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Nutritional Anthropology's Bible:
This seemingly pompous term is nevertheless good shorthand to describe the business of getting food from the environment and turning it into something used by the body.
It means collecting the food out of the environment, getting it to the mouth, the passage from the mouth through the digestive system, the transit from the digestive system into the bloodstream, and finally metabolization in the body cells into something useful.
Various types of creature have evolved different patterns of doing this. They feed on different types of food, so their body design for collection is specialised. Thus the eagle has his curved beak and talons, and the hummingbird has his needle shaped beak.
The type of food decides the type of mouth, jaws and teeth. The type of food goes on to decide the configuration of the digestive system, the digestive processes (the enzymes and digestive agents) and the type of body biochemistry.
We can understand a lot about the naturally adapted human feeding pattern by seeing how it fits with what we know about other creatures.
Contrary to popular misconception, human beings are not ‘omnivores’ meaning capable of eating anything. Indeed it is virtually impossible to design a digestive system that could cope with the contradictory requirements of true omnivory and no example exists in nature.
Nevertheless, today people eat as though they are omnivores! So it is not surprising that diet-induced illness and poor digestion are so prevalent.
A study of the human-like ‘hominoid’ great apes, the gorilla, chimpanzee, orang-utan, and the gibbon all show that their diets are largely vegetarian, supplemented to a greater or lesser degree by animal matter.
Gorillas concentrate mostly on leafy material and bark as does, to a lesser extent, the orang-utan. Chimpanzees favor fruits more and some foliage with perhaps some 10% animal matter.
Surprisingly, it is difficult to be precise about the true dimensions of a digestive system. The various parts of the system are particularly elastic and the proportions can vary significantly from one individual to another.
According to individual dietary practices, the stomach can be small or distended, the colon longer or shorter. Indeed, a baby’s colon has proportions similar to those of other apes. As humans mature, their colon, relatively speaking, shortens. But this may only happen to Westerners on a low fiber diet. We don’t know enough about that yet. Nevertheless it is suggestive that in other apes the opposite happens – their colons get longer with age. It would be surprising if ours were not intended to do the same.
Of course most measurements are done on corpses (both human and ape). This presents a further difficulty, since in death, these very elastic tissues contract to the point where it is difficult to estimate their dimensions when alive.
We can make some judgements about the components that make up a digestive system. All hominoids, including humans, share the same basic pattern. They have a simple stomach, a modest-sized cecum, and a pouched or corrugated colon.
Hominoids also have an appendix. This is an unusual structure and contrary to popular belief, it serves a useful purpose. It secretes digestive agents such as mucin, eripsin and amylase, and is a powerful producer of anti-bodies for the immune system. The only other creatures that have an appendix are folivores, like , the rabbit and the capybara.
Our jaws are designed to bite out of a fruit which has been brought up to our mouths by a hand admirably designed for the purpose. Our jaws and molars are designed for masticating and grinding. Like the great apes, we have front teeth in the shape of a spade - good for biting the end off a carrot. Our saliva contains an enzyme, ptyalin, for the pre-digestion of carbohydrates (both good and bad), the predominant component of fruit and vegetation.
Chimpanzees and baboons use their hands a great deal to prepare their food. It is no coincidence that the same hand, with its ability to grasp an object, is also one that is good for grasping a branch. Like us, these creatures show great dexterity picking out the choice part of a plant or unwrapping a leaf to find a grub inside.
Finally, some more circumstantial evidence. Humans, are one of the few mammals to have ball joints in the shoulder and hip. Other mammals have simple hinges. Why ball joints? They are ‘universal’ joints, having all degrees of movement. Why is this useful? After all, it makes the golf swing more unreliable! The only other creatures that have this facility are ones that live in trees – the primates including the chimpanzee and the gorilla. Ball joints in the limbs are essential for the gymnastics of swinging through the branches of the forest canopy. And they feed on what they find in trees.
