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Friday, November 1, 2013

A Diet Dug Out of Anthropology

The Big Bang took place 13.7 billion years ago. Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago out of “stardust.” So our planet is not nearly as old as our universe (which consists of clusters of galaxies). It was not until 1.8 million years ago that our species, homo sapiens, took shape, formed by the forces of natural selection. We are relative newcomers to our planet’s existence, yet much of what we encounter, make, or use in the modern world has existed as only a mere flicker in our species’s 1.8 million year life as a species.  
For example, it was not until about 70,000 years ago that our ancestors’ brains developed to the extent that a fictive imagination was possible. That is, the homo sapiens brain was no longer dependent on the senses (e.g., touch, sight, smell) and thus empirical observation of one’s environment (e.g., appearances). The brain could imagine a unicorn, justice as an ideal (even as a Platonic form!), and a utopian vision having little if anything to do with how the world is at the time.  
It was not until 9,500 BCE that homo sapiens settled into permanent settlements to farm. Only a relatively few types of plants were grown and animals were domesticated as a result of the agricultural revolution. For example, wheat originally grew only in a small area in the Middle East; by the end of the twentieth century, the crop’s area had reached 200 million hectares.[1] From roughly 6,000 BCE, wheat has been a basic staple food of Europe, West Asia, and North Africa.
It was not until the eighteenth century that the scientific revolution found some traction. At that time, the gravitational pull of the past, through tradition and custom, began to lose out to an orientation to the future, and thus to discovery and innovation. This was a major shift in the history of our species. As a result, the modern world as it exists would look like another world to a person living in the sixteenth century, whereas the same person would find the life of people living in the eleventh century to be familiar.
As a result of the agricultural and scientific revolutions, we moderns have a myriad of processed foods (e.g., hormones, preservatives). Paradoxically, even though agriculture has essentially mass-produced only a relative few of the foods that our ancestors ate from one day to another in the eons of time in the Stone Age, the advent of long-distance transportation has extended the reach of otherwise geographically limited foods (e.g., pineapples) as well as the agricultural staples (e.g., wheat). This all sounds well and good, but a subtle problem festers that can only be discovered by taking a very long historical perspective grounded in anthropology—the study of the homo sapiens species.
I have been applying my own study of what almost two million years of natural selection has etched in our biology to this day to dieting. The forces of natural selection have not had nearly enough time to tweak our bodies (including our brains) to the modern world in which we live. For example, we eat much more in complex carbohydrates (e.g., wheat, so breads, pasta, etc.) than our stomachs are designed to digest. In other words, it is difficult for our species to digest wheat because that food was not factored into the equation by the forces of natural selection in adapting the stomach of a homo sapiens over almost two million years. How long out of the 1.8 million years has wheat been a staple food for us? Almost a blink of an eye.
Additionally, sugar is difficult for our livers to process because that organ was formed when sugar was only consumed when fruits were in season. Accordingly, besides being overworked, the human liver produces cholesterol particles in the process. Coca-Cola is like a frontal assault on the liver, with the heart being hit as collateral damage through a lifetime. It is no wonder that heart disease is the leading killer of modern man.
Combining these snippets of anthropological food science with the fact that few of us get anywhere near the amount of exercise of the prehistoric hunter-gatherers, we cannot count on the burning of calories nearly as much. By the way, the hunting made our ancestors more muscular and fit (and without the pathogens that have plagued our species ever since we created large societies and domesticated animals).  Even with regular visits to a fitness center, we moderns really must attend to the intake side of the energy budget wherein a surplus of retained calories is bad. To reduce current and accumulated surpluses, we can apply a bit of anthropology with beneficial results.
Because complex carbs can turn into fat while a person sleeps and most exercise typically occurs during the day rather than at night (except, perhaps, in the bedroom), I have shifted my intake of “heavy foods” like bread, pasta, meat, and potatoes to breakfast and lunch. In this mix I have drastically reduced my intake of wheat foods (even whole wheat bread!) because I know my stomach is not well-suited to digesting them. Because fruits and vegetables are of relatively few calories and natural selection has taken them into account in adapting the human stomach, I emphasize them for dinner. I make sure the proportion of fruits and vegetables is than that of wheat foods.
In short, both timing and proportions are in the mix along with food servings when anthropology—taking the millions of years of natural selection as the default—is itself added into the equation in formulating a diet to lose weight. As Plato wrote, much of being virtuous is changing habits. I would add self-discipline in countering the lure of instant gratification as a vital ingredient. In terms of dieting, a changed habit that a person sustains can actually result is a smaller, shrunken stomach. This physiological change can in turn take away some of the pain in applying the self-discipline. Although I do not read published diets, I suspect that this anthropological approach is quite novel.




[1] 2 million square kilometers or 77,204 square miles.