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Are we now adapted to modern foods?

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  • #8986

    I’ve been mulling something over for a while now and am interested in other’s thoughts.

    A bit of pre-amble – I am a classic tall slim ectomorph that got sucked in by the whole paleo cult for a while, which saw my weight plummet from around 77-78kg (186cm tall) to about 70. Yeah, I ended up ripped, but way too scrawny. Just simply could not get enough calories in to support my weight.

    Since abandoning, I have since risen to and stabilised at 82-83kg, feel much better, so many improvements in mood, health markers etc etc. No problems with where I am, lost the 6 pack but do not give 2 hoots. I’ll take feeling this good and sleeping this well over that any day. And the irony is I’m probably much stronger now than I’ve ever been despite looking slightly less lean.

    My thoughts are – have we become so adapted to processed foods, and grown so much larger than our ancestors, that we simply cannot sustain our significantly larger frames on unprocessed foods? Has our digestive tract changed to adapt to the more calorie dense, processed stuff we generally eat?

    I know this is the opposite problem that many experience who are trying to lose weight, but I was wasting away eating “clean”, and I was stuffing my face as much as possible.

    I guess this is a separate topic to obesity, diabetes etc, but something I find interesting. My thoughts are that without refined sugar, we’d still be 5 foot tall (go visit an old English Castle and check out the doorways if you doubt we have grown bigger).

    Any thoughts? Has anyone does research along these lines?

    Matt Stone

    There’s not much research on this that I’m aware of. But it’s something that I ponder a lot. All organisms are pre-programmed in a variety of ways to meet the demands of the environment they are about to enter into, or the environment they are in. Without the stimulus of hard physical exertion, low-calorie density foods, fibrous raw stuff, and so forth – whose to say that our digestive organs and bodies don’t adapt to be prepared for the world and food and lifestyle that we have conditioned it for? Maybe suddenly switching over to an ape or caveman diet doesn’t work after decades of something totally different. Why would the body divert tons of energy towards digestion when being fed a bunch of soft, well-cooked, calorie-dense foods?

    There are certainly enough variables out there to NOT BE SURE. Uncertainty, and being tentative in your conclusions about everything, especially health and nutrition, is the right attitude. There is a lot out there that has been unaccounted for in the “eat your plants and avoid white sugar” paradigm that currently predominates in the nutrition world.


    Well, I believe in creation so even when I ate primal, I never agreed with their reasoning behind it. My reasoning was that we simply didn’t get enough physical activity today to eat much carbs.

    We eat all the same foods we always have for the most part. The biggest changes are extra refinement of food and eating a bunch of corn/soy/canola oil. Otherwise, people have been eating pancakes from the start IMO. :)

    I think this is related to this topic and interesting in and of itself.


    I’ll take a shot at answering this question, bixy.

    Firstly, calling a carb-restricted diet “paleo” is totally misleading.

    During the lower paleolithic game was in abundance, but it is thought that people didn’t always hunt for muscle meat, they hunted for offal which they ate fresh and raw, offal is so much more nutritious and easily digested than muscle meat. Our modern cultural approach to meat is to mediate it with butchery, turning sinewy chewy fleisch into fine cuts is a modern skill. Then comes the cooking part…. Humans didn’t really use fire until much later in the paleolithic.

    Insects were a major food group for early humans (and strangely lacking in the modern paleo diet). Insects are easily digested, protein rich and full of useful oils and minerals. I recommend this book insects and human life by anthropologist Brian Morris who writes extensively about Malawi where insect gathering is a main subsistence activity for some people.

    Neither offal nor insects are as hard to digest as the food on the muscle-meat based paleo diet (think pate). Add to the original paleo diet honey, in as vast a quantity as you could find and fruits and tubers of all sorts, and of course salt (see below) and I think you’d be on a far healthier track than the modern paleo- diet- which seems “pale” (snigger) in comparison.

