“Fad diets” rose in popularity in the nineteenth century in industrialized nations, and have certainly stuck around. Some of the more popular fad diets of the past year include the Military Diet and the HMR diet, both of which promise weight loss. Despite no sound scientific research, many people swear by these diets to the point of near obsession, appropriately leading to these diets also being considered “diet cults.”
However, these fad diets are not the only ones that seem to inspire a cult-like following. It seems that any diet, whether or not it is effectual, can produce fanaticism. Anecdotes are seen as infallible evidence,variation between human beings is ignored, and freedom of choice becomes criticized.
So what are we human beings meant to eat? The answer is far more simple than many would expect.
Biologically, humans eat what they are “meant” to when they are living the most natural way. Humans naturally organize into tribes.
The tribal life and no other is the gift of natural selection to humanity. It is to humanity what pack life is to wolves, pod life is to whales, and hive life is to bees. After three or four million years of human evolution, it alone emerged as the social organization that works for people. People like the tribal organization because it works equally well for all members.
Indigenous tribes that largely rely on hunting and gathering are found to have optimal health, if not disturbed by outsiders who may bring diseases and unhealthy lifestyles. This was also the practice of most human beings throughout the history of our species, with agriculture being a relatively recent adaptation. Professor of Medicine, Stafford Lightman is one professional who has observed this. While stating that there is no human society that suffers from no ailments, the health of these hunt-and-gather societies is “extremely good” until they become integrated into local industrialized areas. Other researchers, such as Jo Woodman of Survival International, describe their food systems as being very nutrient-rich and diverse.
The report on agriculture by anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond supports these findings as well. While dependence on agriculture tends to lessen the diversity in the human diet and thus lead to lack and needed vitamins and nutrients, the system of hunting and gathering yielded more protein and a better balance of nutrients. Furthermore, the rise of agriculture led to a dependence on monocrops. This can lead to starvation if this main crop manages to fail. Diamond states that “It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.”
Studies conducted by paleopathologists have found that the shift from human societies in the hunt-and-gather method to agriculture resulted in regular a decrease in height (a difference of about 5-6″) likely due to less vitamins in the diet, a 50% increase in enamel defects, the presence of porotic hyperostos (indicative of anemia due to iron deficiency), an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, increase of infectious disease indicated by a threefold rise in bone lesions, and a seven-year drop in life expectancy at birth.
Many modern hunter-gatherer societies often neighbor agricultural societies, and refuse to adopt the practice of agriculture. With the conscious rejection of agriculture, and the health and history to back it up, it is evident that humans are meant to hunt and gather. Therefore, any diet, regardless of the presence of true health benefits, that relies on agriculture is not inherently ‘natural’ and not indicative of what we are biologically meant to eat.
Veganism is good example of this. While there are numerous benefits to a vegan diet, both for the individual and for the environment, humans in their most natural state are not “meant” to eat this way. Veganism relies on industrialized availability and choice, something that is not an inherent part of natural life around the globe. While a vegan may be able to walk into a supermarket and pick out a variety of vegetables and fruits that initially existed from foreign places, a human living as naturally as we have evolved to live in does not have this ability. Natural places around the globe are not like any given supermarket: You will not find apples, carrots, lettuce, oranges, pepper, beans, etc in one forest or foraging area alone. This is no to say that there is not an abundance of wild edibles, but that in a natural setting, there is not enough of an abundance to reject meat altogether. Most of us who have the ability to and regularly visit supermarkets would likely only be able to recognize maybe seven local wild edibles at most, and you would be hard-pressed to survive off those seven plants only. If human evolution catered to first-world countries, and we were ‘meant’ to be vegan, these extant hunter-gatherers would perish, since they lack the supermarkets and agriculture we had supposedly evolved to need.