Pure carnivores, such as cats and dogs, do not have a digestive system proportioned like a human’s. They have a much larger stomach or a large stomach and a voluminous small intestine. In comparison, they have only a rudimentary cecum and colon.
Humans who eat a lot of meat and very little vegetation do not give their colon any work to do. It just becomes a sewer which loses tone. If you don’t use it you lose it! The gut becomes prey to constipation, bowel cancers and diverticulosis.
Carnivores have long muzzles and sharp, widely spaced teeth suitable for biting and tearing into living flesh. Carnivores do not need a toothpick after a meat meal like humans do. They do not have molars for grinding (like we do). More surprisingly, their jaws cannot even move sideways in a grinding motion like ours can. Detailed study of the design of the teeth and enamel of carnivores show strong differences with those of humans (and the great apes). Our teeth are excellently designed for the comminution of leafy and fruit-like material.
Furthermore, humans do not have muzzles, their faces are flat. And human fingernails are barely capable of tearing the skin off a rice pudding!
Most mammal carnivores also have incredibly powerful jaw muscles. Hyenas and lions can readily crack open thigh bones. Humans, in comparison, have weak jaw muscles – hardly strong enough to shell a peanut!
special word about eggs, insects and small creatures:
Human biochemistry seems to deal quite well with eggs – the much bruited dangers of their cholesterol content not posing a health problem in reality. There is no doubt that our Pleistocene ancestors ate eggs when they could get hold of them. There would have been seasonal periods of availability, then nothing for a while. Curiously, eggs (along with most animal proteins) are more readily digested raw which is just how they would have been eaten at the time.
A supermarket egg differs from those found in the African savannah as it comes from a chicken, a bird unknown in those parts. Even so, in order to be viable, an egg of any kind has to fit into quite a tight specification. It is at the margins that the difference is noticed. A bird that ranges and browses freely produces eggs that, inter alia, have a much better fatty acid profile than the average supermarket hen’s egg. Eggs from a hen that scratches in the farmyard, produces an egg that is far healthier both for its chick and for humans. Today, many progressive egg producers feed their free range hens on a proper chicken diet that gives an ideal omega 3 ratio. Always go for this type of egg.
It is also true that the human digestive apparatus and biochemistry copes fine with modest quantities of insects, bugs, caterpillars, shellfish, frogs and the like. These were all available to the “human food acquisition apparatus.” Some creatures, but not humans, secrete special enzymes (e.g. chitinase) to digest the hard covering (chitin) of insects. Our ancestors certainly extracted the meat from the inside and threw away the shell.
The main point remains that a digestive system can be designed for digestion of predominantly vegetation, predominantly meat, or predominantly fruit. It can even be designed to combine these possibilities two at a time, either a fruit/meat diet (as with certain New World monkeys, lemurs and lorises) or a vegetation/fruit diet (very common to primates, including the great apes, gibbons, New and Old World monkeys), but not a diet where all three have equal weight. The requirements are incompatible.
It should be noted that the fruits of the African Savannah are much more like vegetation in character. Those fruits are quite unlike our fruits today. They are much lower in sugars, the sweetness is mainly low glycemic fructose, they are much less watery and more oily, and they are much more fibrous. In today’s world, combining just the two elements, modern fruit and meat simultaneously poses difficulties. (Chapter Five, How and What we Eat).
In the wild, consumption of fruit and meat toggles between either one or the other according to availability, so any potential difficulty is largely averted.
A vegetation/meat diet is unknown amongst primates but in practice it is perfectly acceptable from the food combining point of view.
such as cattle and sheep, have several stomachs and symbiotic bacteria
in order to digest vast quantities of high cellulose matter like
grasses. Humans do not have several stomachs with grass digesting
bacteria. Sadly, this has often been put to the test in case of famine.
Starving people, like in the famines of medieval Europe and Victorian
Ireland, resorted to eating grass. Their mouths would be green from
their ‘grazing’, but it did not save them. Humans are a couple of
Humans Granivores (Grain eaters)?
