This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
When people use the contact form on the bottom of this site, maybe they should take a few seconds and think about two things I don't tolerate very well, which are
Maybe don't send me that stuff, because I will post about it, and I will criticize it. Or maybe on the latter case, just leave the historical narrative out of your spiel if you can't waste more than an hour thinking about what it might actually imply.
One thing I really regret is when I first got healthy by eating a paleo diet, I thought that if everyone just ate like me, they could have a slim body like mine. It didn't seem that hard to me. So I became a zealot about it. But that process of being a zealot forced me to talk with a wide range of people about their experiences with food and health- from relatives to people I met at paleo meetups in real life. What shocked me were the people who ate like me, some of them ate "better" than me, and yet they were struggling with their weight. I even met people who gained weight on diets like mine. It was eye-opening.
And then there was the process of me discontinuing my strict diet, once when I moved to Europe, and next after I was having low blood pressure issues. I was talking to a friend who lost a lot of weight on paleo successfully and now works...making pizza. We were both joking how we have worried that we were going to suddenly gain a bunch of weight. But it never happens. It's not like we returned to a junk food diet, but I'm not going to turn down some ice cream or homemade pizza. And yet there are people right now turning down the kinds of things who can't seem to slim down. And then there are are fair number of people who slim down on diets full of paleo demonized foods like legumes and whole grains.
Some of them realize that health is about more than being slim, and while gaining weight might be a bad sign, the fact that they can lose a little and feel healthier is more than satisfying. Others however give up, disenchanted with the promises of a slim figure, dismissing it as just another fad diet.
Recently Jonathan Bailor sent me a contact email not once, but twice with his new "Slim is Simple" video to celebrate the creation of a non-profit devoted to distributing his educational material on healthy eating. I was surprised that so many got excited by this video. I criticized it on Twitter and some people were upset by that, saying it was a great educational tool and we need more such "simple" tools. No reason to be obsessed with scientific accuracy. Now I don't think I have that problem- I have recommended books that are quite imperfect on this blog many times from The Primal Blueprint to The Paleo Solution, but I don't recommend something unless I feel it has a useful and correct core.
Luckily I wasn't the only one who saw right through this video, Beth at Weight Maven, also posted a skeptical take on it. Evelyn has also written about Jonathan's other work before. I won't even get into his questionable calorie math that doesn't seem to bother with the fat that the correct equation takes maintence, which depends on body size, into account.
But I also would love to see more books that simplify eating without bordering on inaccurate propaganda like this video. I felt like I was watching a cult indoctrination film. Not only that, but it would seem its bolsters didn't even notice he's recommending a diet that is pretty different from the one they recommend- a diet based on three pillars of protein, fiber, and water. Eat as much as you want of those three things (maybe it helps that if you eat too much of the first two, you'll get diarrhea).
That's right- have as much protein as you want on this diet, have twice as much as normal, you'll be so satiated you'll supposedly forget about ice cream.I think this is exactly the kind of diet I coined the term "faileo" to describe (though sadly I feel this eventually contributed to a culture that somehow thinks you can guzzle as much coconut oil and bacon fat as you want, when I was kind of just trying to get people on board with more reasonable things like lamb shanks). The language is also exactly what many of us have tried to get away from, like the idea that we are "designed" for certain "clean" (an excessively moralistic word reminiscent of Kellogg and other health puritans) foods. Other foods, like starches and sugars (including most fruit- only citrus and berries are given a pass), will "clog our body."
But then I gets weird, because he says "almost everyone stayed healthy and fit without even trying until very recently" and the visuals for this are very interesting:
So we have an early bipedal ancestor, and than an Egyptian, and Pioneer, and someone who looks like they are from the 40s or 50s. Oh and a rather curvy person, who we presumably don't want to be...if only we knew what those Egyptians did. But Egyptians ate diet rich in bread and beer. Wait, I thought all these foods were the ones the video describes as "unnatural" and are responsible for our modern "clogs"? Hmm, well maybe we'll see about the pioneer woman. American pioneers had access to much more meat and fat than the average Ancient Egyptian, but they also ate things like biscuits and hoe cakes. 40s to the 60s? Well I collect cookbooks from those eras and they are certainly not full of an austere cuisine of protein, fiber, and water. Even if he had used the typical types of people that paleo dieters hold up as examples- the Hadza, The !Kung, the Kitavans, and other modern peoples who still live foraging lifestyles and remain very healthy, it would not make sense, because their diets contain a large amount of starch and even simple sugars.
