Monday, August 1, 2011

Ancestral Nutrition: An Alternative Approach

I gave that title to the talk I will give at the Ancestral Health Symposium this Friday morning at UCLA.

I wrote this description of it:


For about 65 million years our primate ancestors consumed plant-dominated diets. Humans developed the technological ability to consume meat-based diets only within the last 2 million years, so at least 98 percent of the evolution producing our basic primate physiology occurred before humans could obtain meat-based diets.
Condensing the 65 million years of primate evolution into a 24 hour period, our ancestral diet was plant-based for at least 23 hours and 30 minutes, and animal-based diets emerged only within the last 30 minutes.

Ninety-eight percent of the human genome is identical to the nearest primate relative, chimpanzees, who eat a 95 percent plant diet.  Recent hunter-gatherers consume up to 20 times more meat than chimpanzees on a percent energy basis, a substantial deviation from the primate baseline.     

Similar to other primates, humans retain many physiological and behavioral features displaying adaptation to a plant-based diet, some of which are potentially maladaptive for diets supplying a high proportion of energy from meat, fat, or refined carbohydrates.  Recent hunter-gatherers and pastoralists appear protected from maladaptive responses to animal-based diets by their baseline body composition, ecological context, low total energy intake, and evolved non-nutritive ingestive behaviors. 

Modern people adopting meat-based ‘paleo-facsimile” diets may differ from recent hunter-gatherers in lifetime caloric balance, body composition, ecological context, and non-nutritive ingestive behaviors.   By comparing hunter-gatherers and modern people, I show how the quality, quantity, and context of meat consumption will affect the outcome for any individual. 

Plant and animal foods generally have opposite yet complementary nutritional characteristics.  I present an integration of Chinese medical yin-yang theory with Western nutrition that can enable us to understand the relation each type of food (plant or animal) to modern diseases of deficiency or excess,  and can help guide us to identify an appropriate dietary plant-animal ratio for any individual.
 Time permitting, I plan to post a preview sometime later this week, and after the symposium, I will present the lecture in blog form.  

33 comments:

Alan said...

1. Don, are you taking into account the insect-animal calories which were/are eaten by primates? This food is nutrient-dense.

2. On a 24-hour basis, I calculate that we spent 23 hours and 59 minutes living underwater before emerging onto land.... should we therefore now feel motivated to stop being focused on breathing air?

Don said...

Alan,

1. Yes. Plant BASED does not mean plant ONLY.

2. Facetious. Where did I say anything about stopping doing anything essential to life? It is obvious that oxygen is a requirement of our life, as surely as water, B12, protein, etc, etc.. Nowhere did I suggest that we should 'feel motivated' to stop doing anything essential to life. Your reasoning as if I said that since our pre-primate ancestors didn't need dietary vitamin C, we should stop eating it.

I will show that humans currently carry many traits adapted to plant-based (BTW, plant BASED does not mean plant ONLY, as you seem to have assumed), in fact many more than to meat consumption, and that we have definite evidence that some of those traits may be maladaptive for meat consumption, DEPENDING on the QUALITY, QUANTITY, AND CONTEXT of meat consumption . EVERYTHING IS RELATIVE.

I find it odd that some people readily recognize that agriculture (a technology) allowed us to produce a diet to which we might not have biological adaptation yet, but can't bring themselves to entertain the possibility that the rapid development of hunting and domestication technologies might have enabled us to increase the animal portion our our diets more rapidly than our biology can adapt to this change.

The fact that man is, like most other primates, an omnivore does not mean that he is completely adapted to a diet supplying a high proportion of calories from animal foods. Most human adaptations are cultural and behavioral, not biological, and I have already shown and will show again examples of human groups that appear to have evolved non-nutritive ingestive behaviors that mitigate the negative effects of high animal food consumption on our physiology.

Jack B. Nimble said...

This will certainly be an incendiary address at the symposium, I can guarantee you that!

But I think you're on the right track. Remember, the frequently cited Paleo chronology from 50,000 to 2.5mm years ago. Now, that sounds impressive! But you examine that closely and realize that includes the time when humanity existed as Australopithecines and homo erectus. Anatomically modern humans only date back 200,000 years. Fully modern homo sapiens arose only 25,000 years ago, and they coexisted part of that time with Neanderthals, the only known modern human who ate a largely carnivorous diet.