Grain eaters, such as chickens, have ‘crops’ and swallow stones to mill the seed which they have swallowed. Humans do not have crops and do not swallow stones. Grain eaters have special enzymes for the digestion of raw flour. They have guts that are devoted to the digestion of starch. The gut wall is full of micro-pits, and the pancreas has three ducts, one for each of the major enzyme groups.
Anyone who has tried the once fashionable ‘Alpine’ breakfast (where raw grains and seeds such as sesame, rye, oats and poppy are milled at the table) knows the consequences – lots of gas. Humans cannot digest raw flour. It has to be cooked or processed first.
There are other problems too. Cereals are high in phytate, a compound that interrupts the absorption of important micro-nutrients such as zinc, iron and manganese. The switch by humans to the consumption of cereals as a staple has the unintended consequence of promoting mineral deficiencies.
Fiber is an essential element in a healthy diet. But the kind of fiber makes a difference. Primates in general, and humans in particular, are good at digesting the ‘dicot’ vegetable fibers found in vegetation like broccoli and lettuce. These fibers are important in improving the chemical reactions that occur in the gut. Their products of digestion, once into the bloodstream, modify many vital signs such as blood lipids profiles, in a healthy direction.
Primates in general are much less good at digesting the ‘monocot’ fibers of cereal bran They are harsh on the digestive tract and, being insoluble, do not yield any useful biochemical advantage. It is interesting to note that no other Primate species attempts to eat cereals.
And what happens when, through ‘processing’, grains, are rendered accessible to the human digestive system? There is a sugar rush that puts enormous stress on the blood-sugar control mechanism. Human biochemistry is just not designed to cope with this phenomenon. Much more of this later.
But that is still not the end to the cereal horror. Cereals, like many other plants, have developed defenses against being eaten. These take the form of ‘anti-nutrients’ or toxins that are designed to upset the biochemistry of the creature that eats them. Curiously, many seed eaters (from funguses to bacteria to insects and birds) have developed resistance to these anti-nutrients. Primates, man included, have never been grain eaters and have low resistance to cereal toxins.
‘Lectins’ are one of the worst of these toxins. They are agglomerative proteins with the ability to bind to carbohydrate-containing molecules anywhere in the body. They pass easily from the gut into the blood-stream and disrupt the work of any body cell that they attach themselves to. They are powerful provokers of all kinds of autoimmune disease including allergies, asthma, lupus and arthritis. They are even suspected of causing autism in susceptible children.
Worse, lectins, like the Trojan Horse, open the back door to the citadel. They cause the gut to be more porous (leaky gut syndrome) thus allowing bacteria, funguses and food particles to flood in and create their own mischief. Truly, the capacity of lectins to disrupt human health is immense.
But that is only the start of the story. There are the alpha-amylase inhibitors. They interrupt the activity of the starch digestion enzyme amylase and damage the pancreas. Worse, they are prominent allergens. They are at the origin of a common occupational ailment in the baking industry, “baker’s asthma’, a debilitating allergic reaction to cereal flours.
Then there are the protease inhibitors. Cereals produce them to fight off insects and bacteria. In humans they interrupt the negative feed-back loop from the intestine which signals to the pancreas to reduce secretion. As a result the pancreas continues churning out the hormone cholecystokinin like a runaway flywheel. This disrupts normal digestive processes. More seriously, the stress on the pancreas can lead to abnormal enlargement and cancer.
Finally there are the alkyl resorcinols. These disrupt a wide range of body functions including: disintegration of red blood cells, disruption to DNA maintenance, dramatic increase in blood-clotting and the stunting of growth.
This is an impressive catalogue of the nasty consequences of cereal poisoning.
Humans Lactivores (milk drinkers)?
