Meat, Plants, and Humans..

This week on ASU campus I managed to attend a fascinating talk: Reconsidering the Role of Plant Foods in Hominin Diets by Dr. Chelsea Leonard. Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 11.41.44 AM

It was a job talk for the Evolutionary Anthropology department here at ASU and Dr. Leonard is an evolutionary ecologist interested in “human foraging decisions & diet reconstruction”(so- her work would help to clarify what humans ate in the past!) working with Twe populations in Namibia (southwest Africa).

Why does Dr. Leonard study the role of plants? Since shifting towards more meat in diets of early humans has been suggested to be crucial for the unique adaptations in our genus (e.g. large brains), animal foods appear to be very Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 12.00.04 PMimportant. There is indeed a strong case for meat in a human diet- in comparison to chimpanzees who are mostly herbivorous (eat plants), the human gut has opposite proportions- our small intestine is much longer, while the colon is a lot shorter. The colon is where fiber fermentation occurs- something crucial if you are eating lots of plant foods (and wild plant foods are very high fiber!). What Dr. Leonard suggests, though, is that meat’s importance in human diets may be quite overstated (especially in meat-heavy “paleo” diets popular now).

The people she studies- Twe- are “forager-horticulturalists”; while the Namibian government has been providing maize for them (this started very recently, in the last 7 yrs or so), they mostly forage for wild foods and have very low intake of animal products. Apparently, historically this population hunted large game and had a higher meat intake.. but the area is very poor in large animals now (and has been this way for ~200 yrs).

While I wont’ be able to describe everything Dr. Leonard discussed, I found the following fascinating.. Based on her observations and interviews with the Twe, she constructed and analyzed a hypothetical (yet realistic) diet for this region. Since Twe seem to be doing just fine health-wise with an extremely low animal food intake (there might be some birds, insects, rodents eaten from time to time), she wanted to test if their meatless diet truly meet basic nutritional requirements. FullSizeRender 9

Based on the plants the Twe regularly eat, her analysis showed that such meatless diet can realistically provide enough protein (it can reach minimum levels of essential amino acids our body can not produce without foods that contain them), it can also provide enough fat (while most plant sources were extremely low in fat, the grass seeds often eaten are rather high in it). The main issue with this meatless diet was calories. Getting enough calories to survive would be improbable : while the hypothetical food intake reaches 1774 calories a day.. only 772 of them are metabolized. What this means is that a lot of these calories are not available to the human body- since humans can not ferment fibers very efficiently, a lot of this rough wild plant fiber is indigestible and does not provide our body with energy.

The main issue with this meatless diet was calories.

Since foraging for wild plants  is very labor intensive (and this does not really mean standing around picking berries, but e.g. digging up roots that are about 1 meter (~40 inches) into the ground, or grinding grass seeds and cooking them into porridge), there isn’t enough time in a day to get enough digestible calories from foraging. So animal products are more efficient and provide a concentrated mix of not only essential nutrients, but fat, protein, and calories. While the speaker couldn’t quite estimate the % of calories coming from small game (the birds, insects, etc.), it was very small but still was a part of this population’s diet [note: any time honey was available, it was eaten in large amounts and rather adored, apparently!]. Thus, while a  vegetarian diet can be maintained in our modern world with plentiful food supply (and supplementation), it was not possible for non-industrialized populations.

humans are highly adaptable as we span huge geographical areas, and thus no single “diet” “made us human”

We know humans are highly adaptable as we span huge geographical areas, and thus no single “diet” “made us human” (thus, there is no one Paleo Diet). Yet plants are extremely important in our history- we see that they can sustain populations in good health to a very large degree. One issue with studying the role of plants in human diets is that they do not last well archeologically (e.g. it’s much easier to find evidence of large game being consumed, because their remains last well).

while a  vegetarian diet can be maintained in our modern world with plentiful food supply (and supplementation), it was not possible for non-industrialized populations.

Overall, this was a really great talk! It also reminded me of a paper I read on the significance of plant foods in human evolution, which I talked about HERE.

[note: if you are an evolutionary anthropologist sand have any edits/clarifications to my post, please comment! I am not an evolutionary anthropologist :)]

Meeting Mr. Paleo!

Is there anything more exciting than a health conference???

Well, there is always chocolate, but the conference excitement is quite comparable.

ImageArizona State University has organized a great conference “Nutrition for Optimal Health and Performance”.  Today’s lecture included speakers on athletic nutrition, debate on the High-Fructose Corn Syrup, and Paleolithic Nutrition.  Right now I shall focus on the Paleo presentation.

S. Boyd Eaton, MD from Emory University is considered the “father” of the modern paleo movement (you would know him from the Paleolithic Prescription book). He himself considers himself the “grandfather” since much of his original ideas have been somewhat transformed by other (younger) researchers (and he does not necessarily agree with all).

