In our fast-paced world, as we look around us we see so many people are sick. It is easy to romanticise about the past and imagine, in a simpler, slower world, that people weren’t as sick.
If this seems a little naive to you, don’t laugh; this is the typical thinking of most people. Whole books have been written glorifying the diets of our ancestors of only 100 – 150 years ago, and whole dietary movements are based upon imagined views of what our ancestors back at the dawn of human history apparently ate or did not eat. Both opinions believe a more ‘traditional’ diet will produce better health.
Here are some facts about traditional diets for you to chew on:
Back in the dawn of time
For a long time, anthropologists believed it was a high protein diet that was responsible for humans developing big brains. The role of dietary carbohydrates, such as starchy vegetables and grains, was overlooked or thought to lead to lower intelligence. This thinking, of course, has fuelled the Paleo movement which is rapidly gathering steam amongst those for whom brawn is more important than brain (if you hear what I’m saying). The problem is – this thinking is incorrect.
If you thought the earliest humans got most of their calories from gnawing on woolly mammoth bones and other meaty sources – you are wrong.
A large recent study from the University of Sydney, published in the Quarterly Review of Biology has provided fuel for the fire that it was in fact cooked starchy carbohydrates (and not meat) that was the main food that sustained early humans. Starch is, chemically-speaking, just long chains of glucose encased in fibrous packaging.
The human brain uses more than half of the blood’s glucose at any given time – and it is difficult to have enough glucose to keep the brain functioning and growing if protein is the main part of the diet. Even in the days where many people wandered as nomads in search of sufficient food, starchy tubers were far more accessible than fast-moving game, and provided more of the calories our brains thrive on. In Africa today, most traditional rural people live on tubers or grains they grow and some leafy greens, with only a little meat if obtainable.
Notably, the first part of human digestion begins in the mouth. The researchers point out that here, amylase enzymes in our saliva, begin the breakdown of starches. Humans have 6 genes that code for salivary amylase, so clearly, the break-down of starch is a vital part of our design.
The researchers, all of international acclaim, suggest that if we want to have the big brains of earlier humans, we need to eat as they did: underground starchy foods such as potatoes, taro, yams and sweet potatoes, as well as more recently introduced starchy grains like wheat, rye, barley, corn, oats, quinoa and millet. And in fact, a growing number of skeletons of humans from ‘the dawn of time’ are now being excavated – with evidence of starchy grains (like sorghum) between their teeth. Because that’s what it appears our traditional diet actually was.
The study of wealthy people, the kings and nobles of any country in history – sees them all eating rich meaty diets. The pharaohs feasted on quail and other meats daily, as did the kings of Ancient Persia and most other civilisations. The poor people were still eating starches, but the wealthy preferred animal products.
And they paid for their choices. Mummies in Egyptian tombs bear witness to their indulgence with tumours and cardio-vascular disease seen in them on modern scans.
The Bible records the morbid obesity of some kings who were so fat they could barely lift food to their mouths – and their early deaths. It also records the Persian kings who feasted on meats, and were less healthy than Daniel and his friends who chose their traditional plant-based diet.
The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, we read of great feasting halls and the extravagant amount of flesh eaten at celebrations. We see evidence from portraits of English kings what this dietary plan did for them. The life expectancy of royals of the British Isles who made it through childhood was mid-40s. Very old age was mid 60s and few made it that far.
Diabetes began amongst the nobles of Britain who could afford sugar in quantity. Their muscle cells were already full of fat from their fatty diet, which blocked the extra sugar needing to get into the cells.
More Recent History
A hundred years ago, most Westerners were eating meat and dairy foods regularly. However, records show that they actually ate half or less of the meat we now eat and almost a quarter of the dairy foods. We eat 400% more cheese in Australia today than in 1900.
For the world’s masses, the traditional diet was not meat and dairy based at all – it was starch and vegetable based; it included comparatively little meat and fat, compared to what we think is normal fare today. Those ancestors who actually were eating a lot of meat and fat – the nobles and the priests – were dying young or got degenerative diseases, just like today. The ordinary folks were eating mostly potatoes and bread and rice.
In the distant past, only the rich people ate what we like to romantically call “the traditional diet” rich in meat, fat and milk products. Even though a real ‘traditional diet’ of most people was actually starchy and vegetable-based, we’ve twisted things around today and imagine a ‘traditional diet’ is actually full of meat and cream and cheese.
Our imaginings help us justify our own poor food choices.
Today we are all wealthy. Everyone can afford dairy products and meat, even if it’s only a hamburger from a fast food restaurant. The kings and nobles of the past would express disbelief if they were to see the ways we are able to live today and the incredible amount of food available. No longer are rich foods kept for special celebrations – every meal, every day has become a celebration meal, loaded with milk, meat and fat – and we are suffering for it.
Human physiology has not changed through history. What made people sick then makes us sick now. A diet that contains a lot of animal foods still causes inflammation and ultimately disease.
It’s time to ignore traditions that do us no good, and go with facts that work.