Humans are lactivores, but only to about three years old. In common with all mammals, the new born of the species first lives off his mother’s milk. This requires a quite distinctive digestive process. Weaning in humans, under natural, conditions, happens when the child is about three years old. Until this time, the child is secreting a different set of digestive enzymes. Two important ones are lactase and rennin.
Rennin is an enzyme which coagulates the milk literally into curds and whey. This is essential so that the whey, with its load of minerals, vitamins, anti-bodies and the like, can escape first into the small intestine and there get absorbed into the body. The curds, containing the proteins and fats, are held back in the stomach for digestion. Unlike an adult, the baby secretes, into its stomach, protein and fat digesting enzymes.
In an adult the proteins and fats interfere with the biochemical metabolism of the whey. Notably, the calcium in milk is poorly absorbed. Adults therefore, have great difficulty both in digesting milk and in extracting the goodness out of it.
What about the nature of these proteins and fats? Even they are not helpful. The proteins are dominated by casein – the protein that raises cholesterol levels the most. It is also highly allergenic. The fats are dominated by saturated fat and cholesterol. This is fine for babies because they are building brains - they double in size in the first six months. and brains are mostly made of fat and cholesterol. In an adult, all that fat and cholesterol is heart stopping… literally.
A Word About Legumes (lentils, garbanzo
Humans do not digest pulses3 well. With the exception of peas, most pulses contain a high percentage of indigestible oligosaccharides, notably raffinose. When they arrive in the colon, symbiotic bacteria feed on them, producing hydrogen and methane in the process. Up to 5 gallons of flatulence per day in extreme cases. Methane, particularly is a greenhouse gas. Eating legumes contributes to global warming! Humans simply don’t have the digestive enzymes necessary to the comfortable deconstruction of legumes .
Legumes are not exempt either from the same (if less potent) kinds of anti-nutrients, particularly lectins, found in cereals. Furthermore, lentils and most beans are toxic in the raw state. Only baking or vigorous boiling will get deactivate the poison. Our prehistoric ancestors had no way to boil water – and could only bake with difficulty. We can be sure that our Pleistocene ancestors had, for the most part, less troublesome foods to eat.
With time, some creatures develop antitoxins to the toxins that are in the plants that they eat. Humans developed ways of handling many toxic compounds in plant food but not for legumes. They never had to, they were not relying on legumes for food. Result, humans have neither the antitoxins nor the enzymes for the consumption of legumes. Humans are not designed as legume eaters.
This all sounds like a chamber of horrors, but we must not lose perspective. Legumes do contain much of good nutritional value, particularly proteins and many micronutrients. When put in the scale the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. If you cook them well, and can put up with the gas, legumes are a useful addition to the diet on an occasional basis.
We can summarize the ‘Human Food Acquisition Apparatus’ as follows:
When Did Matters Start to Go Wrong?
The rot really set in about 10,000 years ago when that
wandering group of humans set up as farmers and took control of their food supply. They didn’t plant what they
were in the habit of eating, rather what it was possible
to plant, harvest, store and consume.
For the first time in the history of the
human race, cereals and legumes
(lentils, garbanzo beans [chick peas] etc…) entered the diet in a big
way. Subsequently, other foodstuffs also came into the diet for the
The following timeline diagram represents
how this revolution in eating habits has been accelerating right up to
the present day. Over the centuries, our diets have diverged ever
further from our ancestral patterns, but our bodies have not changed to
suit. The number of generations - about 400 - is just not enough for
such changes to occur naturally. The bacteria in a human intestine go
through 400 generations in a week. And we don’t expect them
to have mutated or evolved into a different creature in that time.
What has been the result of this large and rapid change in dietary habits?
We know that:
At the introduction of cereals into the diet, the people lost stature, suffered osteo-arthritis and gum disease. Later they suffered obesity and diabetes.
With the introduction of bread, dental cavities became more prevalent.