Another use of history offender is Dr. Lustig in his new book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. Others are more qualified to comment on the biochemistry errors in this book, but the food history in this book is so inaccurate that I wonder if publishers even bother to employ fact-checkers any more. His take on food history involves dividing ancient people into "hunters" mythic fat-burning intermittent fasting meat-guzzlers who "didn't know what a carbohydrate was and they didn't need to." The modern remnants are the Maasai and Inuit. Then there were the "gatherers" who ate carbohydrates and protein in the form of fruits and vegetables, "this is the basis for today's vegan diet. It is practiced in multiple cultures around the globe, because if you grow your own food, that's what's available." Yes...the vegan tribes of India, oh wait, there is no such thing. And has Lustig ever raised his own food or visited a farm? Where do you think most farmers are getting fertilizer from? Hint: it's not vegan.
And the Maasai, while they may sometimes be fat burners, are not a low-carb culture. As for ancient foragers, there is a reason they have been called hunter-gatherers, not hunters AND gatherers. In fact the vast majority of foraging peoples in the Ethnographic Atlas eat fairly mixed diets, the people who are primarily hunters or gatherers are exceptions.
But Lustig has to make up this false narrative so he can get to his all-encompassing theory of all our problems (and also because for some weird reason he wants to pander to both the Atkins and plant-based folks, a weird thread in this book), which is the "Omnivore's Curse"- "it wasn't until we became gourmets, eating fat and carbohydrate in the same meal, that our cells first felt the wrath of mitochondrial wear and tear." Apparently, with the advent of farming we started mixing fat and carbohydrates together in meals and thus we became diseased, because in nature there are no foods that have both things, which means somehow that we should take our lessons and cease our evil cooking of potatoes in butter. "This accounts for the appearance of metabolic disease with the advent of trade in the early seventeenth century; before that, food was still a function of what you killed or you grew yourself. Eventually, we became gourmands, eating fat and carbohydrate in the same food."
Reminds me of my maxim not to take advice on food from people who don't actually seem to like it very much. My friends and I have a historical eating club and this Saturday is our dinner based on ancient Mesopotamia. I still have some mead (liquid carbohydrates mmm) left over from our Viking dinner, though we might have some ancient beer as well. For dinner I am making lard-rubbed goat leg with cumin, mastic, coriander, mint, and ginger. There will be sides of roasted barley and roots. Yes, I will be mixing carbohydrates, fat, and protein in one meal, which presumably people have been doing since they have been cooking. Pottery dates well into the Paleolithic, and before that people probably used other containers to mix things together. We know they were cooking because they left residues of grease and boiled fruits and all sorts of other things. Because humans are curious creatures and some of us really do like to play with our food (though as Gary Nabhan has pointed out, there may be some evolutionary reasons some cultures adopted things like spices).
Some people cook less than others- for example the Hadza don't seem to cook very many "recipes" though they do mix baobab (which contains both fat and carbohydrate) with honey for a drink sometimes. It's funny that Lustig later mentions that Ancel Keys in his heart disease study left out populations like those in Tokelau- in Tokelau their diet is starch and coconut. If mixing fat and carbohydrate were an issue, we would have been the way we are now for a very long time. Not that I think ancient people were perfectly healthy- for example, both Egyptian and Inuit mummies show atherosclerosis, though back then it may have been caused by constant infections and cooking smoke inhalation rather than food and there is no evidence it caused any mummy's death. Lustig does also make a good point that heart disease was a problem in the 1930s, back before the "obesity epidemic".
When I think of my very slim (though probably wearing a corset) great-great grandmother pictured here, I don't think of diets based on protein, fiber, and water. I think of people who ate reasonable natural homemade food. The same food I eat now. I doubt she would have touched things like the Slim is Simple Peanut Butter Pie (which contains ingredients I actually do try to avoid: low-fat dairy, industrial whey protein isolate, and extremely high omega-6 peanut butter, cooked almond flour...he recommends leaving the honey out of the crust, which is funny because it's probably one of the healthier ingredients) with a ten foot pole.
She didn't count calories, and neither have I. As someone who eats made-from-scratch foods that are highly variable it would be pretty pointless for me to count calories, as it would be inaccurate. I know when I'm losing weight I have a calorie deficit though, even if it is going to not be possible to quantify it accurately. Some people find success with trying to do the math, but I always found it easier to try things that have been shown in studies to subconsciously reduce the amount of calories eaten. One of these is to eat a lot of protein, which is funny because that's one of Bailor's main strategies. Though it certainly never made me stop thinking of other foods, and I had significant energy issues when I was on the very high-protein, low fat, high fiber kind of diet Bailor advocates. Frankly, I felt sick and catatonic, but I guess his diet works for some people, and not for others, the same way some weight loss diets work for some and not for others. Because nothing to do with the human body is simple. Slim is not simple.