Many people erroneously cite the many healthy vegans in existence as proof that we are not meant to eat meat. However, this actually only further solidifies the fact that humans are naturally omnivorous. How? Because yes, there are many healthy vegans. But on the other hand, there are very many healthy meat-eaters as well. And hunter-gatherers are known to have superb health as well. Being omnivorous does not specifically refer to the need of a variety of both plants and animal matter, but can refer to the fact that humans have evolved in an “either or” way. We are an omnivorous species because some of us are healthy vegans, yet others are healthy and eat meat. Both have the potential to be a healthy path, and therefore we are omnivorous. Deer do not have sections of the population that nearly solely eat meat because they are herbivorous (even though deer do in fact consume meat on occasion). Tigers do not have a subspecies that primarily subsist on grasses, because they are carnivorous. If there was a singular species of sea lion wherein northern populations ate primarily fish, and southern populations are primarily kelp, we would consider them omnivorous (even if they were classified as one way or another, as with how brown bears are omnivorous carnivores). Likewise, humans, whether we remain classified as omnivorous or not, will likely always be a truly omnivorous species simply because we exist biologically in a way that allows us to be one way or the other.
The Issue With The Paleo Diet
Mentions of tribal people and history, rejecting the idea that we were evolved to be vegan…advocacy for the Paleo craze? Not exactly. The “Paleo Diet,” meant to emulate the diet of our ancestors, is flawed in a few significant ways.
For starters, “our ancestors” is vague. Depending on what theory of human evolution you believe (Out of Africa, or Multiregional Evolution), we do not all share the same paleolithic ancestors. The diets of paleolithic Native Americans likely differed than those of paleolithic Europeans. A universal pre-agriculture diet does not exactly exist. Different areas developed agriculture at different times (some still do not have it), and those who eat without the use of agriculture do not do so based on rigid rules.
A true “pre-agriculture” diet, or “Paleo diet” would be to eat whatever you want that is around you. And that is what humans are meant to do.
What We Are Meant to Eat
So in short, we are meant to simply eat locally. Humans are “meant” to eat whatever is nontoxic, and even then we still consume some of those normally. For example, a human can have a healthy plant-based diet. But a human cannot have a healthy datura-based diet, though it is a plant. If it is around you, and wont kill you, you are technically “meant” to eat it.
So why don’t we eat *insert typically radical notion like babies, dogs, etc*? Because these things do not make sense biologically. Sure, eating human flesh probably will not immediately have any negative side effects, but there are risks associated with regularly practiced cannibalism. And, more obviously, we do not want to. Life is about progressing as a species. It does not do our species overall any favors if we regularly ate one another, and had been since the beginning of our existence. Likewise, many cultures consider it taboo to eat animals such as dogs, not because they are cute, but because they have aided our species in progression. Dogs provided protection and helped us provide food, and we grew to appreciate them for companionship as well. In turn for that, and the fact that meat from carnivorous or omnivorous animals is much less desirable, we do not eat them. Many birds such as the ancestors of chickens provided no purpose other than food or feathers for ornamentation. The value we obtained from them only came through their death. If chickens, regardless of whether or not they are seen as cute, had provided our ancestors with generations of protection and companionship, or produced some magical medicine, we would likely view them the same way many of us view dogs today instead of just a food animal.
So here is a natural “should I eat it?” ask-yourself list:
- Is it local?
- Will it kill or hurt me if I eat it?
- Does it taste pleasant?
- Does it have an alternative purpose? Is there a better use for it than eating it?
With globalization, agriculture, and industrialization, the concept of “local” foods has been warped. If a neighbor grows and sells red peppers, and you purchase and consume them, you are technically “eating locally.” And this is both good for your community and your environment. However, it is not “local” in the natural sense. It still counts as eating locally, but is not the same as the indigenous Americans eating local bison and local corns.
Try to eat locally, yes. But even better, gain a knowledge of the wild edibles (both native and invasive) in your area. I discussed this in my post An Introduction to Foraging. This can be a great supplement to any diet, as well as a way to reconnect with the land.
Understanding what we humans are meant to eat is no longer a topic solely of dietitians. It involves morality and ethics, evolutionary biololgy, history, an understanding and respect for diversity of cultures, knowledge of local laws, and empathy.