If you believe that agriculture indeed arose 10,000 years ago, I would think that that 10 grand is sufficient for humany to have evolved to tolerate a diet full of agricultural products. Products that have been genetically modified (wheat, corn, soy) may be an exception. But along with the tubers, I would tend to think rice, millets, other grains and legumes are more or less suited for human consumption.

Stipetic said...

"The fact that man is, like most other primates, an omnivore does not mean that he is completely adapted to a diet supplying a high proportion of calories from animal foods."

100% incorrect. The ability to eat meat, and lots of it, is what made man.

And Alan's point about breathing air is valid (as comparison to your day clock...why stop at 65 million years?). People with eyes see, people without...

Valtsu said...

Regarding that chimpanzee thing, Chris Masterjohn wrote on his public FB page:
"Human sequences are 99% genetically identical with chimpanzee sequences. Oh wait, 6.4% of human genes don't even exist in chimpanzees. Guess it depends on how you splice the data."

Eric said...

Hope we can get a transcript or video of the presentation... Including the comment/question session that is sure to follow :)

Don said...

Valtsu,

The genes that occur in humans but not in chimps, or vice versa, make each a unique species.

The genes that occur in both humans and chimps make both primates.

Humans didn't stop being primates and didn't jettison all primate adaptations at any point in time.

Humans retain MANY primate features of physiology and biochemistry. Why would anyone want to deny this?

tomR said...

If you arguing about proportions (eg. lower vs. higher carbs/fat) then human-chimp relationship is the worst possible example to choose.

Apparently what differs the most between us and them are genes that control other genes. So proportion and timigs of features can be very different; despite building blocks being the same.

Think neoteny (being eternal juvenile, no adult phase), that gave humans ability to learn even while old, while animals have it severly limited after some initial phase. Or lactose tolerance genes - no coding for new proteins, just other way of controlling present genes. Or having the ability to produce lots of amylase - same genes, just more of them. Or larger brain (=more of neurons).

What these can show though are things like what we can't do because of not having proteins (protein coding genes - seem to be similar in both species). Like not having the ability to digest seed lectins (unlike birds) or having no ability to produce Vitamin C.

There are also theories that human-chimp split was not a single event, but a few-time affair with recurring separation and meating again phases. That would strongly suggest geographical separation; most likely different environments.

john said...

I feel like you yourself have argued against this in the past. How can you recommend rice or cooked tubers (or any cooked food) if you truly think this [the chimpanzee comparison] is a strong point?

Don said...

John,

My understanding has evolved.You will see...there are specific features of human biochemistry shared with primates that remain operative, are adaptations to a plant-dominated diet, and can, IN CERTAIN CONTEXTS, are maladaptive for meat-dominated diets. In hunter-gatherer CONTEXT, they generally will NOT be maladaptive; but in the CONTEXT of Affluence, the will be maladaptive for many individuals.

My perspective will explain why there are literally thousands of studies linking meat consumption to diseases of affluence in affluent nations, and laboratory studies backing them, but little or no sign of these diseases among recent hunter-gatherers. Its not just about quality (wild vs domesticated), it is about the nutritional CONTEXT of the meat consumption.

Alan said...

>>> agriculture (a technology) allowed us to produce a diet to which we might not have biological adaptation yet, but can't bring themselves to entertain the possibility that the rapid development of hunting and domestication technologies might have enabled us to increase the animal portion our our diets more rapidly than our biology can adapt to this change


An extremely astute observation. I believe your statement is an original formulation in the paleo-blogosphere. And those are scarce.


I look forward to someday sitting down and having a meal with you. You bring the poison-ivy leaves; I'll bring the ziplock bag of large, juicy termites.

For desert, we can interbreed with some hot Neanderthal chix. I've heard that they'll jump into the sack with the first Cro-Magnon dude who presents them with lip rouge made from the red beets we C-M's domesticated a few years ago.

Bog said...

