A New Understanding of Human Diet and Disease
Recent studies on the origins of disease (paleopathology) tell us that most of the chronic health problems in modern societies are relatively new in origin and seem linked to modern lifestyle and particularly modern diets.
Unlike the sudden, acute diseases of the past, these chronic conditions are slowly accumulating, insidious diseases that take many years to establish themselves. They range from annoying functional problems such as back pain, digestive issues, thyroid problems and arthritis to life threatening diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Over the past few hundred years science has taught us a lot about what these modern diseases look like and what happens to them when we expose them to chemicals, irradiate them or perform surgery on them. What it has failed to do is give us a clear understanding of where these modern diseases have come from and how to best avoid them.
Furthermore, ninety-eight percent of health spending has historically been focused on attacking these diseases rather than preventing them occurring in the first place. The result is that whilst people now often survive chronic illnesses, the incidence rates have just kept going up, as have the number of people having to manage such conditions and the costs of doing so.
In March 2013, the British Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt, launched an ambitious initiative called ‘Living Well for Longer’. He said that “despite the great strides that have been made in improving the health of the nation in recent decades, far too many people are dying too young from diseases that are largely preventable. If we as a country are to tackle the challenge we face, we need to make improvements across the spectrum of prevention, early diagnosis and treatment”.
It seems then that we still have a lot to learn about preventing, reversing and halting the progression of disease.
An understanding of the causes of modern chronic diseases and how to prevent them is already explained by evolutionary physiology, however, and its proof has already been established in comparisons of disease rates in countries at different stages of development (epidemiology).
The more we learn, the more we realise that modern diseases are mostly of our own making and relate mainly to relatively recent changes in our diet and lifestyle habits. As such we are now discovering that chronic disease is mostly avoidable and, and in some cases can be reversible in the early stages if significant enough lifestyle changes are made.
Indeed, one day, treating the symptoms of chronic disease will be seen as outdated medicine. Instead we will monitor the changing environment in a person’s body and thus predict whether and when these diseases will manifest themselves. We will thus be able to offer lifestyle therapy before it becomes necessary to use debilitating and costly medications, or be at the mercy of machines and surgery.
This type of health monitoring is the principle behind the Light Centre’s new healthcare service, a service that puts everyday wellness and disease prevention before intervention and medication.
The Original Human Diet
All animals have an indigenous diet. This is the diet they have evolved with for millions of years.
In zoos we know that when you give an animal its indigenous diet it will have the best chance of thriving, being healthy and reproducing. Give it any other diet and we know it will not fair so well.
We know that the digestive system of all animals has been specialised by evolution to best deal with the food it finds in its natural environment. It can take hundreds of thousands of years for these adaptations to properly evolve and its can thus take just as long for digestive systems to adapt to the introduction of new food groups.
Of course, humans have an indigenous diet too. It is called the hunter-gatherer diet.
Six million years ago when humans first diverged from our ape-like ancestors, our indigenous diet was probably much like an ape’s is today. That is, a mainly plant-based diet, supplemented by insects and possibly the occasional bit of flesh.
The human species started to diverge from other apes when climate change forced our earliest ancestors to leave the forests and seek a new life on the expanding savannahs.
Such dramatic changes in living environment meant we needed to physically and mentally adapt to new challenges and find new sources of food.
The first new food is thought to have been marrow from the bones of land animals left by predators. This food is rich in essential fatty acids, which would prove crucial for the future development of our brains and cardiovascular systems.
Humans also started to eat many new types of roots and plants found on the savannah and because they also needed to live near to fresh water it is probable that fish also became an important new food source.
Between one and two million years ago the human brain went through a dramatic growth phase. The resulting ability to think rationally allowed us to develop a unique hunting strategy that involved walking after herds of animals for many miles until the weakest one tired. When the animal was totally exhausted it could then be safely killed. Humans thus became a completely new type of predator and meat-eater. We became ‘omnivorous’.
It is worth remembering that in our indigenous diet all foods, including meat, would have been eaten raw. The organ meat is highest in nutrients and this would have been eaten in preference to the muscle meat.
