Palaeontologists agree: our early ancestors ate a lot more healthily than we do today. Could the changes that took place over 10 000 years be to blame for our health problems? And are there lessons to be learnt?
Our “caveman” ancestors followed a nutrient-dense diet that was a lot richer in low-glycaemic-index (GI) foods and foods of a better quality than the diet typically followed today, according to a paper by Bill McAnalley and Eileen Vennum, which was published on the Glycoscience website (2000).
This type of diet provided a much higher percentage of vital nutrients for health. In fact, the foods eaten by our hunter-gatherer ancestors were rich in health-boosting antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre.
Furthermore, their diet had a much lower sugar content than ours, foods were consumed soon after gathering, and uncooked food was a popular menu item.
The menu back then
Hunter-gatherers ate a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, roots, beans, nuts, tubers, pollen and even flowers. Some researchers believe that the early humans ate up to 100 different varieties of plants and it’s estimated that their vitamin C intake was about 600mg per day (about 10 times more than the present-day recommended intake).
Our ancestors also ate meat, fish and eggs. However, the meat that formed part of the palaeontological diet differed from modern meat, because it was low in fat and cholesterol.
Even today, venison and ostrich meat is known to have a much lower total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol content than meat derived from domestic animals. This is one of the reasons why ostrich meat, for example, has become so popular in Europe.
The agricultural revolution
Unfortunately, as ancient populations began to grow in size and as they discovered how to cultivate crops that permitted them to live in one place instead of wandering the earth in search of food, we "lost one key to good nutrition variety", McAnalley and Vennum writes.
The cultivation of crops such as wheat, barley and rice made life a lot easier and less unpredictable, but it also eliminated a vast number of nutrient-dense foods from our diet.
Another disadvantage of crop-growing was that humans now expended less energy on obtaining food than when they were hunter-gatherers. The agricultural revolution that started in the valleys of the great rivers, such as the Nile, and the Tigris and Euphrates, saw the start of our sedentary lifestyles that we as modern humans have perfected.
The fact that growing crops usually ensured a steady, if monotonous, supply of food also eliminated dietary variety.
If we consider that our human genetic makeup has changed relatively little in more than 40 000 years, it’s understandable that the pronounced change in diet will have negative effects on our health.
Modern man is plagued by a variety of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, gallbladder disease, diabetes and gastrointestinal conditions such as constipation, diverticulitis and Crohn's disease.
Many researchers attribute these diseases of modern life to the drastic changes in our diet.
If we compare our present-day diets to those of our ancient ancestors, there are striking differences.
The everyday diets we follow are much more monotonous and restricted than those of our forefathers. Modern diets are high in energy, low in micronutrients, high in fat and sugar, have a high GI and a low fibre content.
No wonder our bodies, which were used to low-fat, low-GI diets rich in a variety of micronutrients in bountiful quantities, are breaking down and getting sick.
What can modern man do?
The burning question is, of course, what we as modern humans can do about this reversal in dietary quality?
On the one hand, we are limited by the sheer numbers of the world population. Compared to 40 000 years ago, when there were only a handful of people competing for food resources, the world today must sustain and feed billions of people.
Without large-scale food production, mass processing and modern transport, we would all be facing starvation. Just think of what is happening in Darfur and even in Lesotho. Devastating droughts, wars and a disruption of food supplies have brought these countries to their knees with hundreds of people literally starving to death.
On the other hand, those of us who aren’t faced with starvation are having the pick of the crop. Would you be able to go out and gather or hunt your food? Probably not. We are all dependent on the complex web of food production, distribution and supply.
Most city dwellers don't have vegetable gardens or even a few fruit trees anymore. We all buy our groceries from supermarkets, we all want to eat foods that aren’t available in certain seasons the whole year round and we all want to eat products that we don't produce in our own countries. We have literally been caught in the trap of modern consumerism.
What we can do to equal the odds is to follow a diet that is as varied as possible:
- We probably will never get back to eating 100 different types of fruit and vegetables like our ancestors, but we can up the "five-a-day" suggestion for fruit and vegetable intake to "ten-a-day”.
- We can eat only whole or unprocessed grains and cereals, legumes, and foods with a low GI.
- We can buy as much organically produced food as possible.
- We can use smart methods of storing and preparing food to ensure that we retain the maximum nutritive value of the food.
The use of vitamin and mineral supplements
Many people argue that vitamin and mineral supplementation can fill the nutrition gaps that we are faced with.
But, at the moment, nutritionists are sharply divided in recommending supplements because of a recent paper published on the potential risks associated with the use of high doses of supplements (see "Are vitamin supplements fatal?").
I believe that it’s still better and safer in the long run to obtain nutrients from a varied diet than to pop supplements every day. It's not for nothing that the first and most important food-based dietary guideline for South Africans says, "Eat a Variety of Foods.”
Text copyright: Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc
5 August 2007
Bill H McAnalley & Eileen Vennum (2000). The myth of a well balanced diet. http://www. glycosience.org/glycosience/start_frames.wm?FILENAME+C003
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