Brilliant, Don. You are a pioneer within the paleo community. People do not need but to look at the chubby meat-based diet advocates (Cordain, Sears, Atkins, Taubes) and make comparison to McDougall, Barnard, Esselstyn, etc. The alarm bells should be ringing :)

I remember a professor of agriculture studies in my homecountry once used the 24-hour example, but according to him humans have been eating meat just the last six minutes.

Lucas Tafur said...

Apart from differences on gut morphology between humans and great apes, you state:

"Ninety-eight percent of the human genome is identical to the nearest primate relative, chimpanzees, who eat a 95 percent plant diet. "

Everyone with a basic understanding of genetics will know that genome comparison is a valuable tool for phylogenetic analysis. However, caution must be made when trying to interpret this data.

What is more important at a physiological level is patterns gene expression (transcriptome). Moreover, the transcriptome only tells us what genes are being transcribed but not necessarily being translated (proteome), which is what we are ultimately interested in. This has striking effects on development on any level and organism. Timing of gene expression is key for development. Other factors that affect this process are alternative splicing, cis/trans regulation, genome rearrangements, among others.

Because of this, using this as "proof" of a better diet is incorrect. We could make the same assertion, as for example, mice and humans, averaging 85% similarity.

Bog said...

Thank god for agriculture..

“World War II provided a graphic example of how the ravages of these diseases could be totally halted. Norway was one of several western European nations occupied by Nazi Germany during the conflict between 1939 through 1945. The Germans removed all animal livestock from these occupied countries. The native population subsisted on whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit. Almost immediately death from heart attacks and strokes in Norway plummeted. With the cessation of hostilities in 1945 animal products became available as well as an immediate return to the prewar levels of deaths from these illnesses. It is a powerful lesson in public health about the cause and cure of our most common killer-heart disease”.

Caldwell Esselstyn, MD.

Alex said...

Unlike the rats, perhaps, eating a high fat diet depresses my appetite and causes me to lose weight. If I just eat what I want from the real food kingdom--plants and animals in their unprocessed form, but also no grains--occasional measurement shows that I'm eating around 55% fat. Moreover, I don't need to eat all the time--one meal goes a long way. This isn't a recommendation but an observation of what happens with me. A basic "paleo" regime as defined by, say, Loren Cordain, also gives me plenty of energy to work out and makes it easier to put on muscle. It does nothing, however, for my psoriasis, as you would predict.

Alex said...

I meant to thank you for this blog--it's very interesting and serves as a balance to the Robb Wolf, Cordains and other now mainstream paleo advocates. On the other hand, if you read Cordain or someone like Mark Sisson closely, you'll see that they are advocating a vegetable and in some cases fruit heavy diet, as well as a lot of meat. Largest volume is always veggies and fruits--but more calories come from fats, of course, because they are so much easier to ingest. I'll generally eat a huge salad at some point in the day--up to 200 grams of lettuces, and tons of tomato, peppers, celery, broccoli, etc.--but the majority of the calories still come from the three or four tablespoons of olive oil that go on top, a lot less from the can of tuna that I usually put in. This would be a meal totally in line with mainstream paleo--and I'm not so sure it's really all that far from where you are, with the exception of the oil. But then consuming that many fresh vegetables in a salad without oil is tough.... In any case, thanks for this blog.

Bog said...

@Alex

you can make your stomach adjust to more water-dense foods by just training, by eating lots of water dense-foods, that is. Our current Western meat & dairy based diet provides huge amount of calories in a tiny package. Great for survival, not great for thriving. This means we have to "practise" awhile to get our stomach streched. Once this happens you no longer need any mechanically pressed, non-whole food sources to aid with the calory intake.

See it like yoga, little practise yields longer muscles. Just as muscles, stomach has ability to strech and accustome to less intense food.

Dustin C said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dustin C said...

The tarsiers are an entirely carnivorous primate in Southeast Asia.

Here is a study investigating AMY1 gene in various ethnic groups, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Humans have more copies of the gene (varying from each other and dependent on diet history) where as the chimpanzees have a few and bonobos tested had none. Chimpanzees and bonobos seem to be more oriented towards fruit based diets rather than starch for humans.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2377015/

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Marvin Harris in either one of his books Food and Evolution or Good to Eat. His research is a little out dated, so I’m uncertain if things have changed so I could be mistaken. He provides reasonable explanation how primates prefer animal products over plants whenever available. The enormous consumption of plants is due to the endless search for insects within the fruit/plants rather than the fruit itself. There is a wide range of material discussed in his books that are relevant to this topic.