In the debate surrounding the NYC ban on large soft drinks earlier this year, the argument came up that we had to regulate them because liquid calories are evolutionarily novel and inappropriate for our species to consume because we cannot consume them moderately and their metabolism is harmful to our bodies. At the time I had already started reading Patrick McGovern's Uncorking the Past, which looks at human history through the very lens of liquid carbohydrates.
Not soda, something a bit more delicious and perhaps more enticing. I'm talking about alcoholic drinks. It was in the form of such a drink that I first encountered McGovern's work. I was not pulling in very much money at the time and my indulgence in luxury food and drink primarily came from volunteering at ritzy galas. After one long night, I was delighted to find a vendor had left quite a lot of good beer behind. One of them was Dogfish Head's Midas Touch. With a musky wine-like flavor, it was clear this was not a normal beer.
The idea for the beer came from a golden residue found in a tomb where either the real King Midas or his father was buried around 700 B.C. Archeologist Patrick McGovern had analyzed this residue, teasing out the various ingredients using infrared spectrometry, gas and liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Grapes, honey, and barley had were the ingredients of this ancient beverage. Together with the brewers at renowned microbrewery Dogfish Head, McGovern set out to recreate something with these elements for the modern palette. The result was well-received and the first of the Ancient Ales series went to market.
McGovern is the "Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia." He primarily works at analyzing ancient pottery residues to figure out what exactly our ancestors were imbibing in. And for fun he recreates some of these beverages for modern people to enjoy.
Uncorking the Past says "No containers have yet been recovered from the Palaeolithic period, not even one made from stone. Objects made of wood, grass, leather, and gourds have disintegrated and disappeared." Since it came out, several Paleolithic pottery specimens have been described, mainly from China. Earlier this year, one set of shards was dated to 20,000 years ago. It would not be surprising to me if much earlier pottery is discovered in Africa. Evidence for the earliest food grind stones used to process seeds has been dated to 105,000 years ago. It is possible though that humans in that region were using other containers for liquid such as skins or gourds, but pottery would have been a major advance useful for extracting fat from bones, detoxifying and cooking starches, and creating fermented drinks.
Such drinks would have not been terribly novel even then. As McGovern points out, our evolutionary line is frugivorous in origin, having inhabited warm tropical climates where "as the fruit matured, it would have fermented on the tree, bush, and vine. Fruits with broken skins, oozing liquid, would have been attacked by yeast and the sugars converted into alcohol. Such a fruit slurry can reach an alcohol content of 5 percent or more." Many cases of wild animals getting drunk on ripe fruit have been documented.
Malaysian tree shrews, subsist mainly on fermented palm nectar that is up to 3.8% alcohol. The researchers concluded:
The pentailed treeshrew is considered a living model for extinct mammals representing the stock from which all extinct and living treeshrews and primates radiated. Therefore, we hypothesize that moderate to high alcohol intake was present early on in the evolution of these closely related lineages.
Wherever primates live, they seem drawn to sugars. Chimpanzees use tools to gather honey in Africa. Hominids there have been adapt at exploiting honey for a very long time, devising elaborate gathering systems to thwart the aggressiveness of native bees. Surveys of foraging tribal peoples like the Hadza and Pygmies have revealed that honey is the food they most prefer. It can also be used to make alcohol:
Many African peoples have been drinking some variation of a fermented honey beverage for a very long time throughout the continent. The strongest versions have been reported from the Rift Valley, where added fruit (e.g., of the sausage tree, Kigellia africana, and tamarind), with additional yeast to spur an extended fermentation, boosted the alcohol concentration. Sub-Saharan Africa is a honey-eater's and mead-drinker's paradise.
It's not just shrews that enjoy palm wine either. Evidence for human exploitation of palm goes back 18,000 years in Africa:
The most important species for making palm wine are the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), the ron or Palmyra palm (Borassus aethiopum), and the raphia palm (Raphia vinifera), which are concentrated along the humid east and west coasts as well as in the dense jungles of the interior...A healthy tree can produce nine or ten liters a day and about 750 liters over half a year...Within two hours, palm wine ferments to about a 4 percent alcohol content; give it a day, and the alcohol level goes up to 7 or 8 percent
Now back to those food grind stones. The papers that describe them typically talk as if they were used to make the world's crappiest bread out of miserable wild grains. Other grind stones had more obvious uses- they ground pigments for decoration. Why not smear your face with makeup and go out and party? What if the "food" grind stones were really used for making alcoholic drinks? What if people domesticated grains mainly to use in the creation of alcoholic drinks? Seems like more of an incentive than making bitter flat fibrous bread disks.
