saliva in your mouth can be undermined by eating habits that diverge from our naturally adapted ones. But what are these naturally adapted eating patterns?

Other clues were coming out from bio-chemistry and population studies. Plainly, certain foodstuffs, ones that we in the West took for granted, were having a detrimental effect on health. An early bad guy was cholesterol. He was followed in quick succession by saturated fat. Study after study showed that the consumption of saturated fat was implicated in heart disease, cancer and even arthritis and allergies.

Study after study was also showing that people who had higher levels of fruit and vegetable intake were also the healthiest and longest lived.

I had seen that rural Africans, who ate a lot of dietary fibre, didn’t suffer at all from intestinal diseases such as constipation, diverticulosis and colon cancer. These casual observations were backed up by ground-breaking scientific papers. Other studies showed that cereal fiber is less good than the ‘soluble’ fiber found in colored plant food. This interesting nuance, on the sorts of plant fibers to which human beings are best adapted, is dealt with in Chapter Four.

At the start of the Eighties I heard of the pioneering studies on blood sugar tolerance. The results rocked those few members of the medical community who paid attention. These studies demonstrated that extremely common foodstuffs like cereals, grains, potatoes and sugars put an enormous stress on the body’s ability to control blood sugar levels. Many people’s control mechanism couldn’t cope, and as a result they were sick, sometimes gravely so.

Since then, a series of studies has deepened and widened our understanding of this phenomenon. Clearly the human body was not naturally adapted to these foodstuffs. That was why Eskimos, Aborigines, Navajos, Polynesians and many others suffered from obesity and diabetes when they ‘acculturated’ to a high carbohydrate Western diet. And now Westerner’s health was caving under the onslaught too!

Are there any other drawbacks to these foods? My mind went back to my childhood. Of eating bread because of the added calcium. Of seeing more and more minerals and vitamins required by law to ‘enrich’ various cereal products.

The scales fell from my eyes. These staples -- wheat, bread, rice, breakfast cereals… these foodstuffs that ‘everyone knew’ were an essential part of the diet - are nothing of the sort. They are foodstuffs that can only be made fitter for human consumption by the addition of a myriad of ever-increasing micro-nutrients!

So-called staples are so deficient in micro-nutrients that governments require their ‘enrichment’.

 Note the word “fitter”. Even with government ordained additives, these staples of the Western diet are still only impoverished substitutes for the ‘real thing’. But what is the real thing?

By this time, I was a high-powered executive jetting around the globe, struggling with airline meals, hotel restaurants, and a jet-lagged digestive system. I was still disgustingly healthy, but I was struggling to control 7 pounds of excess weight.

I took time out to go back into the bowels of the British Library and seek out all knowledge of human eating patterns.

In even scientific thinking a common wisdom once rooted was difficult to dislodge - even with hard evidence. With difficulty, researchers of early hominid eating patterns were struggling to be heard about their findings. Since my formative years in the 1960’s, it had been found that humans had been much more ‘gatherers’ than ‘hunters’.

I came across Victorian explorers accounts of Eskimo eating patterns. I re-read the 1930’s scientific articles that described experiments on two arctic explorers. These hardy volunteers lived in the metabolism ward of Bellevue Hospital, New York, and ate nothing but fatty meat, some of it raw, for an entire year! Their vital signs were followed, regularly measured and, at the end of the experiment, relatively up-beat conclusions drawn about the impact on their health.

But all studies are not equal in value. Some are well done, some are sloppy. Some types of study are inherently more credible than others. Many studies are tainted by the prejudices of the researchers who conclude that their pet theories are confirmed in spite of the evidence to the contrary. By now I was used to reading the fine print and checking out who paid for the study. This one was sponsored by the Institute of American Meat Packers!

There, buried in the results, was the fact that these subjects were in constant negative calcium balance. Does high meat diet equate to bone demineralization?

I revisited all my professional journals. What do we know about aboriginal and Ancient Egyptian eating patterns? What was the latest from the forensic archaeologists on the nutritional status and diets of our prehistoric ancestors?

How do our digestive system, our jaws and our teeth compare with those of carnivores, granivores (cereal eaters), and lactivores[5] (unweaned babies). How do they compare to those of creatures that are built to very similar body plans like the Great Apes? The blueprint for building a Gorilla (its DNA) is virtually identical (98%) to the blueprint for building a Human being.

Much more recently, a completely new, unexpected and extremely powerful tool – DNA analysis – became available. It opened up whole vistas of human development that were thought for ever lost in the mists of time. With this method, completely independent of fossil analysis, we are now sure of the location of human origins. Furthermore, we discovered that our ancestors only left that area very recently (just 2,000 generations ago) and that our bodies are just the same now as they were then.

