What’s wrong with the ‘Western’ diet?

Despite some commitment to not watching bollocks telly, I recently found myself seduced into witnessing the glamour model Jordan and ex-Kitten Kerry McFadden make a right meal out of an assortment of creepy crawlies on ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!’ Watching these bosom pals’ theatrical attempts at downing some very unappetising cockroaches and insect larvae reminded me how cultural our eating habits are. While many of us may be repulsed by the idea of munching on, say, a locust, but think nothing of sinking our teeth into a juicy prawn (come on, they’re not pretty)? Hard though this may be for some to swallow, some indigenous populations habitually chomp their way through a fair amount of grubs and bugs, and would presumably be only too pleased to find a fly in their soup.

Sneaking a peak at the preferred fare of primal-living populations may have some entertainment value, but is also useful in that it can provide us with clues about what our ancient ancestors ate during the evolution of our species. My belief is that we have much to gain from examining our nutritional history, as it can help inform us about the foods to which our body is best adapted. DNA analysis suggests that our oldest ancestors (the hominids) diverged from the chimps some several million years ago. It appears that for a large part of our early evolution on this planet we ate a diet consisting mainly of fruit, meat and insects, perhaps supplemented with a few eggs and some honey from time to time.

More latterly, grasses, roots and tubers seem to have been an important food source. However, even once the hominids decided to ground in search of food, meat is believed to have persisted in the diet and was almost certainly the major food source for the Neanderthals (about 150,000 – 30,000 years ago). The Neanderthals appear to have given way to a new breed of hunter-gatherer whose diet included fish and seafood. However, it is only until about 10,000 years ago that man began to cultivate crops for the growing of grains such as wheat and rice. The rearing of animals for their milk products is another relatively recent phenomenon – one that dates back about 5000 years.

Because our genetic make-up is almost identical to that of 10,000 years ago, our digestive systems and physiological mechanisms are unlikely to be well placed to deal with the grain and dairy-based Western diet. A significant and ever-growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the profound and recent changes that have befallen the human diet are a major factor in the emergence of quite contemporary conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

While I do not advocate the complete removal of grain and dairy products from the diet, my belief is that it does not make sense that these foods should assume the nutritional prominence traditionally advised by the dietetic and medical establishments. We may do well to remember that standard nutritional messages are strongly influenced by a food industry whose motives are unlikely to have much to do with public health, and more to do with profit. When it comes to choosing the best diet for our species, my belief is that it pays for history to repeat itself.

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