It would also explain why the wild relatives of so many grains are mystifying. Looking at teosinte, the wild ancestor of corn, it's kind of baffling why humans would have bothered with the plant at all:
A series of careful DNA studies identified teosinte (genus Tripsacum) as the wild ancestor of maize. This mountain grass grows in the Rio Balsas drainage of southwestern Mexico. One cannot imagine a less inspiring plant to domesticate. The ears of this primitive corn, which are barely three centimeters long and contain only five to twelve kernels, are trapped in a tough casing. Even if you manage to free up the kernels, their nutrient value is essentially nil.
The mystery might be solved by quids, chewed and spit out fibrous plant material. This might sound gross, but chewing of place materials and spitting it into a container is an alcohol-making process that has been documented around the world. It seems very likely that the stalks of teosinte were used for this purpose.
The human mouth converts the starch to more easily fermentable sugar using amylyse. Some mouths are better at this than others. Starch consuming peoples typically have a greater amylyse copy numbers, though all humans have a greater copy number than primates like chimpanzees and booboos. "Higher AMY copy numbers and protein levels probably improve the digestion of starchy foods and may buffer against the fitness-reducing effects of intestinal disease." Stephan Guyenet and I have discussed how the copy number thing is interesting because salivary amylyse, even at high copy numbers, contributes very little to digestion of starch relative to pancreatic amylase. What is the increased copy number for salivary amylyse for then? Perhaps for chewing starches like rice and corn to make delicious alcoholic beverages.
Chicha made with saliva remains an important part of the diet of many South American tribes, and a woman's ability to make it is important for her husband's social status. It is rude to refuse it, as this account written up in Salon describes
Patton maintains that the bulk of an Achuar’s daily calories do not come from meat. They come from chicha, a mildly alcoholic, vaguely nutritious, watered-down manioc mash. Achuar men drink up to four gallons a day.Isaac’s wife and mother are in constant motion, serving bowls of chicha to the 10 or so guests. Chicha is the backbone of Achuar society. As with the ankle bone and the knee bone, you feel an unalterable pressure to accept. Chicha is the holy communion, the Manischewitz, the kava-kava of Achuar life. It’s present at every ceremony, every visit, every meal. An Achuar woman’s desirability rests in no small part on her skill at chicha brewing and serving.
Given the amount of calories and nutrients such beverages can provide, it amazes me that many ethnographical and anthropological surveys seem to ignore or downplay their presence, as if they were just mere recreation.
Corn chicha, widely consumed in South America, could not only explain the domestication of teosinte, but it could also account for the fact that isotope studies during the time of corn's domestication don't seem to show people got their protein from corn:
Some very interesting results emerged when human bones from sites throughout the New World were examined. Because maize had been domesticated by about 6ooo B.P., one would have expected to see a specific carbon-isotope composition that reflected the increased consumption of maize, but it was strangely missing. Some scientists have proposed an explanation for this anomaly. Because the analyses measured only the collagen in bone, its main proteinaceous connective tissue, they were biased toward detecting high-protein foods. Solid foods made from maize, including gruel or bread (e.g., tortillas), fit this requirement, but not fermented beverages like maize chicha, largely composed of sugar and water. Consequently, if people between 6ooo and 3000 B.P. were consuming their maize as chicha, very little protein would have been incorporated into the collagen of their bones. The researchers speculated that humans began using maize as a solid food only after its ear had been substantially enlarged by selective breeding, around 3000 B.P. After this point, the carbon isotope compositions of bones dramatically changed.
Interestingly, going further north, the Native Americans there didn't seem to have any alcoholic beverages, or if they did, they had been spread from the South. Charle's Mann's 1491 discusses the hypothesis that the North and Southern Native Peoples were peopled differently, South America being populated by a sea-faring coastal society, rather than from Beringia up North. McGovern describes the culture of the coastal peoples, who consumed a tantalizing array of berries, fish, mollusks, wild tubers, mastodon meat and fat (they processed enough fat that it congealed on the floor, which my sister's roommate reenacted recently by pouring some bacon grease directly down the drain), bulrushes, and seaweed. It is theorized that the cold snap of the Younger Dryas around 13,000 BC may have forced them to rely more and more on underground tubers, spurring on the domestication of the potato.
However, the Siberians, like the North Americans, do not have alcoholic beverages (that we know of at least), relying on other resources for a buzz:
In place of any alcoholic beverage, the Siberian peoples engaged in shamanistic practices based on the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). When European explorers finally braved the frigid tundra of Siberia, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, they recorded how the shaman often dressed in a deer costume with antlers, like the Palaeolithic creature depicted in Les Trois Freres cave (see chapter i). After consuming the mushroom, he would beat on a large drum, whose monotonous repetition reinforced the effects of the active hallucinogenic compounds (ibotenic acid and muscimole) and took him into the ancestral dreamtime.
