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By Jack Challem Copyright © 1997 by Jack Challem, The Nutrition Reporter™. All rights reserved. You are what you eat - and, perhaps surprisingly, you also are what your ancestors ate. Just as individual genetics and experiences influence your nutritional requirements, millions of years of evolution have also shaped your need for specific nutrients. The implications? Your genes, which control every function of your body, are essentially the same as those of your early ancestors. Feed these genes well, and they do their job keeping your healthy. Give these genes nutrients that are unfamiliar or in the wrong ratios, and they go awry - aging faster, malfunctioning, and leading to disease. According to S. Boyd Eaton, M.D., one of the foremost authorities on paleolithic (prehistoric) diets, modern diets are out of sync with our genetic requirements. He makes the point that the less you eat like your ancestors, the more susceptible you'll be to coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other "diseases of civilization."1 To chart the right direction for improving your current or future nutrition, you have to understand - and often adopt - the diet of the past. The Origins Of Life And Nutrients It helps to go back to the beginning - the very beginning. Denham Harman, M.D., Ph.D., who conceived the free radical theory of aging, also theorized that free radicals were a major player in the origin and evolution of life on Earth. According to Harman, professor emeritus of the University of Nebraska, Omaha, free radicals most likely triggered the chemical reactions that lead to the first and simplest forms of life some 3.5 billion years ago. But because free radical oxidation can be destructive, antioxidant defenses - including vitamins - likely developed soon after and ensured the survival of life.2 In fact, the first building blocks of life may have been created when solar radiation oxidized compounds in the primordial oceans and beaches to produce pantetheine, a form of the B-vitamin pantothenic acid, according to chemist Stanley L. Miller, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego.3
and how processed foods were becoming more popular than fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact.Pantetheine is the cornerstone of coenzyme A. a molecule that helps amino acids link together . nutritionist Jean Bogert noted. Before the advent of agriculture about 10. according to Eaton.000 years ago. In turn.formed and helped construct the countless forms of life.amino acids. People also began consuming large amounts of grain. and refined sugar started to become commonplace. with the growth of fast-food restaurants. people shifted from nomadic groups to relatively stable and larger societies to tend the fields. they rarely if ever drank milk beyond infancy or ate grains . and minerals . With the industrial revolution. whole grains were routinely refined. according to Eaton. Reflecting on the changes in 1939. a radiologist and medical anthropologist at Emory University. Today's Diet. Until they began cultivating grains and livestock. Over the past 40 years. Culture and knowledge flourished.000 years ago. 99 percent of our genetic heritage dates from before our biological ancestors evolved into Homo sapiens about 40. the diet changed even more dramatically. removing much of their nutrition.4 Bogert was also disturbed by the growing use of refined cereal grains and sugar. the ratio of meat and vegetables varied with geographic location.and makes possible the creation of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) the building blocks of your genes. People rely even more on processed rather than fresh foods. "The machine age has had the effect of forcing upon the peoples of the industrial nations (especially the United States) the most gigantic human feeding experiment ever attempted. and domesticated meat.99 percent of our genes were formed before the development of agriculture about 10. Yesterday's Genes What we are . climate. According to Eaton. all people were hunter-gatherers: they gathered various fruits and vegetables to eat.000 years ago. And they became more sedentary as well. and season.can be deduced from paleontological data (mostly ancient bones and coprolites) and the observed habits of hunter-gatherer tribes that survived into the 20th century. lipids. vitamins. the average diet has changed even more dramatically than Bogert could have imagined. Of course. "That the vast majority of our genes are . many more molecules . Beginning around 1900. the many dietary changes over the past 10. and 99.000 years have outpaced our ability to genetically adapt to them. they hunted animals for their meat. With the spread of agriculture. Over the next several billion years.and were . people were still hunter-gatherers. milk. these life forms became dependent on essentially the same group of nutrients.
