Thoughts on Evolution and Food – Why a Diet Based on Cultural Heritage Can Be Beneficial

A lot of the questions that are posed to alternative practitioners have to do with food and diet, partially because of the growing obesity epidemic, but also because there are more books and theories being added to the mix of dietary advice on an almost daily basis.

Some of these eating programs (I prefer to use the classic definition of “diet” which refers to the regular eating pattern of an individual as opposed to short term, weight-loss focused changes to food intake) have a basis in contemporary Western medical theory, while others use a more alternative or philosophical foundation for the advice they offer. While I don’t believe that any one type of diet is going to be appropriate for everyone, I would like to use this opportunity to introduce another way to think about why we eat what eat and how that food affects us. The term I use for this idea is a “cultural diet” and the purpose of this post is to explain the ideas behind it and how it ties into both evolutionary theory as well as the ideas of food as medicine.

Contemporary Western medical theory tends to focus on the nutritional and ingredient content of food. In other words, food is described by its caloric, protein, fat, fiber, vitamin, and mineral content as well as the combination of items used in its construction (this term is especially appropriate when talking about processed foods). While this information is valuable, especially for people who have the training to understand the sheer amount of information packed into those little labels, it does a disservice by treating all food as essentially interchangeable. For example, nuts and meat are both considered to be equal sources of protein and fat with the only difference being in serving size.

In contrast, alternative practitioners, in general, also examine other elements when talking about food. Where and how the the ingredients are grown or harvested, what part of the plant or animal is used, how the food is prepared, whether or not preservatives and fillers are involved – these can all have an impact on how the body breaks down the meal into elements the body can use. An example of this involving food preparation would be to examine the difference between steaming a vegetable versus eating it raw. The heat added during the steaming process makes the nutrients in the food more accessible so that the body doesn’t have to expend as much energy in the process of digestion.

Chinese and Naturopathic medical theory takes this step further by positing the idea that food is not only fuel, but also medicine. Each type of food that is consumed is inherently different. Russet potatoes and red potatoes may seem similar, but the balance of nutrients and how those nutrients affect on the body is very different. Mushrooms are an another example. Some species of mushrooms are exceptionally valued for their flavor and nutritional value while a similar looking species may be toxic. Even the various parts of the vegetables may have contrasting effects. Some plants with poisonous berries may have edible roots and vice versa. This approach also applies to animal food products. Poultry, for example, is often divided into light meat and dark meat. Light meat tends to be leaner, which means it has a lower fat content, but it also contains fewer overall nutritional elements that nourish the blood. So, if a person eating more meat in an order to deal anemia, dark meat is preferable because it has appropriate nutrients to treat that condition.

To tie this into evolution, one of the current ideas taking hold in anthropology is that humans began to develop art and science because of the adoption of cooking food before eating it. The theory behind this is that energy that was previously being used by the digestion to break down food was now available to the brain. This allowed the brain the resources to develop deeper levels of cognitive function and to focus on things beside gathering food and avoiding starvation. Also, because cooking made the nutrients in the food more available, people needed to consume less food overall, meaning less time was needed for hunting and gathering, allowing civilizations to form as people were able to settle into more permanent settlements.

One of the phrases most commonly associated with evolution is “survival of the fittest”, but this is actually a bit of a misnomer. The phrasing would suggest that the fittest individual is the most evolved, but evolution is more of a generational process. To put it another way, evolution occurs through the process of developing the most successful adaptation to an environment over concurrent generations. So while a competing people may be bigger, faster, and stronger, a weaker civilization can out survive them by being more in tune to the world around them. While the group that looks stronger from the outside may hold dominance in the short term, over time they will eventually be supplanted by the lesser civilization simply because the latter group is able to better survive the challenges of the world around it. Previously dominant civilizations that no longer exist due to overpopulation, plague, or natural disaster are all examples of this. One of the common reasons these people no longer exist is because their populations, when faced with a shift to the environment they occupied, were not able to evolve (either as individuals or as a culture) quickly enough to deal with those changes, and as such, they were not able to raise a succeeding generation so that their genes were passed down.