Northern peoples in the Americas also smoked tobacco. Meanwhile, people in the Southern parts North America certainly did imbibe in alcohol. The Pima who are so infamous in nutritional circles consumed a sweet cactus wine. The health effects of another regional beverage, Pulque, which is made by fermenting agave sap, have been explored a bit. It was found that among highland tribes that consume it, it accounts for much of the iron and Vitamin C consumption in pregnant women. Pregnant women who consume too much or none are more likely to have low-BMI and reduced mental performance infants. Consumption of pulque might also increase the bioavailability of vitamins in other traditional foods.
The use of agave in fermented beverages should be considered when looking at data from that region that suggests a high fiber consumption from these plants, particularly given the presence of quids and the fact that these fermented beverages could enhance digestion of fructooligosaccharides in these plants. I've seen such papers conclude that this means that humans in these regions ate absurd amounts of fiber and we should emulate them. What is more likely: that anatomically moderns humans were eating 255 grams of fiber a day from plants like agave, well above what any known living culture consumes, or that they were making something a bit like tequila?
It is possible that such drinks have been under emphasized because of very real issues of alcoholism that plague many modern indigenous peoples. However, most of these traditional alcoholic beverages are not like the modern alcohol that is abused. Indigenous beverages are typically 3-6% alcohol, seasonal and contain many nutrients and phytochemicals, which are biologically active plant chemicals. McGovern's lab has been working on exploring the medicinal properties of many of these phytochemicals.
McGovern describes how many of the early beverages in the Middle East, ancestors of our modern wines and beers, contained potent medicinals. Early grape wines, for example, often contained tree resins:
Tree resins have a long and noble history of use by humans, extending back into Palaeolithic times. They could be used as glues and were perhaps even chewed to give pain relief, as suggested by lumps of birch resin with tooth marks that were found in a Neolithic Swiss lake dwelling...Resinated wines were greatly appreciated in antiquity, as we have come to see in analyzing wines from all over the Middle East, extending from the Neolithic down to the Byzantine period. Although some wine drinkers today turn up their noses at a resinated wine, now made only in Greece as retsina, the technique is analogous to ageing in oak. The result can actually be quite appealing: the Gaia Estate's Ritinitis has a mildly citrusy flavor, achieved by adding a very slight touch of Aleppo pine resin to a Greek grape variety. Even the Romans added resins such as pine, cedar, terebinth (known as the "queen of resins"), frankincense, and myrrh to all their wine except extremely fine vintages. According to Pliny the Elder, who devoted a good part of book 14 of his Natural History to resinated wines, myrrh-laced wine was considered the best and most expensive.
It is a powerful reminder to consider ancient diets holistically, that things were not just consumed for their nutritive value, but for recreational, medicinal, and religious purposes. And possibly some of these substances were "unwise" traditions and may account for some of the diseases found in mummies and skeletal remains if people drank too much or adulterated their beverages with carcinogens and other poisons. Even today, adaptation to alcohol seems uneven and imperfect in humans, as many Asians who experience Alcohol Flush Reaction will attest. Distilled high-alcohol spirits are also very much an evolutionary novelty. As someone with alcoholism running in the family, I very much understand that consumption of these kinds of alcohol can be difficult for certain people to moderate with terrible, even deadly consequences.
I think renewed study and emphasis on fermented alcoholic beverages in human evolution will provide much insight into human adaptations to food and the development of domesticated crops. Even with the knowledge we have now, I think it's wholly inappropriate to describe liquid carbohydrates as evolutionarily novel. Soda is novel in that it is a liquid carbohydrate devoid of any of the nutrients or phytochemicals in indigenous beverages, but mainly we need to look to modern science and biochemistry to tell us what effect soda has on the body and mind.
It's also fascinating to see some of these ancient beverages recreated and revived. I've since tasted several of McGovern's collaborations with Dogfish Head, such as Chateau Jiahu, which is made of rice, honey, and fruit recipe gleaned from 9000 year old Chinese pottery. I've also enjoyed some of the more modern spit-free chicha at several Peruvian restaurants and being a lightweight, I appreciate that it's pretty low in alcohol and also very tasty. There has also been renewed interest in home brewing ancient herbal ales. You can do it yourself with the book Sacred & Herbal Healing Beers. There are also some herbal beers on the market. I've enjoyed William Brother's spruce, seaweed, and heather beers. Unfortunately, none of these beers are gluten-free, which is slightly disappointing since the original Jiahu pottery probably did not contain barley.
I enjoyed Uncorking the Past, but it does read a bit like a textbook at times, which is why it took me so long to get through it. I'm looking forward to enjoying more of his brews though. Dogfish Head is even tried making Chicha the old fashioned way, though it didn't exactly work out, since it was more labor intensive than they expected.