"Current carbohydrates often takes the form of sugars and sweeteners. to the diet H. our diet today fails to provide the biochemical and molecular requirements of H. vegetables. Today's panoply of diets ." he says."6 The Paleolithic Diet By working with anthropologists. Over the course of a year. promoting regular bowel movements. our bodies now are virtually the same as they were then. gatherer-hunters typically consumed more than 100 different species of fruits and vegetables.bear little resemblance. vitamins.Products of this sort.7 Here's how the major dietary constituents stack up past and present. According to Gladys Block. Carbohydrates. a nutritional epidemiologist at .000 years. roots.] Today.from fast-food burgers to various concepts of balanced diets and food groups . "The problem is that our genes don't know it. Eaton has created what many experts consider a clear picture of our prehistoric diet and lifestyle. Genetically.000 generations of people were hunter-gatherers.5 Looked at in another way. minerals and possibly phytochemicals.000 years ago. 500 generations have depended on agriculture. nuts and other naturally occurring noncereal plant sources. and only two generations have grown up with highly processed fast foods. Most carbohydrates came from vegetables and fruit.ancient in origin means that nearly all of our biochemistry and physiology are fine-tuned to conditions of life that existed before 10." Eaton points out. vitamin intake is lower today and the dietary fatty acid profile is substantially different from our evolutionary diet. "They are programming us today in much the same way they have been programming humans for at least 40. legumes. Ph. Early humans obtained about half of their calories from carbohydrates. together with items made from highly refined grain flours constitute empty calories... superficially or in actual nutritional constituents. but these carbohydrates were rarely grains." says Eaton. For example. 100. In other words.. fewer than 9 percent of Americans eat the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.devoid of accompanying essential amino and fatty acids. Says Eaton: "The fiber in preagricultural diets came almost exclusively from fruits..D. and fiber..8 Fruits. and only 10 generations have lived since the start of the industrial age." [Phytic acid interferes with mineral absorption. sapiens and its ancestors consumed over millions of years. sapiens. These foods provided more than 100 grams of fiber daily. so it was less associated with phytic acid than is fiber from cereal grains.
9 Protein and Fat. But a more ideal ratio. The rest is added during processing. "Life during the agricultural period was also strenuous. Berkeley. says Eaton. Much of this protein came from what people now call "game meat" . Vitamin C And Human Evolution . and skeletal remains indicate that they were typically more muscular than we are today. According to Eaton.. Most Americans consume an 11:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.the University of California. or seasoning at the table.is especially dramatic. our ancestors consumed a higher percentage of omega-3 fatty acids . In contrast. although it varied with the season and geographic location. the typical adult American consumes about 4. Even people who regularly do eat fruits and vegetables generally limit themselves to a handful of different foods. roots and other noncereals that provided 65-70% of typical gatherer-hunter subsistence were generally consumed within hours of being gathered. gathering and hunting required considerable physical effort. such as deer and bison. cooking." says Eaton.10 Based on contemporary studies of hunter-gatherer societies.it seems inescapable that preagrarian humans would generally have had an intake of most vitamins and minerals that exceeded currently recommended dietary allowances. but industrialization has progressively reduced obligatory physical exertion. early humans consumed only an estimated 600 mg of sodium. early humans consumed relatively large amounts of cholesterol (480 mg daily). based on evolutionary and anthropological data. are the "only free-living terrestrial mammals whose electrolyte intake exhibits this relationship. with little or no processing and often uncooked. "Their nomadic foraging lifestyle required vigorous physical exertion."13 That reversed ratio could be one reason why people are so prone to hypertension and other heart ailments. People. There are a couple of reasons for this.and we probably should too.electrolyte minerals necessary for normal heart function . Game meats and wild plant foods contain higher amounts of vitamins and minerals relative to their protein and carbohydrates.undomesticated animals. which would have burned fat and lowered cholesterol levels. about 3.. but 7."11 Vitamins and minerals. but less than 10 percent of this amount occurs naturally in food. Early humans consumed about 30 percent protein. would be in the range of 1:1 to 4:1. which means early humans exercised a lot. In other words. Two.000 mg daily."12 The difference in consumption of sodium and potassium .000 mg of potassium daily. One. but their blood cholesterol levels were much lower than those of the average American (about 125 mg per deciliter of blood). nuts.000 mg of sodium daily. Observes Eaton: "The fruits. Potassium consumption is lower. domestication of animals increases their saturated fat levels and alters the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. legumes.
industrial changes.5 to 5 times higher than today. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant. Eaton does not favor "megadoses" of vitamins. This theory regarding how our evolutionary ancestors lost their ability to produce vitamin C is generally accepted by scientists.can dramatically shift the course of evolution. Two thousand years ago. Now. more recently. Ph. The question: where do we and our diets go from here? . But nearly all other species of animals.15 Ironically. At least some of the species survived and evolved into H. losing the ability to produce vitamin C may have actually accelerated the evolution of primates into modern human beings.D. Some of these mutations would also have been inherited by offspring. continued to produce their own vitamin C. According to the theory of "punctuated equilibrium. there is evolutionary evidence that large doses of vitamin C may be needed for optimal health. creating many biological variations . life span was not particularly long.Although dietary vitamin and mineral levels in the past were 1. Better hygiene and sanitation have largely accounted for the dramatic improvement in life expectancy in the 20th century.8-13 grams of vitamin C daily. cardiovascular disease and cancer. contributing to the aging process and diseases. sapiens. Evolution often zigzags rather than follows a linear flow. Based on animal data. However. from insects to mammals. The reason has less to do with diet and more to do with an evolutionary accident. according to biochemist Irwin Stone. These excessive free radicals would have caused large numbers of DNA mutations.. the average life expectancy was a mere 22 years. he estimated that people might require 1. Stone's other theory is more controversial. and infections and traumatic injury were the principal causes of death. catastrophic events . He contended that people never lost the need for large amounts of vitamin C.D. One species might wipe out another by eating it. even though they lost the ability to make it. and losing the ability to produce it would have allowed the formation of large number of free radicals. Ph. Climatic and. of Harvard University. according to a new theory. This particular event led to a mutation that prevented our all of this species' descendants from manufacturing own vitamin C.14 One such catastrophic event of an unknown nature affected the pre-primate ancestors of humans sometime between 25 and 70 million years ago. also destroy species.one of which eventually become H.16 A Diet For The Future For much of human history.D. they are increasingly susceptible to greater amounts of free radical damage and their principal endpoints. sapiens because they lived in a lush equatorial region with vitamin Crich foods.such as an asteroid striking the Earth .." proposed by Niles Eldredge. as people live longer. Ph. and Stephen Jay Gould.
