19 February 2013

Evolutionary origins of human dietary patterns

Research shows that the transition from subsistence to a modern, sedentary lifestyle has created energy imbalances that have increased rapidly and now play a major role in obesity.


William Leonard has conducted extensive research on the diets and ways of prehistoric populations. A paper on his research will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The research shows that the transition from subsistence to a modern, sedentary lifestyle has created energy imbalances that have increased rapidly - evolutionarily speaking - in recent years and now play a major role in obesity.

Over the last 25 years, evolutionary perspectives on human dietary consumption and nutritional health have received greater attention among both anthropologists and nutritional scientists. Humans have evolved distinctive nutritional characteristics associated with the high metabolic costs of our large brains.

Too much food readily available

“The evolution of larger hominid brain size necessitated the development of foraging strategies that both provided high quality foods and required larger ranges and activity budgets,” Leonard said.

“Over time, human subsistence strategies have become more efficient in obtaining energy with minimal time and effort. Today, populations of the industrialised world live in environments characterised by low levels of energy expenditure and abundant food supplies contributing to growing rates of obesity.”

Leonard’s research has focused on biological anthropology and the adaptability, nutrition and growth and development of people in South America, Siberia and the United States. He has extensive field experience and has travelled the world to conduct research.

Real-life hunter-gatherers put to test

In October 2011, the Discovery Channel aired “I Caveman.” Leonard was a consultant on the programme, which examined how well modern-day humans could adapt to a traditional hunting and gathering way of life in high-altitude Colorado. He evaluated changes in body weight and health status in the participants over the course of the experiment.

The 10 participants all lost weight, experienced significant improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels, while following a typical Paleolithic lifestyle-consuming a diet of game, fish and wild plant foods.


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