I've noticed a few people tweeting this new paper, titled Hunter-Gatherer Energetics and Human Obesity, but I haven't seen many blog posts about it. Some of the tweets are to the effect of "haha, total proof that eat less, move more is a farce."
The paper is open-access, but the researchers published an editorial in the New York Times
We found that despite all this physical activity, the number of calories that the Hadza burned per day was indistinguishable from that of typical adults in Europe and the United States. We ran a number of statistical tests, accounting for body mass, lean body mass, age, sex and fat mass, and still found no difference in daily energy expenditure between the Hadza and their Western counterparts.
Unfortunately, the applicability to the average dieter in the United States might be limited. Notice "typical adults in Europe and the United States." I don't know, but last time I was in Europe, it seemed like people biked and walked places a lot more than in the US. As a non-driver, when I lived in Europe I was hardly the oddity I am here. In many places in the United States it is not even possible to walk to the grocery store. One study showed that the average American takes 5,117 steps a day, whereas the average Swiss person takes 9,650 steps a day. That's another issue with the Kitavan study, in that it also compares activity levels with a non-US group of people, the Swedish.
There is also the possibility that the Hadza are not expending as much energy as expected because of nutritional stress. Whether or not certain hunter-gatherer groups are naturally small or if they are exhibiting stunting is an important question. A paper that came out last year about a similar group of hunter-gatherers, the !Kung, re-opened this debate, speculating that the !Kung are somewhat malnourished:
Given the adverse conditions of life in the Mexican refugee camp, and the similar pattern of growth of the Maya and !Kung, the most reasonable interpretation of the growth of the !Kung infants and children is that it is due to inadequate food intake, disease, or a combination of both. Small size of !Kung infants and children sets the pattern of growth for older ages, as !Kung adults remain relatively short and light throughout their lives...
People with energy deficiency, or living at a delicate energy balance, do practice an economy of effort. Some examples are studies by George B. Spurr and colleagues of marginally undernourished boys and girls, ages 6–16 years old, in the city of Cali, Colombia. These boys and girls adjust their energy expenditure according to energy intake. In one quasi-experiment (Spurr & Reina 1988), normal and undernourished boys were observed at a summer day camp. They were encouraged to increase their physical activity by playing sports and other games. The undernourished boys were not able to keep up with the normally nourished boys during the morning session. At mid-day both groups received a meal and the undernourished boys received an extra 760 kcal of food, all of which was consumed. During the afternoon play session the undernourished boys were able to keep up with the normal group for about 2 hours, which is about the time they expended the extra 760 kcal eaten at lunch.
I would like to see similar data for the Hadza. And other foraging cultures, especially those with access to higher quality game. And it's worth remembering that even if the Khosian hunter-gatherer lifestyle is of continuous antiquity, it is the tip of the iceberg in terms of foraging. There were many very diverse paleolithic foraging cultures and so few of them are represented in the tiny remnants of this lifestyle available to study today.
Some books about the paleo diet reference the impressive height of paleolithic hunter-gatherers, comparing them to stunted agriculturalists. However, the archeological record is full of shorter hunter-gatherers and almost all modern foragers would be considered tiny. The average Hadza man is only 161.3 cm tall (5.3 feet). Is this stunting or is it genetic? Either way, some see their height as a feature, not a bug, contending that shorter people have certain metabolic advantages that are protective against many diseases of civilization. Hilariously, that paper I just linked to is posted along with many others on the website Short Support, which is all about how awesome short people are. At five feet two inches tall, I approve of this site.
Furthermore, it would be interesting to explore the genetic uniqueness of the Hadza. Another recent study showed evidence for genetic adaptations to local environmental conditions. The authors of this paper note that more research in this area is needed:
And indeed, studies reporting differences in metabolic-hormone profiles between traditional and Western populations support this idea (though more work is needed).
Also it's worth noting that physical activity has many known benefits beyond just burning calories.
Furthermore, it is quite funny to see how popular this study is with people promoting a low-carb diet because one of the reasons some of them have said foraging people can tolerate starch/sugar is because of their high activity levels. Though conveniently Rosedale has recently switched to saying it's because they are short, just in time for this study. Because honestly, the Hadza diet has quite a bit of sugar in the form of honey, berries, and baobab:
Dr. Lustig should come and tell them not to eat so much sugar. That humans aren't evolved to eat so much sugar and didn't have access to it in our natural evolutionary environment. Especially the honey. It's really appalling how sugary that stuff is.
Don't get me wrong, this is an interesting paper, but grouping Europeans together and then those Europeans with the particularly sedentary Americans means we can't use this paper to say that food is the main thing that matters in determining weight.