With the introduction of domesticated animals, new diseases crossed over from the animals. Small-pox, tuberculosis, whooping cough, influenza, and measles came From the cow, the sheep, the chicken, the pig, and the dog.
the introduction of sugar, honey, sweetcorn and potato, diseases like
obesity and diabetes have grown rapidly.
It is the nature of exponential change that you don’t have to go back very far to find radically more primitive circumstances. So it is that the peoples of the world have, until recently, had eating habits which had not diverged greatly from those with the way our bodies are designed to function.
The Spartan foot-soldier of 2,500 years ago lived on fruit, olives, fresh figs, garden produce and rough ground barley bread. Meat was for special occasions. He had never seen sugar, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, sweet-corn, potatoes, pasta or polished rice. Honey was an expensive luxury.
The situation changed gradually until the industrial revolution hit Europe and North America in the last century. Since that time there has been a sea-change in our eating habits. And since the second world war the change has grown geometrically.
Sugar consumption was almost zero 200 years ago. Consumption has increased exponentially since then to reach 155 lb per person per year in 2000.
Indeed, one major health indicator, obesity, has been rising exponentially in America and England. Both peoples are getting porkier at a frightening rate - in spite of the success in reducing dietary fat.
From the above chart it can be seen that most deaths by cancer (300,000 per year) are caused by our own bad habits. All other causes pale into insignificance. We can stop smoking and we can get our diet and obesity under control. In other words, we can decide whether or not to die of cancer. On the whole, Americans have not so decided. Witness this graph of cancer mortality in the US.
There is even a tendency to complacency. After all, hasn’t human
life been described as “mean, nasty, brutish and short?” Certainly
when that was written by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 17th
Century England, that was the sorry condition of much of the population.
But it is also the sorry condition of any population which has outgrown
its food supply - and the wrong sort of food to boot.
There is even a tendency to complacency. After all, hasn’t human life been described as “mean, nasty, brutish and short?” Certainly when that was written by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 17th Century England, that was the sorry condition of much of the population. But it is also the sorry condition of any population which has outgrown its food supply - and the wrong sort of food to boot.
The reality is that even today our average life-spans of 70 to 80 years have not yet attained those achieved in Prehistoric times. This in spite of the fantastic advance of medical technology. (See “Lifespan in Historical Times” in Chapter Seven, Top Ten Topics)
Organ Should be a Weak Link
Here is an interesting concept which requires particular attention
It is very simple. Evolutionary processes are constantly working to optimise design efficiency. A species whose kidneys, say, always wore out before anything else, would very rapidly evolve weaker primary organs elsewhere in the body such that they all wore out at the same time as the kidneys.
It is the same philosophy as attributed to Henry Ford. His genius, amongst many attributes, was to seek optimum design efficiency. The story is told that Ford asked his engineers one day which part of his motorcar never gave trouble. Upon being told the big-end bearing, he replied, “In that case it is over-designed! Go away and trim it down until it fails at the same time as everything else.”
The same processes have silently operated to ensure that all our body-parts are designed to wear out at the same time. This opens up the tantalising prospect that, if we can avoid wrecking any particular body organ, then the body as a whole just has to keep going.
This is what happens with today’s centenarians. By a combination of luck and good management, they have optimised the body’s ageing process. Centenarians have achieved by chance the life expectancy that is everyone’s heritage.
So the challenge today is to avoid wrecking body parts. Not only is it wasteful of life, it is very unpleasant dying prematurely with diseased and corrupted organs. A massive techno/medical industry, consuming a vast treasure – 13% of GDP in the US – is deployed to patch up bodies that have become decrepit and prey to all kinds of degenerative disease.
Just returning to the eating patterns of our Pleistocene ancestors should ensure that we lead healthy, athletic lives, in good shape to the end. Just think how well we could do if we added the positive aspects of medical technology as well.