. 1 Eaton SB. 23. With a clear understanding of this diet. Rosenberger WF. Age 1994. Nutrition and Physical Fitness. Konner MJ. the same year that Bogert bemoaned the rise of highly refined foods.D.. 10 Eaton SB and Konner M. Philadelphia: Saunders. Regardless. but says nothing about whether a higher being was guiding the process. Feb. op cit.and that our diets are not satisfying our genetic requirements. op cit.. based on providing ideal levels of vitamins and other nutrients on a molecular level. et al. Block G. and Konner M. Newton GL. In 1939. Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi. 1988:39. Ph. and Miller SL.D. "An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements.and give us a sound foundation to build on. Roger Williams. The evidence suggests we should be eating a lot of plant foods and modest amounts of game meat.. Eaton SB III. 4 Bogert LJ. 2 Harman D: Aging: Prospects for further increases in the functional life span. more natural diet. 1996. M. we have to recognize how certain molecules shaped our lives over millions of years. a precursor to coenzyme A. Paleolithic diets provide provide those clues .D. the diet of today is very different from. et al." Nature. 6 Eaton. "Paleolithic Nutrition: A consideration of its nature and .. op cit. the diet of the past. Ph. June 1996. it's clear that modern diets are on the wrong track . 1996.. The Paleolithic Prescription: A program of diet & exercise and a design for living.373:683-5. 1939:437. We can also do a better job of individualizing and optimizing our nutritional requirements. et al. et al. we have an opportunity to adopt to a better. 8 Eaton.. __________ A note to my friends who don't believe in evolution: Evolution describes the mechanism of how life develops. and not always as good as. "Fruit and vegetables in the American diet: data from the NHANES II survey. 80:1443-1449." American Journal of Public Health. 9 Patterson BH. et al. Based on our evolutionary and paleolithic diets.17:119-46.. would also promote the concept of optimal nutrition. and Linus Pauling." Journal of Nutrition. December 1990. 1995.D. 3 Keefe AD.Our evolutionary diet provides important clues to the "baseline" levels and ratios of nutrients needed for health.126:1732-40. Ph. 5 Eaton SB. 7 Eaton. 1988:41. New York: Harper & Row. "A possible prebiotic synthesis of pantetheine. Shostak M.. Pauling eloquently and often observed that health depended on the presence of nutritional molecules. explored the importance of optimal (and not just minimal) requirements of vitamins. but no grains or dairy products. perhaps to protect and prime our genes even further. To set a dietary course for the future. Years later.
Jan 31. 14 Eldredge N. Schopf TJM. 1983. 11 Eaton. 15 Stone I.10:133-4. and Gould SJ.thenutritionreporter. et al. "Did the Loss of Endogenous Ascorbate Propel the Evolution of Anthropoidea and Homo sapiens?" Medical Hypotheses. 1996. 13 Eaton.current implications." Perspect Biol Med 1966.html . 12 Eaton.312:283-9.. 16 Challem JJ. 1972. San Francisco: Freeman Cooper. This article originally appeared in Nutrition Science News. copyright © 1998 The Nutrition Reporter™ . op cit. in press. op cit.com return to www.thenutritionreporter.updated 05/25/98 for more information contact jack@thenutritionreporter. 1996. For diagnosis and treatment.." New England Journal of Medicine. editor. "Hypoascorbemia. "Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism. the genetic disease causing the human requirement for exogenous ascorbic acid.. 1996. consult your physician." in Models in paleobiology.com/ (The Nutrition Reporter homepage) you are at: www.com/stone_age_diet. et al. op cit. The information provided by Jack Challem and The Nutrition Reporter™ newsletter is strictly educational and not intended as medical advice. et al.
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