Over six million years ago, the human digestive system became fully adapted to the hunter-gatherer diet (and that was almost all exclusively in Africa). When eventually we started to populate other parts of the world, as wide-ranging omnivores we became uniquely adaptable to many types of food.
Migrant groups in different parts of the world steadily became adapted to new foods and herbs. Humans who hadn’t migrated to these areas would thus not have been adapted to these new foods and would not have acquired the specialised digestive functions that went with them.
The Introduction of New Foods
The first major adaptation in the hunter-gatherer diet came with the use of fire to cook foods (perhaps some 60-80,000 years ago). This changed the nature of some foods and enabled other more starchy foods to be broken down and therefore eaten. Adaptation to these cooked foods is probably well advanced in most humans today.
The next great departure from the hunter-gatherer diet was the start of farming, in the Levant Region of the Near East some 10,000 years ago, and the subsequent addition of grains.
The archaeological records show that this sudden movement to a grain-based diet had a bad effect on the farmer’s long-term health. Their average height for instance decreased by some 4 inches (a sign of poor health) and many of the chronic diseases we know today became identifiable in archaeological remains.
Having only been in our diet for a maximum of ten thousand years, it is probable that our digestive systems have not yet properly adapted to large consumption of grains, especially as new types and modifications of grain have been steadily introduced throughout this time.
The next departure from our indigenous diet was the introduction of dairy products. The first evidence of selective breeding of goats was found some three thousand years ago, showing that they were being kept for their bi-products. Studies show that goats and sheep products have been in our food chain the longest with cow’s products being a much more recent addition.
Large consumption of alcohol probably started in the last two thousand years or so. Ripe fruit in the gut reacts with yeast to form alcohol, so small amounts have always been present in our gut, but more than half a glass of wine in an hour tends to exceed our inherent detoxification capacity.
In the last few hundred years, processing of food has become steadily more common, leading to denaturing that renders a food novel to the digestive system and therefore more difficult to digest and assimilate.
Preservatives such as salt created new mineral imbalances in our diet and storage methods meant we were eating many foods out of season.
Today of course, much of the food we eat is either novel to our digestive systems or denatured in ways that make it hard to know what overall effect it will have on our health. The complexity of these changes makes it hard to identify individual dietary issues, but taken as a whole, we now know that modern diets are a significant contributor to nearly all chronic diseases.
Instinctive Versus Prescriptive Eating
So this picture of human nutritional history tells us what humans are supposed to eat and which foods we’re less well adapted to, but there is another equally important finding about diet, i.e. the way we eat.
Zoologists have found that all animals seem to eat by instinct. This means that their bodies have inherited the innate ability to know exactly what to eat in order to optimise their nutrition levels.
They do this through their sense of smell and taste.
When foods contain nutrients that animals are short of, the food smells good to them and how much of it they need to eat is regulated by their sense of taste. When they have eaten enough of the food it seems that it no longer tastes so good and so they automatically stop eating it.
This process can be easily viewed with monkeys in zoos. When given a selection of food to eat they first go along from one to the next sniffing them until something smells good. They eat whatever smells best until the taste changes and then they move on. When nothing smells good any more they leave the rest of the food and go back to whatever they were doing.
Since we started farming, humans have introduced so many novel foods and food processing techniques that we no longer have the olfactory relationship with these new foods to be able to trust our sense of smell and taste. We thus no longer have the chemical clues to tell us what, nor how much to eat.
As a result, humans have become ‘prescriptive’ eaters and thus have lost their ability to optimise nutrient levels.
Research suggests that most people in the modern world eat too many calories, perhaps two or three times the amount a typical hunter-gatherer would consume. But our avid consumptions of carbohydrates, fat and protein cannot be for the calories themselves, because most people already carry enough fat on their bodies to supply as much energy as they need.
For some people hunger is possibly not really a call for calories, but instead a call for vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and phyto-nutrients. In fact, to their hunter-gatherer taste buds:
- The taste of sweetness suggests that a food will contain plenty of vitamins.
- The taste of saltiness suggests that the food will contain minerals.
- The taste of oils suggests that the food will contain essential fatty acids.
Aware of these instinctive reactions to food, manufacturers now lace their products with extra sugar, salt and fat in order to fool our senses into believing that they contain much-needed nutrients when in fact they are mostly just full of ‘empty’ calories.