    Furthermore, I urge you to get into archaeology. Take a look at a paleolithic skeleton- they were absolute whoppers! Especially compared to neolithic skeletons, these guys were huge strapping people, but they would have walked miles getting their calories in, probably taking obscene risks in pursuit of honey then sat about gorging for as long as possible. We certainly have not, on the whole, developed bigger frames than these guys, quite the opposite in fact.

    I can’t remember where I read this but humans have got a “sweet tooth” it starts with breastmilk- or maybe in the womb, who knows? We gravitate towards sweet things, as sources of high-octane calories. Gathering honey even at great risk is a time-honoured practice. As for salt, it is well known that Japanese Macaques dip their potatoes into salt water to enhance the flavour, once tasted never beaten I suppose, I’m sure early humans with their huge brain capacity could add salt to food if available There are better links to this but this give you an idea.

    I’m personally bored with hearing about how our “genetic programming” means we should jump on the latest bandwagon, and find the paleolithic diet just silly- it’s based on a false premise about early humans which to me casts doubt on its integrity, why not simply call it low-carb meat-munching vegan diet?

    So Bixy, I hope I have helped to answer some of your questions, I also combined this with a mini-rant about paleo-ism (can you believe that I, a lactating mother, was told by a paleo-head, whilst starving at a funeral where the food had run out, that I was “eating the two worst things possible” (bread and cheese!)!!! I did get him to admit that it was “better than nothing”. The cheek of it!).

    Also, to Matt’s post, nobody at the moment is suggesting that genetics is the reason why people adapt to different environments, but there is a lot in evolutionary ecology which suggests that we are pre-programmed through phenotype to adapt to our environment. It’s called the enculturation model, however it assumes that we have some sort of an innate “culture uptake mechanism”, which would require triggering. The anthropological perspctive (e.g. Tim Ingold) would argue that this is not the case, that culture consists of practices and conventions which we learn in situ through enskilment. This sort of turns the evolutionary paradigm on its head – which Ashley might enjoy- but I won’t go into it here, suffice to say that, and bringing it back to food, that in my view our food preferences and avoidances are largely behaviour that is learnt through existing instructional structures, like our home lives, the media, social norms (consciously and unconsciously), and tempered with a large measure of “rule of thumb”, which probably goes some way to explaining why the Western, modern paleo diet doesn’t include insects, honey, salt and other good stuff.

    close rant.

    love, crinkly


    Interesting thoughts crinkly.

    I guess what I mean by being larger than our ancestors is our more recent ancestors. Yes, I’m aware some palaeolithic skeletons have been found that indicate we were larger before the Neolithic era began. But my reference to modern food is more along the lines of what Matt was talking about – highly processed, calorie dense, cooked (more so than at any time) and therefore more easily digestible. I think even if we ate the same as our ancestors from 20,000 years ago (assuming we could accurately ascertain their diet, which we can’t), we may not be able to obtain as many calories as our ancestors could.

    Of course I don’t know this as a fact, or if it is a principle that could be applied to the majority of the population. I just know that in my case, eating almost exclusively meat, fruit and veg and tubers (potato, sweet potato) saw me losing weight steadily. I was eating till bursting, so it wasn’t a lack of trying. Granted if I had added honey to that and it may have made up the caloric deficit.

    Interesting what you say about the offal vs muscle meat. I find almost all offal very unappealing, but whether that is a learned behaviour or not I will never know. Lambs fry prepared well is about my limit, or maybe some good p’t?.

    And somebody telling you what you should or shouldn’t eat, well, these days I have a foolproof method for shutting them up. I got some raised eyebrows at a recent wedding and a few comments about how I was on a fast track to a heart attack when I added salt liberally to my meal – my response, smile and pour on more without saying a word. Works on two levels, 1 it shows you don’t give a shit, and 2 they are too shocked to say anything else and will leave you in peace to enjoy your food.

    Our gravitation towards sweet foods is probably because we innately understand how sugar is such an amazing energy source for us, hence why it tastes so good. Which is one of my main bug bears about paleo – it’s almost like Catholicism in its promotion of fear and guilt of things we enjoy (can you tell I’m an atheist?).


