I was nineteen when I was diagnosed with my first ulcer. The doctor looked at my family’s medical history with dismay, noting both my parent’s struggles with chronic stomach problems and suggested I start taking medicine to counteract the acidity of my stomach and the cramping in my lower intestine. The following year was a battle between myself and my rebellious stomach. Despite subsisting on what the doctor’s claimed was the safest diet, a blame regime of bananas, yogurt, and bread, nothing seemed to get better. On a desperate visit to the college acute care clinic, the middle-aged doctor told me that his entire family had the same problems, and like him, I should expect to be on my medication for the rest of my life. Food became my enemy and the thought of dinner was one of dread.
I was no stranger to medical disorder. Like my mother, I had also suffered from severe asthma and like my father I had a congenitally misaligned jaw. I accepted these inheritances as my lot in life and thanked my lucky stars that I had been born in modern times.
The first inkling I got that I might not be so lucky was my sophomore year of college, when I was assigned an essay called The Worst Mistake by Jared Diamond. I had read several of his books, but I had never encountered such an infuriating idea. He dared to imply that agriculture, the foundation of all modern society, was a mistake. To me, agriculture was the mother of all I loved. It had allowed us to break free of our state of nature, which Hobbes famously called “nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of agriculture, Chopin had played his etudes, Michelangelo had painted the sublime Sistine chapel, Homer had written his epics…and I had my very thick glasses that allowed me to read them. I set out to prove him wrong.
A dramatic and unintentional experiment on the effects of modern agriculture is being played out right now. The subjects are the native peoples of America and while the results may be more exaggerated than what happens to the average person, they may hold the key to the disorders that plague modern society.
The most prevalent disease that accompanies civilization is sometimes simply called “Syndrome X,” a deadly cocktail of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high cholesterol and obesity that is linked with heart disease and diabetes . In indigenous populations, this Syndrome X has reached epidemic levels. While it has also increased in the general population, the increase in indigenous populations has been much larger. Native Americans have two times the heart disease and seven times the rates of diabetes . It affects nearly every Native American population, from the Ojibwa-Cree in Northern Canada with the third highest rate of type II diabetes in the world to the Pima in the American Southwest who are the second most obese people in the world to Native Hawaiians who have twice the national level of heart disease .
The end result of Syndrome X is type II diabetes, a disease of chronically high blood sugar . In a healthy person, sugar stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin, which leads to sugar being absorbed by the cell, but in a diabetic, but the process has stopped working because so much sugar has been consumed that the receptors malfunction. The sugar remains in the blood stream and in high levels it can become toxic. Even with treatment, diabetics can suffer from high rates of vision problems, kidney failure, cardiovascular disease, and in the worst cases, gangrene. On a visit to a Pima reservation, reporter Malcolm Gladwell described the carnage: 300-pound pre-diabetic teenagers, young women confined to wheelchairs, and middle-aged men dependent on kidney dialysis. In most towns in America the same scene of carnage is repeated, but typically only in homes and hospitals catering to the elderly.
The stark fact is that when Native Americans first made contact with Europeans, no such illnesses existed. They emerged only as their societies adopted western foods such as white flour and sugar.
Foods like white flour and sugar have been connected with disease in every society on earth. However, for Native Americans and other indigenous populations, it seems these foods are more toxic than normal. These foods were a product of thousands of years of agriculture in Europe, whereas as Louis LaRose, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, describes it: “we’re only two or three generations removed from picking berries, we were not designed to do all our hunting in aisles A, B, and C. ”
In reality, no human was designed for the modern diet. Humans have not changed much since the Paleolithic, when all humans lived as hunter-gatherers . It is commonly believed that hunter-gatherers live short, harsh lives, but science come to different conclusions. As I researched the effects of agriculture, I learned that studies of modern hunter-gatherers show that they not only obtain an average of 2116 calories a day, but they only have to work 4-5 hours a day for their food . While they are unable to accumulate possessions like shiny cars or ipods, disease is rare. Modern hunter-gatherers have usually been pushed to marginal land, so it’s possible that ancient hunter-gatherers lived in even greater abundance. In a seminal essay on the subject, Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called it “the original affluent society,” challenging the notion that wealth is about possessions, instead connecting it to health.
Through bones and other human remains, anthropologists have been able to paint a picture of the diet humans evolved to eat and the effects of agriculture on human diet and health. It’s impossible to perfectly reconstruct the original human diet, but a few tenets have emerged. Scientists have concluded that the Paleolithic diet was low in sugar, high in “good” fats, high in micronutrients, low in acid, high in potassium, and high in fiber . Very few grains and tubers were consumed, and milk, eggs, beans, alcohol, and refined sugar were entirely absent.
Modern diet gurus often vilify certain macronutrients like fat or carbohydrates as “bad,” but hunter-gatherer diets were healthy no matter the composition. That composition varies from the Eskimos, who ate an astonishing 185 grams of fat a day, to the Yanomamo, who primarily subsisted on high-carbohydrate plant foods .
The food itself was the difference. Meat from a wild animal is not the same as the ground beef from a fast-food burger. Wild game is typical lower in total fat, especially saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease . However, wild game is higher in the “good” fats such as omega-3 fatty acids. Recent science has shown that omega-3 fatty acids are vital in heart and brain health . Unfortunately, in the western diet, omega-3 fatty acids have literally been literally out-competed by their cousins, omega-6 fatty acids, which are present in high levels in seeds, a staple of western diets in the form of grains and oils. The receptors that process these fats work best when the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 2.3:1, but in the western diet the average ratio is 15:1. This explains why Eskimos, who still consume large amounts of seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids now suffer from symptoms of omega-3 deficiency -- the fats in the new foods cancel them out .
Even the plant foods were different. Overall, more leaves were consumed than seeds. Some peoples consumed staple foods, but overall they relied on hundreds of diverse plants . The plants they consumed were rich in complex secondary compounds, which are known to affect genetic expression and metabolism Little is known about the effects of having a diet less rich in these secondary compounds we evolved to consume, but scientists suspect their absence is connected to diseases such as cancer.
Most sugar consumed by early humans was in the form of fruits, but fruits were also different. Wild fruits contain more fructose and glucose, whereas cultivated varieties contain more sucrose. They are also higher in fiber and those secondary compounds.
The dawn of agriculture 12,000 years ago left its mark on human skeletons. Agriculture developed independently in as many as seven places and archeologists who survey skeletons find that as civilizations increased their reliance on agriculture, their bone-health deteriorated. This does not exempt American civilizations. The Mayans heavy reliance on corn, a food that lacks important nutrients and impedes absorption of others, led to shrunken skeletons deformed from pellagra. At Dickson Mounds in Illinois, studies show that first farmers in the area had lived an average of 19 years compared to the 26 years their hunter-gather predecessors enjoyed.
One of the more dramatic illustrations of the effect of agriculture came from a paper by an intrepid dentist named Weston A. Price, who traveled the world in search of the cause of poor dental health. In his work, he juxtaposed pictures of traditional hunter-gatherers, smiling with straight white teeth, with those who had adopted “modern foods” like sugar and boiled potatoes, who had crooked jaws and blackened teeth. The changes happened in as little as one generation, squarely laying the cause on food, not genes. I started wondering if my crooked teeth were really all my father’s fault.
Some links, a full bibliography at the end
Price, Weston. 1945. Nutrition and physical degeneration a comparison of primitive and modern diets and their effects