The Hypothesis

The presentation was not new to me, since I have read several of his papers.  In short, Dr. Eaton talked about the basis for the paleo health idea- the “discordance hypothesis“, according to which our genes and our lives are discordant (we adapted to a certain food and activity pattern, which is not matched by the modern sedentary/processed foods lifestyle)… The mismatch of the current obesogenic environment and our stone age genes are the reason we suffer from “western” diseases.  The human of 40,000 to 15,000 years ago is fundamentally identical to the modern human.Screen Shot 2013-02-08 at 8.35.37 PM

Then Dr. E talked about different % of meat subsistence of recent hunter gatherers which ranges from 20% animal products to 95%.  They/anthropologists take the 50% of animal protein in the diet  as the model due to the idea that most of us come from the savanna region of Africa (with 50% animal dietary intake).

He also discussed that anthropologists have rather good ways of studying old diets (human skeletal remains, archeological finds, recent hunter-gatherers, and proximate nutrient analyses).

The “Ancestral” Diet

The Paleo-Nutrition of East Africa (~50,000 years ago) is considered to be comprised of 35%, 25-35% protein, and ~35% carbohydrates. Of course the carbs, protein, and fat of long ago and the present day are not the same (obviously, less processed and more micronutrient rich; the fat was more polyunsaturated, more long chain PUFA, and less cholesterol-raising fat).  Other noted differences – vitamins and minerals were 2-8 times higher than average American intake; much higher potassioum-to-sodium ratio, the diet was more basic than modern acidic diets, and much more antioxidants than at present (generally 4x). Dr. E especially emphasized fiber- vegetables in the wild are much more fibrous.  Lastly, the energy intake was considerably higher, but caloric density was low (there was more bulk- more fiber, more water in food). Dr. E also talked about “free water intake”- most of the fluids consumed were part of the vegetables&fruits.

That’s all great, but here is something that was new to me. Dr. E himself differentiated between the “weak” and “strong” forms of the paleo prescription. It’s hard to say what all forms of “paleo” people out there are following, but my impression is that folks try to stay pretty strict with what they believe our “ancestors” ate. For a healthy normal individual, however, Dr. E’s weak form consisted of-


The strong form (which seems to be the popular form as I can tell from talking to folks) is for people with “resistant health problems or who are unable to maintain desirable biomarkers” + competitive athletes.  This diet is what you would usually recognize as “the paleo diet”completely excludes grains, dairy, and alcohol.

The AfterLecture

The most exciting part for me was listening to Dr. E talk to a group of people after the presentation. A dietitian asked about the lack of legumes and beans in the paleo diet (she was upset about such nutrition advise). He commented that this was not something he necessarily agreed with at all, and that this idea originated with a different researcher (sorry, I can not remember who).  My friend asked how he viewed a paleolithic diet without meat (she is mostly vegetarian).  He said his understanding of meat avoidance is very much justified on ethical and moral grounds, considering the treatment of animals and their health (thus, the healthiness of their meat).  And if one could get their protein adequately from other sources that was great too. So he was not particularly married to one type of the ultimate human diet. Overall, Dr. E was a pleasure to be around.

My Comments on Meat Avoidance

Another dietetics student, who I know is a vegan since we are both involved in a vegetarian study, asked how he would respond to the massive literature on the health benefits of vegetarian diets and the problem of saturated fat from meat. Dr. E “politely disagreed” that vegetarianism was necessary for health but did not elaborate as much as we hoped. I understand the doc does not view being vegetarian as necessarily more healthy (considering you could do paleo with grass-fed free range meat and all). But I also wish he could talk about this further.Screen Shot 2013-02-08 at 8.29.54 PM

As someone who was vegan for 2 years and is very familiar with various health rationales for avoiding animal products, I have come to the conclusion that it is not necessary to exclude these products from the diet for health. Many cite The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, which is a book I also used to refer to (in brief, it shows the connection between animal protein and cancer). However, after looking into people who eat “traditional” diets (e.g. the Weston A. Price foundation diet), and seeing the vibrant health they enjoy… I had to come to the conclusion that all is not as black & white as I expected. In regards to meat & cancer, I am fascinated by new information on mTOR. Since I plan to post about mTOR in depth later, I will only say that it is a pathway that can be up-regulated if excess protein levels are detected in the body…in turn this stimulates cellular proliferation and adverse mitochondrial effects. In short- too much protein= increased risk of cancer. But note here that animal protein only in excess leads to adverse health effects, not animal protein per se. Supposedly, 45-60 g of protein per day for the majority of adults is a good amount* for longevity and avoidance of disease.

It was a pleasure to actually talk to the originator of the “paleo” movement, who himself is very balanced and rational in contrast to how the idea can be taken to extremes by many different people. The one thing Dr. E said is that obviously it is not sustainable for everyone to eat a paleo style diet any more, unless we decreased the world’s population drastically. Obviously, that is a different talk altogether.

*Gedgaudas CNS, CNT, Nora T. (2011-05-27). Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life (p. 196). Inner Traditions Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.