    I got quite a shock at an ethnographic museum in France when I compared the paleo- to the neo- lithic skeletons, the neo-lithic, especially the teeth were in a rotten state, but the paleolithic skeleton was amazing looking. I think that reliance on only a few cultivated crops by the time of the neolithic led to more endemic malnourishment, as well as coarsely ground cereals wrecking teeth- and teeth are the first part of digestion as I’m sure you know.

    But I don’t really have a view on whether we’re adapted to modern foods beyond saying culturally, yes, but not biologically so. But, like anything your own experience ought to guide you better than even the most reasoned opinion. From what I understand though, you can fill yourself adequately without satiety- at least this is what I experienced the other day after a meal of quinoa and vegetables, (my significant other likes to eat simply, but a hell of a lot! :))

    I will certainly try your method when it comes to criticism about food choices, although I trained myself out of a salty palate years ago, I have embraced it now.

    I also wonder whether we would gravitate towards the best foods for us if we were able to turn off the whingeing “voice of reason” which (in my view) is culturally conditioned by what we see around us.

    Best, crinkly

    The Real Amy

    I’m pretty sure we haven’t adapted to modern foods given the epidemics of obesity, bad teeth, chronic disease and whatnot that we have today. Although it may be all the pesticides and chemicals that we haven’t adapted to than the food itself (or now GMOs, which is a whole additional adaptation). Who knows. That doesn’t mean that someone raised on a diet of junk can easily convert to a whole foods diet, but I’m not sure if I would call that true adaptation if they’re not thriving on the junk diet.

    The Real Amy

    Oh, and P.S., bixy, I love your salt attitude!


    I disagree Amy, as although there is certainly a problem with obesity etc, I don’t believe it is all of modern food that is the problem. My own thought is excessive vegetable oils are certainly an issue, but I think there are other factors at play. Perhaps excess fluid intake contributes (drink your 8×8!) but I think the main problem is tv (look at when tvs in the home became ubiquitous, and I think the flow on effect may have begun then) and the resulting lack of sleep as we started staying up later, and more stressful lives in general. But that’s just my opinion, not something I can prove, and I am quite possibly / probably very wrong!

    The salt attitude can be applied to any food, it just happened to be the most recent example of someone expressing horror at what I was eating :)


    There is evidence of humans gathering grains at a very early date–far before agriculture–and even large-scale cultivation began many thousands of years ago. All the achievements of human civilization were accomplished on cooked, processed foods, especially starches. Even sugars were cultivated in our early history, in the form of honey, dates, figs, and other fruits. There is evidence of fig cultivation that is even older than grain agriculture.

    Speaking of grains, humans have always milled them and discarded the hull, and these milled, cooked grains have been the mainstay of almost every major civilization. I think it’s clear that we are incredibly well adapted to refined foods, because that is what we survived (and flourished) on for thousands of years.


    @bixy and @The Real Amy- I also wonder about this. So much has changed in the last century or so as obesity, poor dental health and diseases of various sorts all rose, and while I think nutrition certainly plays a factor, I wonder how much other elements are at work.

    Chief, when he was around and participating in conversations here, maintained that modern life within civilization was at play in obesity. Things like television, climate controlled environments, toxins of various sorts, changes in daily light patterns, social disruption and isolation: all of these may be at work, and may be synergistic.

    Heck, even our pets are getting western diseases and we don’t entirely know why. I support everyone exploring the topic with an open mind, and encourage everyone to remain a little skeptical when we think we have the answer.


    Thanks to bixy and crinkly for a lot of straight dope surrounding ancestral diets. My impression has been humans have eaten cooked, processed starches for a long time and I’m not about to stop doing so.

    Amy, obesity is such a complex issue. I don’t think it’s only attributable to modern foods although nutrient deficiency probably plays a role. I also think it’s multi-generational. I.e. after a couple generations of socio-environmental stressors, inadequate nutrition, and dieting mentality people will be a lot more prone to obesity.

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