I'm sure you have your own take on this, since the paper is open access, I recommend reading it.
A new free-full text paper by Ian Spreadbury has been making the rounds lately. "Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity" is interesting because it is written through a distinctly Ancestral Health lens to provide a new framework for thinking about possible causes of Western disease.
For some time, many people in the Ancestral Health movement have blamed carbohydrates for various diseases of civilization, but over time, this idea has lost its hold and many writers in the movement now reject it. We perhaps have our own paradox- the "Kitavan paradox," which was probably the source for much of this questioning, particularly since so many paleo diet books in the past cited the Kitavan study and then told readers to restrict carbohydrates. This paper looks for reasons why
Despite food abundance and a clear overlap of macronutrients and glycemic index with Western diets, Kitavans are reported to possess leptin levels, fasting insulin, and blood glucose levels dramatically lower than those in Western populations deemed healthy, and appear to have a virtual absence of overweight, diabetes, and atherosclerotic disease.
What if it were something about grains per-se rather than carbohydrates? The paper describes how endotoxemia in the gut, particularly Lipopolysaccharide (LPS), can lead to systematic inflammation related to many elements of metabolic syndrome like leptin resistance. Endotoxins are part of the cell-wall in gram-negative bacteria such as E.Coli and Salmonella and they provoke an inflammatory response in many contexts. The idea here is that Western diets perhaps might increase endotoxemia by promoting growth of pathogenic bacteria and adding fuel to the fire by increasing intestinal permeability, allowing endotoxins to ply their inflammation across the entire body. He also mentions the fact that science is showing that this process occurs in the mouth as well, where modern diets promote "leaky teeth" aka gingivitis, which has convincing ties to metabolic syndrome (which pilot studies show a paleo diet might treat).
Unfortunately, we then develop another paradox because most of the studies on LPS in humans show that absorption is promoted by a high-fat diet. And as the paper notes, foraging peoples with higher fat diets do not seem impaired.
Spreadbury lays out a hypothesis that carbohydrates can be divided into two groups. Cellular carbohydrates, which are:
Tubers, fruits, or functional plant parts such as leaves and stems store their carbohydrates in organelles as part of fiber-walled living cells. These are thought to remain largely intact during cooking, which instead mostly breaks cell-to-cell adhesion. This cellular storage appears to mandate a maximum density of around 23% non-fibrous carbohydrate by mass, the bulk of the cellular weight being made up of water.
Then there are the acellular carbohydrates:
The acellular carbohydrates of flour,94 sugar and processed plant-starch products are considerably more dense. Grains themselves are also highly dense, dry stores of starch designed for rapid macroscopic enzymic mobilization during germination.95 Whereas foods with living cells will have their low carbohydrate density “locked in” until their cell walls are breached by digestive processes, the chyme produced after consumption of acellular flour and sugar-based foods is thus suggested to have a higher carbohydrate concentration than almost anything the microbiota of the upper GI tract from mouth to small bowel would have encountered during our coevolution.
And here we have another problem. Because archeologists continue to find earlier and earlier evidence of what was once considered advanced food processing, from pottery to grind stones. The foods that are characterized as "acellular"...well, how long have they been in the human diet? The paper mentions some of these finds, but says they were likely a small part of ancient diets, but that is far from a sure thing. We also have an ethnographical gap here in this chart:
Because you can see modern processed foods there, but nothing on indigenous "processed" foods. No chicha or poi or any of the variety of ground/fermented/pounded foods that many of these cultures consume. This is partially because there is very little data on these foods, which is unfortunate.
My prediction is that better accounting of indigenous diets will show that they consume more of the acellular carbohydrates than initially predicted by some. We also need ethnographical data that records everything consumed, even things that seem incidental like teas.
But I think we need to look further into the types of these consumed and other compounds they contain. Same for fatty foods.
An interesting thing here (thanks Stabby the Raccoon) is that studies show that orange juice, a accellular carbohydrate, reduces endotoxin load. Orange juice is one of those things you probably thought was healthy and then you realized it had sugar and it was "bad" and now people are rediscovering it again. But I think the sugar here is incidental, what is probably more interesting is the ability of antioxidants to suppress endotoxins. Wine and olive oil may have similar properties.
I was browsing The Human Food Project's website and came across a letter written by anthropologist Jeff Leach on low-carb diets:
In a series of elegant studies, Cani and colleagues ( 2-4) have shown that holding calories constant and varying macro levels of fat can induce low-grade metabolic endotoxemia which can lead to complications associated with cardiovascular health. As fat intake, so do serum levels of LPS and associated biomarkers. However, in high-fat diets with prebiotic oligosaccharides added (derived from chicory roots), serum levels of LPS drop, as do the metabolic markers of inflammation.