I don’t think using the genome comparison is entirely valid.

noah said...

@ Bog
Just because Dr Esselton says its so doesn't make it so. Show me the data from Norway. Here's a large study showing a protective correlation between fat intake, saturated fat included, and stroke deaths.
http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/278/24/2145.abstract
Simple caloric restriction dramatically lowers heart disease:
http://www.webmd.com/heart/news/20040419/calorie-restriction-lowers-heart-risk
Starve a country for 4 years and watch heart disease deaths drop.

noah said...

re the Norway heart disease drop during WWII.
This is the classic Ornish method of data distortion. Two known heart disease risk factors, smoking and lower activity levels both moved in the protective direction during the WWII years in Norway.
So even though increased saturated fat consumption does not increase heart disease, this type of lumping of correlation with actual causation continues to dupe people.

no increased risk

Alan said...

>>> But then consuming that many fresh vegetables in a salad without oil is tough


different strokes for different Cro-Magnons. I have stopped using ANY extrinsic flavorings on vegetables, as I want to taste the vegetables, not the goop! If the vegetables on your plate have little or no inherent taste.... it means you are eating objects which have been optimized for profitability; so find a different source!

Observing normative behavior at a public salad bar, makes me think that you could just as easily serve red paper-mache thingies as real tomatos - as long as it reaches their mouth drenched in "Lite Ranch" flavor, they'll chew it, swallow it, and believe that they've done what they need to do to undo the chocolate-cheesecake they're gonna be eating in about 30 minutes....

nothing91 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nothing91 said...

This might be your best post yet, Don. More confirmation bias condensed into a few paragraphs than I would have thought possible. Can't wait for the talk. :-)

"I find it odd that some people readily recognize that agriculture (a technology) allowed us to produce a diet to which we might not have biological adaptation yet, but can't bring themselves to entertain the possibility that the rapid development of hunting and domestication technologies might have enabled us to increase the animal portion our our diets more rapidly than our biology can adapt to this change."

You're comparing a timeframe of 10,000 years vs. 2 million years to try and make a point. Sorry but it doesn't work.

"Ninety-eight percent of the human genome is identical to the nearest primate relative, chimpanzees, who eat a 95 percent plant diet."

Excellent "statistics". Obviously we are 98% similiar to chimps in every way -- all you have to do is watch some chimps on a TV documemtary to see that. Why, I would almost think they're human!

"Recent hunter-gatherers and pastoralists appear protected from maladaptive responses to animal-based diets by their baseline body composition, ecological context, low total energy intake, and evolved non-nutritive ingestive behaviors."

LOL. So, we've only consumed meat for 2 million years and are therefore not adapted to it. Yet, hunter-gatherers "appear protected" from all the harm that meat causes due to this lack of adaptation. Do I have that right?

So, you believe meat is harmful. But H/G's consume it without ill effects. Rather than say "Hmm, I guess meat isn't harmful -- things just aren't that simple!", you come up with a bunch of bologna reasons why these H/G's are "protected" from meat's harmful affects. Got it. :-) You're like the "Saturated fat will kill you!" people who try to explain France's relatively low heart disease with excuses like "Well it must be the red wine protecting them!"

"Humans need meat for optimum health of the nervous system, and the anthropological and experimental evidence already indicates eating meat can literally make you "smarter" than if you don't eat meat." - Don Mastez, 2010

Don said...

Lucas,

I will be talking about specific biochemical and physiological adaptations that humans share with chimps and other primates. Obviously to the extent these are determined by genetics, they must be determined by the portion of our genome (98%) that we have in common with them.

Take for example, color vision, a unique primate trait, the sweet taste receptors (not found in cats), lack of vitamin C synthesis, and baseline high uric acid levels due to lack of uricase enzyme. All primates including humans have these traits. They are all adaptations to a plant-based diet, and much older than any adaptations we have to elevated meat consumption.

