Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review: "The Human Diet: Its Origins and Evolution"

I recently read this book after discovering it on another health site. It's a compilation of chapters written by several researchers in the fields of comparative biology, paleontology, archaeology and zoology. It's sometimes used as a textbook.

I've learned some interesting things, but overall it was pretty disappointing. The format is disjointed, with no logical flow between chapters. I also would not call it comprehensive, which is one of the things I look for in a textbook.
Here are some of the interesting points:
  • Humans in industrial societies are the only mammals to commonly develop hypertension, and are the only free-living primates to become overweight.
  • The adoption of grains as a primary source of calories correlated with a major decrease in stature, decrease in oral health, decrease in bone density, and other problems. This is true for wheat, rice, corn and other grains.
  • Cranial capacity has also declined 11% since the late paleolithic, correlating with a decrease in the consumption of animal foods and an increase in grains.
  • According to carbon isotope ratios of teeth, corn did not play a major role in the diet of native Americans until 800 AD. Over 15% of the teeth of post-corn South American cultures showed tooth decay, compared with less than 5% for pre-corn cultures (many of which were already agricultural, just not eating corn).
  • Childhood mortality seems to be similar among hunter-gatherers and non-industrial agriculturists and pastoralists.
  • Women may have played a key role in food procurement through foraging. This is illustrated by a group of modern hunter-gatherers called the Hadza. While men most often hunt, which supplies important nutrients intermittently, women provide a steady stream of calories by foraging for tubers.
  • We have probably been eating starchy tubers for between 1.5 and 2 million years, which precedes our species. Around that time, digging tools, (controversial) evidence of controlled fire and changes in digestive anatomy all point to use of tubers and cooked food in general. Tubers make sense because they are a source of calories that is much more easily exploited than wild grains in most places.
  • Our trajectory as a species has been to consume a diet with more calories per unit fiber. As compared to chimps, who eat leaves and fruit all day and thus eat a lot of fiber to get enough calories, our species and its recent ancestors ate a diet much lower in fiber.
  • Homo sapiens has always eaten meat.
The downside is that some chapters have a distinct low-fat slant. One chapter attempted to determine the optimal diet for humans by comparing ours to the diets of wild chimps and other primates. Of course, we eat more fat than a chimp, but I don't think that gets us anywhere. Especially since one of our closest relatives, the neanderthal, was practically a carnivore.
They consider the diet composition of modern hunter-gatherers that eat low-fat diets, but don't include data on others with high-fat diets like the Inuit.


There's some good information in the book, if you're willing to dig through a lot of esoteric data on the isotope ratios of extinct hominids and that sort of thing.

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