There’s no shortage of analyses of why we 21st century folks are so unhealthy, despite our high-tech, info-immersive, healthcare-centric lifestyles. Now, here’s the solution to that dilemma.
What’s the basic problem of modern man?
By “man” I mean humanity.
By “modern” I mean postwar, Western societies.
And by “problem” I mean a fundamental dynamic that crosses economic, social and demographic categories as a virtually universal affliction.
With those stipulations, here’s my answer to the question of our basic problem: A radical departure from the lifestyle that marked the first, oh, million or so years of the existence of Homo sapiens, that’s what.
I don’t make that claim based solely on my own insights, formidable as I like to pretend they are. Rather, it’s the conclusion of a thoroughly sourced, elegantly developed thesis of a bona fide researcher published in the scientific journal Nutrition and Dietetics.
Of course, when the findings of actual, credentialed scientists align with my own top-of-mind musings, let me tell you: It’s pretty satisfying.
The author of the article in question, titled, “Meat in the human diet: An anthropological perspective,” is Neil Mann, a retired professor of nutritional biochemistry at RMIT University in Melbourne and a member of Australia’s Mulloon Institute Science Advisory Council. His conclusion is summarized as follows: “Numerous evolutionary adaptations in humans indicate high reliance on meat consumption.”
Meaning that, contrary to the proselytization of today’s activist veganistas, the human race progressed through untold millennia on the basis of a diet rich in animal foods, not the processed plant proteins we’re now supposed to believe is our “natural” sustenance.
The evolutionary timeline
As Dr. Mann detailed, human diets were transformed four or five million years ago, as climate change back then created open grassland environments suitable for the grazing megafauna that sustained eons of human existence.
“We developed a larger brain balanced by a smaller, simpler gastrointestinal tract requiring higher quality foods based around meat protein and fat,” he wrote, noting that his assertion is backed up by fossil evidence of early hominid dental features and isotope analysis of those fossilized remains.
Anthropologists already knew all that, but studies of more recent hunter‐gatherer societies also demonstrated an “extreme reliance” on animal foods derived from hunting and fishing.
Of course, vegetarians argue that we’ve evolved beyond such reliance on animal foods, although since no-meat-for-me vegetarianism first came to prominence a mere two centuries ago, it hardly qualifies as “evolution.”
While there’s little scientific controversy over whether Paleolithic diets represent “a reference standard for modern human nutrition and a model for defense against certain Western‐lifestyle diseases,” as Mann phrased it, there is the matter of the Garden of Eden fantasy, a favorite framing of born-again veggie believers.
According to that theory, humans evolved largely as herbivorous creatures, living in some Garden of Eden-type of environment, where, to quote Genesis, people ate “Every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the Earth, and every fruit of a tree yielding seed, which shall be for meat.”
Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that Eden didn’t exist, the reality is that modern dietary changes, like veganism, are incompatible with the human physiology that evolved over millions of years.
Mann’s article quoted Dr. Boyd Eaton, a diagnostic radiologist, professor of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta and one of the world’s leading experts in pre-agricultural human diets and ancestral eating patterns.
“We are the heirs of inherited characteristics accrued over millions of years … prior to the advent of agriculture,” Eaton stated. “Genetically, our bodies are virtually the same as they were at the end of the Paleolithic period.”
And that was 10,000 years ago.
Which means that humans didn’t biologically adapt well to the new foods made available by the development of agriculture and certainly not to the immense dietary changes that followed the Industrial Revolution beginning only 200 years ago. As Eaton phrased it, there is “an inevitable discordance between our [current] dietary intake and that which our genes are suited to, a discordance hypothesis [that] could explain many of the chronic diseases of civilization.”
I’ve flogged that thesis relentlessly in this space over the years, but there’s one other factor to consider in pinpointing the epidemiology of humanity’s modern medical problems, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes: activity, or more precisely, the lack thereof.
When scientists such as Drs. Mann and Eaton reference “hunter-gathers” as models for how people maintain optimal health, it’s not just their reliance on unprocessed, natural animal foods that matters. It’s also the fact that hunting and gathering qualifies as the “vigorous daily exercise” in which our doctors urge us to engage.
Not that most physicians I’ve ever encountered could be considered paragons of fitness — but they sure know how to lecture the rest of about exercising as they say, not as they do.
So there you have it: The genesis of the lifestyle diseases plaguing our (allegedly) advanced and educated societies — our lifestyles.
We live on processed snacks and fast food and we spend our lives sitting at our desks, sitting in our cars, sitting on our couches and eventually sitting in some doctor’s office being told we need to eat better, exercise more and lose the excess weight gain those behaviors inevitably trigger.
We can’t go back to a whole lot of daily hunting and gathering, but at least we can resume eating like our ancestors did.
Because that would solve a big piece of our basic lifestyle problem.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.