Nothing91,

2 million is only 2% of the 65 million years of primate evolution. That 65 million years produced the genetic material that we share with chimps. That material produces a primate physiology, which has many characteristics adapted to a plant-based diet. We didn't jettison our primate genes when we discovered stone tools. See above.

The effects of any nutrient depends on quality, quantity, and context of consumption.

We've been adapted to oxygen since our ancestors left the waters. We been adapted to water from the start. Does that mean oxygen and water are non-toxic in any dose and any context?

We also need vitamin A for visual function. Does that mean that vitamin A is non-toxic in any dose?

No.

The fact that we need something doesn't mean it is never toxic.

Every nutrient is toxic in some dose and some context, including water, oxygen, every vitamin and every mineral, and, yes, meat. We can be well adapted to a certain amount of something, and maladapted to a larger amount.

Hunter-gatherers have a context and behaviors not had by modern people. They eat meat unlike the meat available in the groceries, even unlike grass-fed in some respects (fat content and secondary plant compounds). They eat plants and have non-nutritive ingestive behaviors unlike mine, and these influence their response to meat and fat. They have a different lifetime dietary experience than any of us, and that influences their response to meat.

Yes, I would agree, the CONTEXT of the French diet modifies the effects of saturated fats.

No nutrient operates in isolation.

I'm not the one engaged in good/bad dualistic thinking.

Who's saying "meat=good no matter what, grains=bad no matter what"?

It seems that actually, I'm the one being widely criticized across the internet because I refuse that simplistic, dualistic thinking.

A 'smart' paleoguy would 'know' that meat=good and grains=bad, that saturated fats=good and fructose=bad.

But I'm stupid because I don't think that way.

I just don't think things are that simple.

But somehow, you have it in your mind that I'm the one thinking too simplistically.

?

Bog said...

@£Noah,

I have no doubts that saturated fat does not account for increased heart-disease risk within reference groups who eat uniformly carnivorous Western diet. It's basically science ala WHI. You have to groups eating virtually the same meat & dairy based diet and one group tinkering fat from 40% to 30% (yoghurt vs. "low-fat" yoghurt).

We need data where reference group actually have a different paradigm for eating. War era Norway is good example, people ate plant-based vs. post-war meat & dairy based diets. Whether there was calorie restriction in the war-era is a dubious claim. In rural China, f.e, the local population who eat mostly plant-based diets eat way more in terms of calories than their meat-eating ethnic brethren in the cities. It's not unusual even for a least active person in plant-eating parts of rural China to consume +3000 kals.

Alex said...

"The effects of any nutrient depends on quality, quantity, and context of consumption"

This has got to be true, though the variables are probably so variable and complex that they'd be impossible to isolate. I live in Hungary, which has, I believe, the highest heart disease rate in Europe. But I very much doubt that the Hungarians eat a lot more fat or meat than the French. How it's prepared and how they eat can't be more different, however. The most common meals in Hungary consist of starches and breaded, fried meats. Vegetables play a very small role, though of course younger and more educated people now eat a lot more salads and cooked vegetables with their meals. People eat fruit in season, but tend to prefer making jam out of many summer fruits over eating them whole. They drink and smoke a lot and are pretty grim and pessimistic, to the extent that such a generalization can be made.

I've spent a great deal of time in France, and though I only know Provence well, in my observation the French are just as enthusiastic about meat as the Hungarians. But in my experience they practically never eat breaded/fried meat--they like to bake it, roast it, etc. A typical Provencal meal will start with a salad, and courses, which may be many, are served separately. It takes time--dinners can last many hours--to get through an entire meal, and no single course is particularly large. Vegetables feature heavily, and fruit is often served as the dessert, along with cheese. Moreover, the French are gregarious and convivial, so eating is a truly social event: people are relaxed, have fun, and drink wine throughout but in moderation, so no one ever gets drunk. That all contrasts sharply with the Hungarian attitude of eating to eat, drinking to drink, and getting it all over with quickly.

How would you ever study that and prove something? Yet the differences and outcomes are profound, and as a knowledgable observer you "know" that all the elements of eating, including the social ones, play a role. Given that human beings are so incredibly adaptable--after all, that's why we are so successful--I can't help but think that a good question regarding diet is, which one is suitable for a particular circumstance? The typical American diet is obviously a disaster for the majority of the population, but what would work better in the context of American culture and habits isn't so self-evident.

nothing91 said...

