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100 Million Years of Food | Stephen Le | Book Summary

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100 Million Years Of Food by Stephen Le

Have you ever wondered why diet-related diseases plague the Western world? More people today suffer from obesity, food allergies, many forms of cancer, and type 2 diabetes than ever before.

 

It seems something is just not right with our eating habits. But knowing what is wrong with how we’re eating now and figuring out what should we be doing instead is difficult. The good news is, we may find a few answers to this question from the way our ancestors ate. The last decade has witnessed a major uptick in caveman or diets.

 

After all, our forbearers were generally much healthier than modern-day humans, so we are trying to duplicate that. This book discusses whether the dietary choices of these distant progenitors would work for us today. We have to go a long ways back in time – starting 100 million years ago with our earliest, tree-dwelling ancestors. By exploring how these forebears adapted to changing environments and diets we get a full picture.

 

On this exciting journey through the evolution of humanity, you’ll learn

  • Bugs – why we should eat some every now and then.
  • Milk – does it really do a body good?
  • Plants – are they provender or poison?

 

100 Million Years Of Food Key Idea #1: Insects and fruits

 

Can you imagine if one of our first ancestors walked into one of today’s supermarkets? He’d be overwhelmed by the options. The difference between the dinnertime options available to our ancient ancestors and the packed, brightly colored shelves of contemporary grocery stores could hardly be greater.

 

Our earliest ancestors emerged around 100 million years ago and lived in the trees of tropical forests. They primarily ate the insects that were abundant in this habitat. Gross, right? Insects are actually a calorie-rich source of vitamins and iron.

 

Although insects would still make a valuable addition to the modern human diet, to attempt to live only on bugs wouldn’t be so smart. We can no longer digest chitin, which makes up the exoskeletons of insects, whereas our ancestors had enzymes that allowed them to break down this substance. Bugs can also trigger allergies and produce harmful toxins.

 

Despite these issues, the consumption of insects in small amounts would be of great benefit to modern food production. Bugs can be farmed just like livestock and are much more efficient. Crickets convert feed into calories 12 times more efficiently than cows per pound and produce about 50 percent less carbon dioxide in the process.

 

Despite their advantages, our ancestors began to alter their eating habits around 60 million years ago. The climate began cooling around this time and the first fruit-bearing trees emerged as the air grew more humid. Our ancestors lost the ability to synthesize vitamin C, an essential nutrient that prevents cell damage, during the same period.

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Because they could get plenty of vitamin C from fruit, they survived this change. Our ancestors became full-time fruit eaters around 30 million years ago. Eating too much fruit can also be harmful. Fruit contains fructose, a type of sugar, which is something our body can only metabolize in limited quantities; too much sugar can lead to conditions such as insulin resistance and pancreatic cancer.

 

Actor Ashton Kutcher discovered the danger of too much fructose the hard way. Kutcher followed Steve Job’s fruitarian diet for a month while preparing to portray the tech CEO. Kutcher was hospitalized with pancreatic issues after just 30 days of eating in this manner.

100 Million Years Of Food Key Idea #2: Meat

About two million years ago, our ancestors’ diet changed again. They began migrating out of the trees and adopting a more terrestrial lifestyle. These early humans began hunting and foraging and eating more meat than they ever had before.

 

They started to look more human and their brains started growing rapidly. The fatty acids in meat make it the perfect fuel for a growing brain. In fact, the size of our ancestors’ brain doubled over the course of just one million years, a change that may well have been due to their newly carnivorous diets.

 

With these larger brains, our ancestors derived an evolutionary advantage. More prey could be brought down by smarter, more coordinated groups of hunters, making their families more likely to survive and reproduce. Even though meat may be the reason for our evolutionary success, eating too much of it is not good for our health.

 

We can only tolerate protein in limited quantities and meat is loaded with it. Potentially toxic substances called nitrogen compounds can be produced when the human body digests proteins.   The levels of these compounds can get dangerously high if a person gets more than 40 percent of their daily calories from protein.

 

Excess cholesterol is another reason excess meat consumption can be dangerous to our health. It can combine with other substances and clog up our arteries. However; don’t think cholesterol is all bad.

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Essential sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen are built from cholesterol.   It is also good for our moods because it increases the level of high-density lipoprotein or HDL. Most of the body’s cholesterol is produced by our liver and intestines, but meat and dairy provide additional sources that affect our hormone levels.

 

Girls on a cholesterol-rich diet reach may sexual maturity earlier. While this means they can bear children earlier, increasing their potential number of offspring, their life expectancy is also reduced.