Bit by bit I joined up all the dots. And bit by bit the picture took shape. This was not an easy process for me. Later in this book I talk about confronting your prejudices. I know what that means because I have had to confront my own. My early conditioning had me believing that human beings were natural vegetarians. But as each piece of evidence thudded into place, it was quite clear that ‘animal matter’ had played a modest but essential part of our naturally adapted diet. There is a lot later in this book about the nature of this animal matter and how the meat of today is nothing like it. It was small comfort for me to realise that the Western diet is harmful in part, not because we eat meat, but because it is the wrong kind[6]. We also eat far too much of it.

Once I had come to terms with this awkward truth I was able to stand back and view the complete image – the picture of the eating pattern to which humankind is naturally adapted.

The last piece of the jig-saw fell into place to reveal the naturally adapted eating pattern.

 Yet that was only the beginning. How did this pattern square with what other scientists were finding out about healthful eating practices? There are literally hundreds of thousands of scientific studies published in ‘peer review’ journals. These are (or should be) the gold standard for reporting the results of experiments with integrity, honesty and the absence of wishful thinking.

I collected and sifted through thousands of such articles. One major group is on clinical feeding trials. The best of such trials are ‘double blind,’ and, where practicable, with ‘cross-over’ carried out on at least several hundred people divided into two groups – a test group for the new diet, and a control group that continues to eat in its traditional way.

Sometimes these studies go on for many years – at least five and preferably ten. Occasionally the results are so dramatic that the trial is finished early to enable the control group to benefit from the health insights of the test group.

Another major group concerns epidemiological studies. These are studies that examine whole populations and look at how their health is affected by diet and other factors.

Though human beings are basically tropical creatures, we now live in places that are not tropical, and further we live on a multitude of different dietaries. Today the planet is like a huge laboratory with experiments going on in different corners. It is an ideal opportunity to statistically study how different lifestyles affect health and longevity.

Such studies are intriguing and highlight trends, although they are inherently less precise than clinical studies. One difficulty is to separate out what are known as ‘confounding factors’. For example, the Japanese have a much longer life expectancy than Americans but they smoke a lot more too! Do the Japanese possess this longevity because of, or in spite of, their smoking habit?

Today there are fancy statistical methods for filtering out these effects and clear trends can be identified.

To recapitulate, a multitude of scientific studies were examined. Some of them are better done than others. In some of them you have to read between the lines or even call up the researcher to find out what had been censored by the peer-review panel. All studies had to be regarded through the lens of healthy scepticism.

Nevertheless, when all was said and done, the sum total of these studies pointed in the same direction – toward the naturally adapted eating pattern that I had identified earlier.


However, there is one small problem… we live in today’s world. We no longer ‘browse’ on the edge of a tropical rain forest, we now browse in the aisles of a supermarket. Do human instincts and lore, honed over millions of years to select the right foodstuff in the East African Savannah serve us well in a fast food restaurant? Clearly not!

The second half of my challenge lay before me. How to identify and prioritise the food choices that today’s hominid must make every day. What to make of all the novelties that have crept into the human diet for millennia? What to make of: caffeine, wine, maple syrup, pastries, processed foods, microwave meals, bologna sausage, Nutrasweet™, pizzas and thousands of other products put before us?

Back again to the bowels of the British Library, to my professional publications and to the food manufacturers. The latter are helpful, up to a point. They cheerfully tell you everything that the law obliges them to divulge, or that is to their advantage. They are very secretive about everything else. It is a scandal that they are allowed to sell, for consumption no less, products of which the precise content and processing are secret. It has to be the last industry where the vendor gets away with selling a pig in a poke!

Over a period of several years I sifted, sorted and categorised a wide variety of novel foodstuffs. That is to say, foodstuffs that have entered the human diet for the first time since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. I have examined them to understand what, if any, drawbacks or advantages they have.

Finally, the fruits of this endeavour took shape in the development of the principles of ‘Natural Eating’. It is the pattern of eating, as can be practised in today’s world., to which the human race is naturally adapted.

This philosophy has generated widespread interest and many successful followers. What does it entail? How does one practise it? What are the benefits? The purpose of the rest of this book is answer these questions!  

Natural Eating is the pattern of eating that is in harmony with our genetic programming.


[1] In the newly installed welfare state, all children not only had the right, but the duty, to consume the1/3 imperial pint of milk per day that was provided free of charge to schools.

[2] Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

[3] Motto of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

[4] Human Nutrition; Barasi & Mottram; Hodder & Stoughton

[5] The term lactivore is applied to natural consumers of milk. Inevitably this applies uniquely to the unweaned young of a species. Once weaned, their bodies are just not adapted to milk as a food. Humans are the only creatures that attempt to deny this reality by continuing milk consumption (and that of other species to boot) into adulthood.

[6] The later realization that vegetable proteins, as used in meat substitutes, are a good surrogate for the long lost Paleolithic animal matter came as a consolation. Of course, the traditional nuts and the new legumes were always fine too.


Chapter 2

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