Our Body’s Incredibly Complex Chemical Factory
and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice Syndrome
Today it is realised that the biochemical processes that maintain our bodies are much more complex than anyone ever realized. In just one tiny cell (quite invisible to the naked eye) a plan of all the chemical interactions would look like a three dimensional television circuit diagram, only thousands of times more complex. A veil is lifted on just one tiny corner in the Sample Hormone Cascade further on in this chapter. Further, our bodies contain some 50 trillion cells, all churning away like miniature chemical factories.
There are two important things to realize. The pathways form a network, and the ramifications are fiendishly complicated. By meddling in this process we are like the sorcerer’s apprentice who only knows a part of the story.
By trying to do good he only made things worse. This is often how we are when we take supplements, medications and unhelpful foods.
And the point about the network is that a change in one compound has knock-on effects in unexpected directions. Alternatively, if one route is blocked, then there are alternative paths to the same objective.
How are we to micromanage this? The answer is, we don’t. Our own bodies are perfectly adapted to managing these processes all by themselves. But we have to send clear messages, and we have to give our bodies the tools to do the job.
When we eat badly – eat in ways that are discordant with the blueprint – that scrambles the body’s micromanagement. When we eat the Western diet we are like a bull in a china shop. Every move is breaking the china.
There are many manifestations of so-called food/disease connections. One of the less familiar is the food/arthritis connection. This is a disease that is becoming widespread under the influence of poor dietary practices. One of these is the aberrant consumption of essential fatty acids. Remember these from Chapter Three?
Today, the American diet is hopelessly overbalanced in favor of linoleic acid – typically corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and the like. Linoleic acid is converted into a series of different hormones that can be either beneficial or harmful. What decides the way it goes? Answer: other dietary practices.
sample hormone cascade shows how linoleic acid is transformed into these
hormones. See how complicated it is? The transformation is blocked if
the enzyme Delta 6 Desaturase is not around. And look at what controls
that. Bad carbohydrates, insulin and the like. But it gets worse.
Downstream there is a switching gatekeeper, Delta 5 Desaturase. The
greater or lesser presence of this enzyme decides
which way the hormonal transformation will go, into good or bad messages to the body’s cells.
Some people have heard that arthritis can be helped by the consumption of GLA (Gamma Linoleic acid). This is present in Evening Primrose Oil. But you see the catch? Of itself, taking GLA does not determine what the body is going to do with it. It could still be turned into compounds, by the Delta 5 Desaturase, that aggravate arthritis rather than alleviate it. It all depends what other things you are doing with your diet.
This is a classic case of ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice Syndrome’, meddling in half understood processes only making them worse. It is also known as the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’.
Just to make the point, look at the following diagram:
This shows the inter-relationship of various minerals, vitamins and other factors in the diet. I am not asking you to understand it. I just want you to be impressed by it.
I want you to be impressed by the interdependence of all these factors. For example, consumption of calcium improves absorption of copper but depletes absorption of zinc. Or, consumption of red wine helps zinc absorption but inhibits iron absorption.
How is anyone to find the right balance? The answer is that it is impossible.
As ever, the answer is to consume our foods in the right proportions, in the proportions for which the body is naturally adapted. The body will do the rest.
Trying to compensate for dietary errors (imagined or real) by dosing up on this or that supplement only confuses other processes in unimagined ways.
The message is, it is impossible to micromanage these processes. But then there is no need. Our own bodies are incredibly well endowed with their own self management mechanisms.
does this mean? It means none other than to return to the pattern of
eating to which our bodies have been adapted over millions of years - to
that eaten by our prehistoric forebears. It is a way of eating which is
in harmony with the way our bodies have evolved. It is Natural.
The good news is, it is possible to do that today using commonly found foodstuffs – just making wise choices.
The capybara is a large, vegetarian South American semi-aquatic
creature related to the cavy and the guinea pig.
Some people, particularly of Scandinavian background, are lactase
producers after weaning. But even their production of lactase
diminishes with age. Consequently intolerance can suddenly develop
late in life.
 Legumes are often called pulses and vice-versa. In this work the terms are use interchangeably.