100 Million Years Of Food Key Idea #3: Meat substitutes

Did you know alternatives to red meat are nothing new? Today we have many food choices available to us so it’s easier to eat a balanced vegetarian diet than in the past. Even our meat-loving ancestors branched out. Although not all people developed a taste for fish, rather than red meat, predominated in many cultures. Do you wonder how it happened? Red meat was hard to come by in many areas so fish was incorporated into their diets as an accessible and nutritious food. Since fatty fish contain loads of healthy omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, important for bone health, this was a smart choice.

 

Not every culture with easy access to fish chose to eat it. There were cultural reasons for this. While some cultures regarded fish as a sacred animal living in a sacred element, others, such as the Apache Indians, considered fish to be unclean and unfit to eat.

 

Animal milk was another important meat substitute that entered the human diet around 8,000 years ago. But animal milk isn’t as healthy for human consumption as you may think, though it’s often still regarded as an elixir of sorts. Northern Europeans were among the first people to realize the benefits of animal milk.

 

It’s nutritious and rich in calcium. Most importantly, an animal can only be eaten once but it can be milked many times over. While statistics link milk consumption to an increase in the growth of children, this boost in height could come at the price of bone health. There is a correlation that can be seen in the nations with the highest dairy intake. The citizens of these nations with above-average height also experience higher rates of hip fractures.

 

Milk consumption can result in a further issue for people from regions with little history of dairy consumption. These people absorb calcium more efficiently than those from regions where milk is traditionally consumed. This means that these people might experience dangerously elevated calcium levels if they drink a lot of milk. High blood-calcium levels have been linked to prostate cancer. Next up we’ll explore the history of vegetables and their place in the nutritional hierarchy.

100 Million Years Of Food Key Idea #4 Eating Plants

Your parents probably insisted, at one time or another, that you eat your veggies. We all know veggies are healthy and packed with nutrients, right? The truth is, most plants are actually unhealthy and many are even dangerous. Why? Consider this; plants cannot run and are surrounded by other organisms that want to eat them.

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They have no choice but to defend themselves since they can’t escape. They do this by producing chemicals that discourage, harm and sometimes kill the animals that try to eat them, basically engaging in chemical warfare.

 

Wild vegetables can contain bitter substances or toxins to discourage consumption, and it’s only the domesticated versions where these traits have been bred out. Beans, lentils, and soybeans are a good example. They contain chemicals called lectins, which can make you sick could cause liver damage. A type of lectin called ricin is one of the most lethal poisons known to man.

 

It’s found in the seeds of the castor oil plant and cause a painful death even in tiny amounts. Kind of makes you wonder why humans begin eating plants in the first place, doesn’t it? Humans turned toward agriculture occurred around 12,000 years ago in many parts of the world simultaneously. The theory is other food options became scarce so we turned to cultivating and eating plants.

 

The primary theory as to why this happened was overhunting by humans and the spread of trees into the grasslands they called home caused by the extinction of large prey animals such as the mammoth.

 

Humans began looking for other options when they lost this major food source. Plants were readily available and could be easily grown so they seemed to be the perfect option. Plant-based foods dominated most in densely populated areas and places where animals were hard to keep.

100 Million Years Of Food Key Idea #5: Rapid changes

It is surprising how adaptable the human body is. We are unique in that we can get used to big dietary changes. However; this does take some time, perhaps even generations. When food processing began to become the norm, the slowness of the process of adaptation posed a real problem. With little time to adapt to this change, humans began to experience a variety of new illnesses.

 

For example, a frightening disease called beriberi emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century among the richer people of East and Southeast Asia. Heart issues, mobility problems and mental confusion affected patients stricken with this condition.

 

Later it was discovered that a severe B1 deficiency caused the illness. It was the wealthy that were affected because they could afford to purchase the “better” highly polished rice. The polishing process had stripped it of most of its B1. Another nutrient based disease; Pellagra became endemic among poorer populations of the American South in around 1900.

 

The disease that caused horrible symptoms like red lesions, weakness and even dementia was caused by extremely low levels of vitamin B3. These groups had been eating only products made from industrially milled corn, which, compared to fresh corn, does not contain enough of this nutrient.

 

While processed food is an issue to human health it’s not the only problem. Other lifestyle changes can also be detrimental to our health. Asthma and food allergies are on the rise. While there is a debate about specifics, it’s likely that lifestyle decisions are to blame. In modern times, people spend much more time indoors than in the past.

