Global cooling around the last modern ice age, 2.5 million years ago, meant early humans found fruits and vegetables scarcer to find and helped bring about the adaption of hunting and gathering. This more than anything else evolved our bodies via natural selection to be the way they are today. Archaeology shows early humans learnt to control fire about one million years ago and cooking sites appear frequently around 400,000 years ago. Cooking food enabled us to obtain enough energy to evolve our uniquely large brains and distinguish ourselves from other species through intelligence.
Fossil records show hunter-gatherers were tall, healthy, and with little tooth decay. When not killed by another human or animal, they had a good chance of living into their 7th decade. Just 200,000 years ago, modern humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, eating wild animals for fat and protein with staples of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. The human genome has changed little since. Instead, Cultural Evolution has taken over as the dominant factor of change.
Hunter-gatherer societies have very different diets from one another. Far Northern climates naturally get less fruit and vegetables during winter months and traditionally survive on a more animal and fish based diet; think of the Inuit who are healthy living on almost exclusively fish and animals. What they have in common is not containing processed food, sugar or high-energy farmed cereal grains that form the basis of a lot of the modern human diet.
Funnily, some theories suggest we started farming primarily to get a reliable source of alcohol to get drunk. Either way, it was only 12,000 years ago that we started eating grains in any quantity, with the result of reduced height, a fatter, more sickly lifestyle and shorter lifespan. Although dying younger was not purely due to diet– other factors such as famine and disease from farming animals were also components.
In ancient Egypt, people ate similar food to the recommended ‘Mediterranean diet’ of whole wheat bread, barley, fruit, vegetables and olive oil but very little meat (Mediterranean people do not all eat the same food). Analysis of their mummified bodies reveals a lot of sickness, obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and short life expectancy, dropping from 40 to 20 years. The Pharaoh’s daughter Princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amon, who died in 1550 BCE, most likely led a sedentary life with an energy rich diet, and a CT scan of her mummified body revealed atherosclerosis or heart disease.
The Industrial Revolution brought about improvements in the quantity and quality of food available to people. It increased childhood life expectancy, made us less sick and probably taller and heavier too.
In 1862, William Banting was an obese London undertaker. His doctor William Harvey restricted the amount of carbohydrates in his diet and his weight loss was so successful that he published a diary that became very popular. ‘Banting’ became a regular word in English meaning to diet by restricting carbs, but has since fallen out of common usage. Banting was the standard way of treating weight loss in all major European and North American medical schools until the end of World War 2.
Bread and porridge could feed more people and be stored for longer. Throughout the post war period, US industrial cereal farming gained greater power in political lobbying. They funded the scientific research they wanted to see and helped hide the studies that didn’t fit with their business model. Heart disease appeared in the 1920s and soared with the post WW1 popularity of smoking. The cereal industry was complicit in promoting the high carbohydrate and vegetable seed oil food fad through manufacturing the fear of saturated fat.
“During the Great Depression of the 1930s,” a Finnish economic analysis, noted the government “encouraged farmers to shift from exportable animal products to basic grains, a policy that kept farm incomes from falling as rapidly as they did elsewhere and enabled the country to feed itself better.” Finland began changing grazing pasture into fields of wheat and sugar beets, which were processed into an all-purpose additive similar to highfructose corn syrup.
More Finns died of heart disease than any other country in Ancel Keys’ famous study published in 1953 purporting to show a relationship between dietary fat, cholesterol and the risk of heart attack. But of the 22 countries in the study, he cherry picked just 7 that supported his theory. In actual fact, there was no correlation at all, nor did he factor in the huge rise in cigarette smoking that coincided with the sudden rise in heart disease.
Despite the unproven assertions, criticisms and warnings from respected professionals the 1977 US Senate under Nixon based its dietary recommendations on the discredited science of Ancel Keys, it also boosted the market for US cereal growers.
Around the world, people took the American guidelines as the truth without looking critically enough at the evidence. The corresponding high carb, low fat diet with cereal consumption at the base of the nutritional food pyramid has coincided with the dramatic rise in obesity and diabetes since 1980.
Today the Clintons both eat a Paleo diet as does Jeb Bush, so despite the lobbyists desire for maintaining status quo, the next leader of the most powerful country in the world is likely to be avoiding eating grains.
Is living in Finland bad for your health?
Finland is a great place to be, low stress, great nature, clean water and air but still today the top cause of death is Coronary Heart Disease, a poor statistic amongst a global epidemic. But Finland also ranks world number 1 for Alzheimers/Dementia and Parkinson Disease which may have strong links to Insulin Resistance, NonCeliac Gluten Intolerance or other substances found in refined cereals compounded by lack of sunlight Vitamin D deficiency, sugar and a tendency to drink too much alcohol.
In short you won’t go amiss cutting down on cereals, particularly wheat. It’s not the same as it was due to modern refining and faster dough fermentation. Wheat acts like sugar in the bloodstream, so if you are struggling with a belly, it’s a good one to miss. Rye is less harmful for both gluten and blood sugar, but not ideal either. Traditional bread making using stoneground and sourdough are healthier alternatives.
In a warming world with ever limited resources, the implications are profound and difficult to predict. How do we afford the health care for an ageing population suffering from morbid illness originating from diet and lifestyle and how do we fix a modern medicine that treats symptoms over prevention? The countries that solve these problems are the ones that will most likely prosper.
Stephen Montgomery originally studied Mathematics in Britain before becoming a Web Software Engineer and taking off travelling whenever possible. Now settled in Helsinki he is passionate about many things especially journalism, adventure and sport.