Don,

"2 million is only 2% of the 65 million years of primate evolution. That 65 million years produced the genetic material that we share with chimps. That material produces a primate physiology, which has many characteristics adapted to a plant-based diet. We didn't jettison our primate genes when we discovered stone tools."

Actually 2/65 is 3%. Please stop saying 2% -- it's blatantly wrong.

See how ridiculous this is? It's a nonsense argument. Exactly what percentage would it have to be for you to not consider it "evidence" for your position? What's the cutoff?

It's hard to even see how the percentage is relevant other than trying to make a simpleton argument. 2 million years is plenty of time for evolution to work its magic. The issue with agriculture (10,000 years) has been the idea that evolution can't work that fast. (Though there's evidence that it can to some extent.)

"We've been adapted to oxygen since our ancestors left the waters. We been adapted to water from the start. Does that mean oxygen and water are non-toxic in any dose and any context?"

Straw man argument. No one said that meat is non-toxic in any dose.

"Hunter-gatherers have a context and behaviors not had by modern people. They eat meat unlike the meat available in the groceries, even unlike grass-fed in some respects (fat content and secondary plant compounds). They eat plants and have non-nutritive ingestive behaviors unlike mine, and these influence their response to meat and fat. They have a different lifetime dietary experience than any of us, and that influences their response to meat."

This is a completely different argument than the one you've been trying to make since you were born-again. Every post for the last couple months has been about how meat is bad, fat is bad, and plants are awesome. Now it seems you're saying meat is only bad in the context of modern diets. This would be a huge improvement because it entails a more holistic view rather than demonizing one thing (meat/fat).

"I'm not the one engaged in good/bad dualistic thinking."

Well, you kind of are. :-)

Your blog is the textbook definition of dualism. Whatever your position is on a given day, you focus on it like a laser beam, 100% sure of its correctness and oblivious to contradictory evidence.

As I re-read this blog post, the problem with it is the first one-and-a-half paragraphs. The rest of it actually sounds like an interesting talk. But the first part clearly shows the anti-meat bias you're currently operating under. To what extent this bias affected the rest of the talk remains to be seen.

noah said...

@ Bog
General scarcity of food during German occupation of Norway is not a dubious claim. In fact, to counter the interruption of imports animal husbandry, hunting, fishing and trapping proliferated.

General activity level increased and smoking plummeted. The claim of reduced heart disease being brought about by a lack of animal products in the diet is not substantiated.

Tonya said...

"Humans developed the technological ability to consume meat-based diets only within the last 2 million years..."

Saturated animal fat is probably what allowed us to evolve to where we have. It's critical for brain development. Primates have the capacity to obtain meat, without tools or weapons. Have you ever seen primates kill other primates, with their bare hands? There are dozens of videos of chimpanzees killing other monkeys and eating them on youtube.

NOM NOM NOM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sprPV_q79RM

That's just one example. There's plenty of others.

There's also scavenging. Just because you don't have the "technological ability" to kill (which is dubious in the context you speak of) doesn't mean you don't eat meat. Buzzards don't kill anything and all they eat is meat. Your logic regarding what our ancestors ate, that they didn't have the capacity to obtain meat, is completely flawed.

I will say one thing. I feel a million times better when I eat a lot of saturated fat. I feel happier and emotionally calmer. So if it's bad for me and I die because I ate animal products a few years earlier than I otherwise would have, at least I will have been happy the whole time. But, ah, I don't think that's going to be a problem.

Alex said...

@Stipetic: by your reasoning a Tyrannosaurus-rex would be a man since they have the ability to eat meat and lots of it. In fact, by this line of logic, they would be more man than we are since presumably they can eat more meat!

Henderson said...

The person who posted the above comment is either a troll or a different Alex--in any case, not me, the person who posted the previous messages with this name--mine. I don't use sarcasm or insults as a matter of principle, so please assume any further such posts aren't mine.

Alex said...

Sorry, was signed into a different email account that identifies me as "Henderson"--but the correction above was from Alex