Because an apple pie tastes sweeter than an apple, it will suggest to the instinctive brain that it has more nutrients. Our instinctive mind will thus crave it more than the apple, but once the food is broken down and the expected nutrients are not found we simply go back to being hungry again.
This cycle of ‘empty eating’ is typical in modern diets and is one of the possible reasons why there is a higher intake of calories and therefore a tendency to put on weight.
Additional Problems of Modern Foods
There are many essential factors that contribute to good digestive health from properly chewing food, to the right levels of stomach acid, enzymes and gut flora, to good abdominal motility and effective detoxification.
When our digestive system encounters new foods it will first choose whether to tolerate or reject them. If it chooses to reject a food whilst still in the stomach then vomiting will occur. If it is already in the intestines then speedy evacuation, i.e. diarrhoea is the result.
People have different abilities to cope with novel foods depending on their ethnic history and genetic variability. Once a novel food is tolerated then nutrition will begin to be extracted from it, but there will almost certainly be an element of inefficiency and a newly created biochemical imbalance to correct for as a result.
Sometimes novel foods will require repair work to be carried out involving mobilisation of the immune system or inflammatory mechanisms.
When novel foods are regularly eaten and the inefficiencies become a burden on the body then compensatory mechanisms may ensue. These include contraction of smooth muscle around parts of the intestines to reduce absorption, reduction in hydrochloric acid levels in the stomach, reduction in enzyme activity and/or increased motility.
A further consequence is the disruption of normal gut flora, (the billions of bacteria and other organisms that live in symbiosis in our digestive systems and play an important role in healthy digestion). These organisms are best suited to growing in the environment created by eating indigenous foods. Modern foods thus disrupt this environment and cause overgrowths of abnormal bacterial and other organisms (such as yeasts).
Abnormal gut flora causes poor digestion and lowered immune function and leads to a variety of digestive problems, including leaky gut syndrome where unwanted organisms cause expansion of pores in the intestine walls, allowing larger food particles to enter the blood stream causing inflammatory responses (which is perhaps one of the causes of autoimmune conditions).
Another consequence of eating modern foods is over-acidity. Our blood needs to maintain a slightly alkaline pH of 7.4 to function efficiently and indigenous diets typically contained around eighty percent alkaline forming foods (mainly fruits and vegetables).
But all foods introduced since farming such as grains, legumes, dairy products, processed foods, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine are all acid forming. This has thus forced the body to create its own alkali solutions to try to maintain balance, a process that uses up much needed stores of minerals such as calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium and iron.
Excess acids in the blood have also been found to make their way into joints and tissues potentially exacerbating arthritis and aggravating joint pain.
Diseases of Poor Digestion
A compromised digestive system will soon become dysfunctional, leading at first to symptoms such as wind, reflux, cramps, constipation and diarrhoea (often described as irritable bowel disease) and then later to general signs of nutrient deficiency and finally to chronic diseases.
This irritable bowel syndrome is not a disease as such – it is just a state of imbalance. Everyone who eats non-indigenous foods will have an irritable bowel of one kind or another leading to poor absorption and thus nutrient deficiency.
As the body becomes deficient in nutrients it starts to prioritise their use, reserving them for vital functions only. Many non-essential functions such as maintaining skin, hair, nails and healing wounds become neglected and mood and energy starts to deteriorate.
The combination of poor digestion, gut flora imbalance, nutrient deficiencies and overwhelmed elimination organs also eventually creates an environment prone to increasing dysfunction, and we now know that this dysfunction is the starting point for most chronic diseases.
So What Should We be Eating?
Whilst we now know that a hunter-gatherer diet is the template we should all be using for eating, we are no longer hunter-gatherers and our needs may have changed. Certainly we seem to need more essential fatty acids for our larger brains and cardio-vascular systems and we probably need some dietary help with the amount of brainwork and stress we now endure.
But the room for improvement in our diet is so great that even basic changes could make a huge impact on our personal and collective health.