So it is also possible that prebiotics in indigenous diets also have a protective effect. So we shouldn't look so much perhaps at dividing carbohydrates into two categories, but tracing each type of carbohydrate to the type of bacterial environment it promotes.
Now n=1 time here, but I had gingivitis before I started eating better and it went away. And all the sudden it came back. And it was incredibly frustrating. Frustrating to the point that I even thought the problem might have been caused by the cavity-ridden guy I had started dating when my gums got bad again for giving me his lame mouth bacteria. I started supplementing a few things, notably K2, D3, and switched back to the flax oil that I had been using when my gums were better. The problem resolved and has not come back and my gums even survived the breakup with bad-teeth guy despite the fact I was eating mainly ice cream. So I don't know if for me, it was more about nutrients I needed to get rather than too much simple sugar.
Some folks have wondered why I still recommend Gary Taubes' books on my Start Here post given that I have been vocally negative about him lately. Yes, I have a problem with his attitude and frankly find him stubborn. But the truth is that his books changed my life. Without Good Calories, Bad Calories, I might still think that eggs, butter, liver, and cheese are bad for you. I might still think that fat makes you sick and fat. These foods have been instrumental in improving my health and thus my life. The fact that his carbohydrate hypothesis of obesity has attracted so much energy and attention is an unfortunate distraction from the fact that his books mount an excellent defense of fat. The idea that carbohydrates per se cause obesity is only being debated by a few silly reductionists. For those of us who have read extensively about other healthy cultures, that doesn't even begin to make sense. What healthy peoples have in common is the nutrient dense foods they eat, not their macronutrient ratios. The rest of us have moved on to more relevant issues, like how to have sexy hair, or awesome babies, and stuff like that.
The Dinka Diet is based around porridge and dairy, insulinogenic foods, why aren't they fat? (note that the Dinka have suffered in recent years from warfare and famine and probably no longer look like this. I didn't want to post the Kitavans, the Aka, or any high-carb tribes I've written about already for the sake of diversity. As for whether this is the "ideal" for men, you have to realize that some of body composition is genetic. The Dinka do not bulk up like other men, they are very similar to the Maasai in that way. It is possible that sexual selection is at work here, as this body type is considered very attractive to the Dinka. The Wodabe are an extreme example of this.)
More porridge eating fatties. Scotland now has one of the highest rates of obesity in Western Europe. Hint: it's not the porridge!
As for not getting fat, we could argue about what makes people fat all day, but it's clear that it's not sweet potatoes and plantains making people fat. It's clear that it's something about industrial food, which has the unholy synergy of caloric density, hyperpalatibility, and nutritional poverty, along with bundles of rancid vegetable oils, improperly vetted synthetic chemicals, loads of refined sugar, and other garbage.
Gary Taubes = Diglett
Bergen, Norway dinner with mussels, wolf fish, vegetables, and potatoes...the only thing missing was some lamb or mutton
Louisa asked what carbs I recommend. I did low carb when I started paleo to reduce the excessive amount of bacteria that seemed to cause my IBS. But as I got better I added in more carbohydrates. Personally I enjoy life more with moderate carbohydrate consumption and none of my problems returned. I think low-carb approaches like PaNu are a great approach for losing weight, but I don't think carbohydrates are going to make a slim insulin sensitive individual like me fat. I also think many paleo advocates selectively ignore the large amounts of evidence that roots were important to early humans. I think the best blogs that advocate a sensible approach to carbohydrates for healthy people are Whole Health Source(start with his Kitavan posts) and Primal Wisdom(start with Primal Potatoes).
I do carb cycling. I divide my favorite carbohydrates into rather unscientific categories, trying to rotate them to reduce the odds of me being affected by any antinutrients. My categories are tropical, local winter, and local summer.
The local winter carbs include carrots, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, beets, and other vegetables that grow locally. In the winter I often eat a serving or two of these a day.
The local summer carbs include fruits, with a basis towards wild fruits, which I particularly enjoyed in Sweden. When I lived there I would often simply go out into the woods in the morning and gather a basket of lingonberries, sea buckthorn, blueberries, or currants. I think berries can be enjoyed daily in season and more domesticated fruits like apples or apricots with more moderation.
Tropical carbs are more like supplements or treats. They don't grow in New York, but with the Caribbean/SE Asian population in NYC I'd be amiss if I didn't enjoy some plantains, taro, cocoyam, mango, coconut, and other tropical delights similar to what the Kitavans or Okinawans are so healthy eating about once a week or so. Thai coconuts are my favorite because they pack a punch of potassium and it's possible to ferment most of the sugar out of the water.