 

This results in lower levels of vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin” because we’re not exposed to much sunlight which stimulates our body to create this vitamin. Since pregnant women with reduced vitamin D levels are more likely to give birth to allergic children, this causes human allergies to rise in the population at large.

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Another theory for the rise in allergies is called the hygiene hypothesis. It asserts that, because they grow up too clean, modern-day kids develop allergies and asthma. The concept is that to learn how to discern harmless proteins from deadly bacteria and fight infections without over-reacting, a child’s immune system needs to be exposed to some germs.

100 Million Years Of Food Key Idea #6: A Few Extra Pounds

Studies report that Japanese people eat an average of 300 fewer calories per capita than Americans. Even though that sounds healthy, is it worth following their example? While it’s true the Japanese live longer than Americans, that’s not proof that their way is better.

 

Limiting your caloric intake has both upsides and downsides. Eating too few calories can cause you to lose focus by depriving your brain of fuel. Muscle weakness can be the result of consuming too little protein for a period of time.

 

It’s all a trade-off. Lots of animals will reduce inessential bodily functions, such as reproduction, when going through a period of food scarcity. Humans are no different. Women who eat fewer calories may live longer, but they’ll be less fertile and likely more irritable.

 

Did you know that it’s actually healthier to be slightly overweight? In fact, even if you’re overweight, counting every calorie isn’t a good idea. So being a few pounds heavier than average can be an advantage. Those with a body mass index between 25 and 30 tend to live longer than people of normal weights.

 

It’s possible that heavier people have more energy to compensate for weight loss during periods of severe illness and more fat to protect them from toxins, which results in better health. Regardless of the health benefits of a few extra pounds, cutting calories might not help you lose weight.

 

The link between weight and caloric intake is actually quite weak. Research has found that slim, modern-day hunter-gatherers eat about as many calories as your average contemporary American while engaging in comparable levels of physical activity. The only significant difference is they have a greater variance in caloric intake over the seasons.

 

That means not all differences in body weight can be simply imputed to calories and exercise. And finally, it is useless to pay attention to your total calories without considering what quality of food they come from. It doesn’t matter how few calories you consume if all your calories come from junk food and soda your health will still be damaged.

100 Million Years Of Food Key Idea #7: Eating

You’re trying to eat healthily, but your friend invites you out to lunch at a buffet. Are you going to go for a bowl of oatmeal, some meatballs or just sticking with Prosecco? The answer is, it depends on who you are. Everyone is different.

 

To determine which foods are good for you, you need to consider your age, heritage and how much of any given thing you’ll eat. Most foods and beverages aren’t simply good or bad. Alcohol is a good example. Taken in excess, you could damage your brain and gut. Yet studies have found that moderate consumption of alcohol helps to fight coronary heart disease in people over the age of forty.

 

Your ethnic heritage makes a difference too. Because they’re genetically predisposed to produce lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme your body needs to break down alcohol in your stomach, lots of people of Asian descent need to be cautious when drinking. They become more intoxicated because more alcohol enters the bloodstream of Asian people per drink than enters the bloodstream of their Caucasian peers.

 

Similarly, while girls who eat lots of meat reach sexual maturity more quickly and are therefore at increased risk of certain cancers, for elderly women, for whom early onset puberty is obviously a non-issue, eating more meat will likely increase their strength.

 

Just because dietary needs vary dramatically from person to person doesn’t mean food should be a lonely activity. Our ancestors used to hunt together and share their food communally, strengthening community bonds and ensuring that everyone got a fair share.

 

We can make meals more communal to reap these same benefits. Endorsing pay-what-you-can restaurants and sharing more meals with friends can help you accomplish this. This way, we can once again make eating an area of life in which people care for one another.

100 Million Years Of Food Key Idea #8: Final Summary

The key message in this book:

 

Over the past few million years, the human diet has evolved dramatically. We can understand the factors that shape our modern diets, by tracing this evolutionary progress. While there’s no general dietary prescription that applies to everyone, there are some simple guidelines that might improve both health and happiness.

 

Actionable advice:

 

Sell your car to save your health. It is widely agreed that an active lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle. But we tend to stick with what’s comfortable as long as we have the choice. You might consider selling your car and forcing yourself to use modes of transportation that require some exercise.

 

How can you be sure this would be a good move for your health, consider the residents of certain mountainous islands, on which it was impractical to build roads. Traveling by car was never an option since they never had roads. In the end, these islanders live longer, healthier lives than their mainland peers because they get around on foot and by bike.

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