Science - October 7, 2010

Stone age cooking lessons

The prehistoric diet is in. Its supporters hail it as delicious and much more wholesome than our affluent menus. Natural foods seem to be better for our genetic disposition. It has even been chosen as the theme for this year’s Food4you, the knowledge festival of healthy and delicious food.

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Meat, fish, vegetables and fruit are the major ingredients of the natural foods diet, the food of our prehistoric ancestors. They had to make do with what unfettered nature had to offer, which were quite varied even in our swampy region, says Prof. Harry Wichers of Immune Modulation by Food. 'Excavations have shown that nature's menu consisted mainly of wild meat, fish, eggs, berries and nuts. It had very little carbohydrates and saturated fats, but a lot of proteins, fibres and all kinds of essential micro-nutrients', he says. 'Moreover, the food was much less processed. Early men ate a tuber in its entirety and not the sugar extracted from it.'
Analysis of the skeletons of our distant predecessors has validated this picture of a wholesome diet. Early men were not little creatures with short legs scuttling after wild animals with a spear. Instead, they were tall and slender hunters who did not suffer from overweight, cardiovascular or diabetic ailments. The cave dweller was rather like a super human. Even though he did not live to be more than 20 to 30 years of age, this did not mean that his food was any less wholesome. 'Fractures were a bigger cause of death, and child mortality lowered that age greatly', says Wichers. Even when exposed to periods of scarcity, especially in winter, early men remained healthy to some extent. 'Having less food now and then is not that bad', says Prof. Tiny van Boekel of Product Design and Quality Management. 'It can even be good for your health if you consume just enough calories, or are just short of them.'
Food4you
'From prehistoric food to cyber snack' is the theme of Food4you this year.
The biggest knowledge festival in the Netherlands which is all about healthy and delicious food is held from November 6 to 11 in Wageningen, Barneveld and Ede. The public can get to know about new insights and developments in food and be able to see, taste, smell and touch it. This year's special is the food of our distant ancestors. Natural foods have inspired scientists and could drum up a growing bevy of fanatic followers who champion it as the way to a long and healthy life. Should we take a leaf out of our predecessors' menus in our daily shopping rounds?
Innate gluttony
The first turning point in food consumption was about ten thousand years ago when agriculture and animal husbandry began. Food for humans changed dramatically as a result: the portion of unhealthy fats increased with the increase in the quantity of dairy products and grains rich in carbohydrates. This transition affected the health of humans: they became smaller, the average height decreased from 1.8 metres to about 1.6 metres; there were more infectious diseases, transmitted by livestock; anaemia reared its ugly head and bone composition deteriorated. On top of that, the food production industry started about a hundred years ago.
In spite of these, we are in fact not very different from our primitive ancestors, even though we have substituted the supermarket cart for the spear and club in our search for food. Our genes have hardly changed in the 160,000 years in which we roamed the earth as homo sapiens; we are still early men on the inside, with an almost unaltered set of genes. 'Our genome changes only half a percent every million years', says Wichers. 'Genetically, we are still entirely like the early men and therefore still accustomed to natural foods.' Our natural genes correspond to the prehistoric diet; our metabolism is totally tuned in. But these same set of genes also restricts our desire to move and - when we are given the chance - make us want to eat as much as we can. That's how to conserve energy when you don't know for sure when the next meal will appear. But this innate idleness and gluttony has taken a high toll on our society, resulting in obesity and a host of affluent sicknesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. We are literally stuffing our way to death with food which our bodies are not made for. You can't think of a bigger difference than between a prehistoric diet and a hamburger menu at McDonalds. The latter consists of too much saturated fats and processed 'fast' carbohydrates, but is proportionately deficient in fibres and omega 3 fatty acids.

Source of inspiration
Can the prehistoric diet turn back the hands of the clock, and should all of us return to what nature has to offer? That's going to come up against practical problems, says van Boekel. 'It isn't possible to find prehistoric food for everyone. Nature cannot provide enough for the rising global population', he says. 'Carbohydrate-rich grains are needed to feed the world.' Moreover, it's nice to tuck into a greasy joint once in a while. 'I reached home late yesterday and enjoyed myself with a bag of chips and a bottle of beer', says Wichers. 'We aren't really up to chasing animals with a spear anymore.'
However, the professors see the prehistoric diet as a valuable source of inspiration for eating healthier. This is because there is still a lot to learn as far as nutrition and food processing are concerned. Some scientists even criticized modern nutrition advice for being way off from our genetic disposition. Too much bread, dairy products and potatoes, too little proteins from meat and fish, healthy fats, vegetables and fruit, and certainly too little Vitamin D. The prehistoric diet scores better than the 'wheel of five' in the areas of fibres and vitamins. 'We already know that eating less processed food with less sugar but more fibres and omega-3 fatty acids is healthy', says Boekel. 'The nice thing is that all these insights in healthy food are brought up in the prehistoric diet. Modern technology and agriculture and a bit of inspiration from natural foods will take us a long way towards making us eat healthier.'
Natural foods put to the test
Wageningen UR is doing research into how healthy natural foods are. Wichers is involved in a multi-disciplinary project to study the natural foods diet in real life. People with the metabolic syndrome - a typical affluent disease involving obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol level - are being placed on something similar to a natural foods diet. During the study, researchers will measure risk factors such as those for cardiovascular diseases. The diet has succeeded in the case of pigs. When placed on a diet of natural foods, they lost weight and their fat layers became thinner. The blood pressure and infection markers in the blood also went down.

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