Recent studies in the US and other countries show that even the most destructive of chronic diseases will respond to dietary change. Work by Dr Dean Ornish has shown that most forms of heart disease will respond to changes based on a hunter-gatherer diet, Dr Cousins at the Tree of Life Centre has showed that Type II Diabetes is almost always reversible and the Gerson Institute in Mexico has been demonstrating for many years that a similar dietary approach can in some cases, reverse many types of cancer.
One of the most consistent findings in these areas of research is that a diet based on fruit and vegetables, if underpinned by a core of green leafy vegetables, will provide practically all of the macro and micronutrients that a human being needs, even protein (there’s more protein per pound of spinach than there is in meat!). All we need is an additional extra source of essential fatty acids (say from fish, certain oils or wild meat) to create a balanced diet. All the other foods introduced or invented since farming began are unnecessary at best and usually destructive at worst.
Before adopting such a cleansing diet there is also evidence to suggest that a period of detoxification is useful.
One thing that characterises the modern world is the number of potentially toxic, artificial substances that are in the environment and in our food chain. The consequences of these chemicals and their contribution to modern disease are difficult to assess, but trying to rid your body of them can only be a good thing.
Supplements too have their strengths and can be useful when rehabilitating someone from disease, but like other artificial chemicals they are variable in their effects, unpredictable and are no real substitute for good food.
Juicing, especially if based around green leafy vegetables, can also be useful during periods of dietary improvement, but in the end it is also no substitute for a whole food diet.
Even the use of probiotics needs to be questioned. Whilst they may be useful after taking antibiotics, they are no more likely to survive in a dysfunctional gut than the original bacteria were. Only changing the environment of the gut will lead to proper rebalancing. (N.B. prebiotics, another form of supplement, are designed to help good bacteria to grow. However, the best prebiotic is of course a normal human diet).
Some so-called ‘superfoods’ are rich in certain nutrients and may certainly be useful additions to a good diet. Algae such as Blue-Green, Chlorella and Spirulina can be a good substitute for our modern day lack of sea vegetables, sprouted and soaked foods contain higher nutrient levels, fermentation creates high levels of helpful bacteria and grasses such as barley grass and wheat grass can make up for a lack of greens. Many of the other exotic foods however, are usually overpriced for the nutritional value they contain.
But How Easy is it to Adopt a Hunter-Gatherer Diet?
Having the knowledge about which foods restore health and which we should eat is of course only one half of the picture. The other half is establishing that diet as a normal part of one’s life.
At best hunter-gatherer eating would be instinctive like it is with other animals, i.e. we would stop pre-planning what we eat and instead just keep a good selection of ‘pre-farming’ foods in the house and eat whatever appealed to our nose that day.
But modern foods are very difficult to avoid and they are often now used to sustain or console a stressful life. The temptations they provide can thus be overwhelming.
Indeed, unless we tackle why life is stressful there is very little chance of permanently changing our diets.
So How Can I Get Going and Change My Way of Eating?
Changing your way of eating on your own can be very hard work and often fails. Research shows that you will be much more successful if you understand and address the psychology behind eating, get support and preferably join a group of like-minded people.
On the Light Programme you will spend two hours per week in a group of twelve or so people applying this knowledge about food to yourself. You will then be able to test out these changes in your daily life and can even order your daily food from us for a price no greater than what you’d probably normally spend on food yourself.
You will get the chance to make these changes in a supported environment and have a mentor to answer your questions, address your specific problems and generally advise and encourage you.
And once established, your better way of eating will
- improve your digestion
- help you overcome and avoid illness and poor functioning
- help you enjoy a better quality of life for longer
- help you feel more energetic and fresher throughout the day
- improve your mood and outlook on life
- improve your libido and make you more attractive to others
- normalise your body weight
- reduce your reliance on artificial stimulants and relaxants
- reduce uncontrollable cravings
- reduce the amount of food waste and packaging you consume
- allow you to be a good role model for your family, friends and community
- improve your concentration and ability to think clearly
- improve your sense of taste and your enjoyment of food
- provide you with a healthy way of eating for life
All of this is what the healthy eating part of the Light Programme is about. When you join a twelve-week programme you will be taking the first steps to a healthier life.
Join a programme at the Light Centre today and redefine who you are……….