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Posts Tagged ‘genetics’

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get started with this blog.  There are so many topics and ideas relating to good and healthy nutrition that the subject itself can (and does) feel very overwhelming at times.  One of the “Big Ideas” I keep coming back to, over and over, in terms of a “big-picture” look at the complexities of food, health, nutrition and the human condition, is the relationship between what we eat and our basic, genetic, anatomical and physiological make-up.  We actually are “designed” to run most effectively and efficiently on a very specific subset of nutrients that are in tune with the four million year old genetic template of our ancestors; nutrients that for most people in most cultures today are not fully present (and often-times almost non-existent) in the typical daily diet. 

 

There have been three major periods or “epochs” of human diet over the millennia, with as many combinations and permutations and cross-fertilizations as there are human cultures and groupings.  The first (and by far the longest and most influential in terms of our genetic connections with nutrition) is the time of the hunter-gatherer, roughly from about 4 million years ago to about 10 – 12,000 years ago.  This time period set the foundation for who we are as a nutritional species; what the needs are at the system, tissue and cellular level.  Nora Gedgaudas, in her recently published book, Primal Body—Primal Mind goes into great detail describing the nutritional-physiological relationship of our paleo ancestors.  Some 95+% of our genetic patterns are still based on this time period, and for the most part, they are extremely different from what most modern humans eat today.  By far and away the majority of foods and nutrient types that most people take in today were not available to our paleo ancestors, which means they were not available for the largest part of our genetic history.  This includes all dairy products, all cereal grains, all processed foods, most fruits and vegetables, most vegetable oils and almost all sugars and other sweeteners.  Essentially, what we’re eating today is alien to our systems.

 

The second dietary epoch started about 10,000 years ago with the agriculture revolution.  By domesticating animals and plants (especially dairy animals and cereal grains) our dietary input shifted markedly — and our physiology is still trying to catch up.  This was the first step in a long road to chronic disease and dysfunction.  Paleontologists and anthropologists have discovered that there was a significant decline in stature and bone structure of humans during the first part of the agricultural revolution, that parallels an increase in grain-based diets (see Cordain and others: Origin and Evolution of the Western Diet. American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 2005).  Many people today suffer from conditions that result from allergies and reactions to various proteins and other substances in grains and dairy products that our paleo ancestors never experienced.  Ten thousand years seems like a long time, but in evolutionary terms, based on our four-plus million year old ancestry, it isn’t long enough for significant genetic change at the dietary level (Cordain et. al., 2005). Our digestive systems, our sugar-handling relationships, our immune responses, our hormones and our circulatory and nervous systems are all still trying to make sense (and not too successfully) of the major changes in diet experienced over the past 10 millenia. 

 

The last major dietary change (and by far, probably the most drastic) is extremely recent (mostly during the past 200 or fewer years) and has had the most telling and most deleterious impact on our physiology and our health.  This is the age of industrialized, processed, manipulated, adulterated ingredients that most people in the westernized world consume today.  Many, perhaps most, of these “food” items probably should not even be technically called foods – and the relative proportion of these altered nutrients is increasing in our diets at an exponential rate.  Dr. Weston Price, a dentist who witnessed first-hand the effects of modernizing diets on the tooth and jaw structure of his patients, ventured throughout the world in the 1930s comparing indigenous people eating their native and “primitive diets” with their neighbors, cousins, brothers and offspring who were assimilating western diets of processed and canned foods.  His studies and observations are some of the most powerful examples of the effects of diet and nutrition on the human body, mind and spirit.  See Dr. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration for a clear, enlightening (and yes, sad and sometimes frightening)  description of a major transition in our dietary history. 

 

I will go into much detail about this last dietary milestone, describing how what we eat (and sometimes how we eat) has led to the health and nutritional disasters of our time – and also, more importantly, how we can move back into balance with ancestral diets that are more in-tune with our genetics and biology.

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