The true and natural origins of the food we eat today began to evolve several million years ago in Africa and developed over the millennia until about 300 thousand years ago when Neanderthals began colonization in Europe. The Neanderthals became extinct about 40,000 years ago but not before mixing culture and DNA with the “out of Africa” migration of Homo Sapiens about 40-60,000 years ago, which ultimately succeeded in populating the globe with minor or major variations of humans.
As the massive migration subsequently took place, adaptation to various climates, terrain, food sources (plants and animals), and even changes related to population growth and overcrowding occurred. During the Paleolithic period (Stone Age) between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, the basic adaptation to the “hunter-gatherer” diet of meats and plants took place. These people lived off what the land provided, and the age of agriculture and animal husbandry did not begin until about 9,000 years B.C.
At that time there were about four million people on earth, and food choices and availability began to change dramatically. By then, the migrating groups of humans (homo sapiens) had moved to and colonized even as far as North and South America. They began to grow and harvest grains and plants which were indigenous to their area, adapting to soil and climate. Rice was the main crop in Asia, while wheat in the Middle East, Europe, and Russia was dominant. Maize (corn) and manioc had origins in South America and made their way to Europe and Asia in the 1500s. Wheat evolved from a plant (goat grass) into emmer wheat and finally bread wheat. With the harvesting of grains, the population began to swell, and about 1400 A.D. was nearly 400 million.
Since this pathway offered different food choices than the Paleolithic humans had eaten, the human body did not accept the changes so well. In the Paleo period, five pounds of food had around 3,000 calories, whereas with the new reliance on grains (processed food), five pounds of food equaled 9,000 calories. Thus began the shrinkage of the population (Neanderthals and Paleolithics were taller) and the emergence of new health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, dental caries, and arthritis. Other diseases followed later with increased processing of food with added chemicals, hormones, and flavor-altering compounds.
Sometime around 1,000 A.D., the emergence of seafaring trade began and Chinese ships began visiting the busy port of Venice. Marco Polo visited China in 1271 and brought back many new foods including noodles, which when made with wheat (pasta) and the newly imported American tomato, gave the origin to Italian pasta which contributed to much pleasure in eating, population growth, and obesity with its associated medical problems.
About that time sweet potatoes, potatoes, peanuts, and corn came to Europe from the Americas. These products contributed mostly carbs but minimal protein, so that many people in the old world became undernourished as far as protein was concerned. In addition, coffee from Arabia, tea from China, and chocolate from South America were incorporated into the European and Middle Eastern menu choices. Then a food that is the scourge of the modern world emerged as a food additive (sugarcane, which originated in India in the 1400s). It was grown and harvested widely in the newly settled West Indies and turned into sugar and rum.
Combining sugar, coffee, milk, tea, chocolate, and wheat-based foods in various combinations led to additional pleasures and health problems in Europe, and subsequently the growing population of North America. During these few hundred years, the diet of humans, whose genetic evolution had extended over 2 million years, had radically changed from a healthy plant and meat-based diet to a calorie compacted low-protein diet which was largely devoid of nutrients and predisposed a huge majority of the population to a high calorie version of a starvation diet.
When Native Americans, Eskimos, and Africans became dependent on these foods, they developed a high incidence of diabetes and heart trouble. Today the population of the earth is nearly 8 billion people. The average age is 29, and this population is active and consuming a lot of food. The overall need for food in today’s world means people rely even more on processed grains and sugars and take in fewer plant nutrients and less protein.
We now have, in the U.S. and many other developed countries, a high percentage of obese, undernourished people and 29 million pre- or full-blown diabetics. When we look at this total picture and realize that the obesity-linked “low-fat” diet has been promoted (wrongly) in the U.S. over the past 15 or so years, it is really discouraging to us. The attitude toward and knowledge of fats in general by the dietary and medical professions has been abysmal. Instead of promoting butter, cheese, nuts, and tropical oils (e.g., coconut), which are healthy fats, the food industry has incorporated extremely unhealthy hydrogenated and trans-fats into processed foods.
Along with all of the problems of unhealthy foods and limited availability of truly nutrient (and organic) foods for the world population, we will see a rise in obesity, diseases, and even more areas of famine, all of which will be fueled by the global rise in temperature, which will cause negative changes in world food production and availability of food from our oceans.
However, with all the negative problems we see, there are so many positive elements, the most important of which are the epidemiological studies relating disease to nutrients and our emerging knowledge of what food to eat, how much of it, and what supplements are necessary. We can eat the right quantities of a balanced diet, get adequate amounts of nutrients and supplements, and engage in the proper level of activity to remain healthy.
Whatever your age is, if you take the best care of yourself and stick to a diet rich in wholesome, healthy food, you should be able to live to your 90s, especially given the fact that we are still increasing our knowledge base in nutrition and having more new medical innovations to see us through our health crises.
Dr. James Carraway is a plastic surgeon at the Cosmetic & Plastic Surgery Center of EVMS. Call 757-557-0300.