So to tie this back into food, and specifically, the medicinal nature of food, we need to combine what has been covered so far. The three prime components are that 1) food has effects beyond merely being fuel, 2) evolution is about the successful adaptation to the environment, and 3) a culture that successfully adapts to its environment is going to be around longer than a civilization that doesn’t. These elements form the basis behind a diet based on an individual’s cultural heritage. The traditional diet for a region evolves alongside the people in that region, so that the foods that tend to be favored are the ones that serve the communities nutritional as well as health needs the most effectively. In areas with a colder climate, foods with a higher fat and nutritional density will be more favored and available than, for example fruits and vegetables. The increased fat content helps maintain the individual’s layers of insulation while it’s slow burning nature is more appropriate to the steady pace of exertion used in maneuvering through the environment. For a group in a tropical zone, in contrast, the warmer climate lessens the need for insulation and the greater availability of easily available food makes fat-dense foods less of a commodity. So depending on which environment a person’s culture evolved in, the members of that culture who prosper will be the ones who are the best adapted to make full use of the foods available.

As to how the “food as medicine” concept ties into this, certain elements of Chinese medicine need to be explored before we continue. Herbs and edibles in Chinese medicine are categorized by a number of different categories that are only touched upon in the Western world. Hot and warm foods warm the body from the inside, whereas cold and cool items have the opposite affect. Some things are more astringent while others are categorized as acrid, meaning they open the orifices. By consuming foods with these properties, an individual is able to use them to help mitigate certain environmental factors that might otherwise create discomfort. For example, during the cold winter months, hot and warm foods would be preferable to cold foods, and vice versa during the hot summers.

To tie this in to diet and evolution, cultures that developed in an environment that tends towards one dominant climate over another will develop diets that reflect this. Over time, the most successful individuals will be the ones whose bodies are best able to utilize these foods and get the most out of them. The longer a familial line stays in an environment, the members of that family that survive will continue to refine this, and eventually the culture will be made up of individuals who are basically designed to occupy a particular space and to use the things that provides. That culture will also develop a diet meant to aid those individuals in surviving in that place, and the foods that make up that diet will be cultivated far in excess of those that don’t.

Now jump forward to today. People often find themselves living in far different cultures and environments than the ones the previous twenty generations of their ancestors existed in. And because of this expanded world, there are often foods available to them that no member of those previous generations had more than a cursory exposure to. One of the downsides of this is that many people find themselves eating substances that their bodies have no idea what to do with. People of Asian descent are far more likely to suffer from lactose intolerance, and part of the reason for this may be that the consumption of cow milk is a relatively recent introduction to that culture. Similarly, Europeans do not have a long exposure to soy products, and consuming those foods can cause some people digestive problems such as gas or bloating. Even so-called staple crops like wheat and corn can create immense digestive problems for people who come from cultures where they were not as readily available as they are today (in the developed world, at least). When testing to see if a person’s diet is the reason for their health problems, many alternative practitioners advocate an elimination diet which excludes foods that have any history of inflammatory effects. This list is extremely restrictive and the idea for it is to ‘reset’ the system and then slowly reintroduce foods and see which ones cause a reaction. Often the most reactive foods are some of the most omnipresent, including wheat, corn, dairy, and soy.

This forms the crux of the argument for basing a diet on one’s cultural heritage. As I said at the top, no one diet applies to every one, and that is true for what I am advocating here. There will always be the people with “iron stomachs”, people who can eat whatever they want without any complications. (I should note that young people almost universally have much stronger digestions. The upside of this is that they can often consume things without difficulty that would cause trouble in an older family member. The downside is that this often leads to them developing poor diets at an early age, so that when they do reach an age where their digestion gets more sensitive, they have little idea of how to make the necessary changes. Even then, a poor diet in adolescence often leads to feelings of anxiety and fatigue due to low level malnutrition.) This article is for people who are being ill-served by their normal eating habits. People who suffer from indigestion, inflammation, irritable bowel, chronic gas and bloating, and a whole host of other digestive complaints. Basically, if a person eats what their mother ate, then, in theory, those should be the foods that the person’s body is most familiar with and also the foods that provide the nutrients that individual is most likely to need.

One of the mixed blessings of the global economy is the ability to get almost anything in any city in the world. Because diets are being changed to accommodate whichever foods are cheapest and most available, some people are having problems due to their once traditional diet being replaced with fast food and preprocessed meals, or even just ingredients that were once rare where they lived. To balance this out however, an individual in today’s world has never had a greater ability to find both the recipes and the ingredients to make foods that were traditionally enjoyed by the cultures he or she descended from. It may be more expensive and time-consuming in the short run, but as health, energy levels, and sense of well-being improve by having a more appropriate diet, a person will find they often have to buy less of the things that they previously needed to make his or her previous diet work.

To close this out, these theories concerning diet are based strictly upon my own training and observations. They may not apply to everyone and, for some people, the effort involved may be enough to dissuade them. However, if you or someone you know is having chronic digestive problems, and they are willing to try some new things, these are ideas that should be considered as part of any lifestyle changes.