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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Brief history of human diet

Sushi the cat joins us for dinner 3 by Torley from flickr (CC-SA)

Previously in series: The myth of 5 a day - people never ate that much fruit and veg, Dietary consequences.

I've been listening to an audiobook about history of potato cultivation, which I purchased legitimately, and then proceeded to strip DRM of it in spite of Audible insisting in its FAQ that it's impossible. Are you getting WTF overload already?

Anyway... for people who are puzzled by the recent obesity/diabetes/metabolic syndrome clusterfuck, here's a quick reminder of history of human diet:
  • Humans did a lot of hunting and gathering with diet composition being highly varied depending on local circumstances. Normally hunting would bring most high quality protein, while gathering would bring most calories, and diversity of food sources would ensure good dietary balance and protect against bad seasons.
  • Then humans switched to agriculture. This happened at least 7 times, independently, almost at once, after millions of years during which it could have happened and didn't. Amount of evidence we have is just ridiculously high compared to all other human evolutionary transitions (like language, behavioral modernity, industrial revolution, and scientific revolution - all happening just once) that it's a shame that we don't have any convincing theories explaining why it happened when and where it happened.
  • Invariably, this switch resulted in severe health problems. Calories were more plentiful, but reliance on a small number of food sources virtually ensured micronutrient deficiencies, and regular famines due to bad weather. Farmers were shorter, died earlier, and generally suffered. This is well documented everywhere transition to agriculture happened.
  • Gradually, people figured out how to diversify their food sources, and in time farmers got as healthy as hunter-gatherers before them. There were more kinds of food, better agricultural practices, better preservation methods, better cooking methods, varieties of food grown got changed, and to a small extent even human biochemistry changed to adapt to agriculture.
  • There was still one huge problem - people were spending insane amount of time on food preparation. According to some statistics, even as recently as a century ago, average wife spent 45 hours a week on activities related to food preparation. Stay-at-home mums were not a cultural quirk - they were a necessity (unless you could afford servants).
  • A new revolution in food production happened in the last century. There was quantitative increase in productivity, but most interesting part of it was switch from highly home-labour-intensive food which required rigid gender role separation to semi-prepared food which freed women into general labour force.
Yes, it was not feminist nonsense which brought equality, or birth control, or anything like that - it was primarily food processing industry. You might protest that you don't eat that much processed food - but you're fooling yourself. How many of you have milked your own cows, churned your own butter, baked your own bread (milling flour has been industrialized ages ago - but at first it was also done at home), made your own pasta etc.? We have gone so far up the food processing ladder than we forgot how much processing goes into all those seemingly simple foods that form bulk of our diets. Actually, I do bake my own bread sometimes, but with a bread machine, so it hardly counts, and mostly because British bread is atrocious spongy shit.

Unfortunately food is a complex matter, and this transition went not without causing some serious problems, just like the original switch to agriculture. If you think about it - these problems aren't terribly severe. Yes - untreated obesity is live-threatening, and we haven't found good cure for it, but we have been really good at treating the symptoms. There are drugs for diabetes and hypertension, cars have replaced the need to even as much as walk longer distances, and loss of physical attractiveness can be largely covered by learning the art of myspace shots. People still live longer each year, and don't seem that terribly distressed.

Moreover, it seems that obesity rates have plateaued in States in the last decade - at a ridiculously high rate, but it's not unlikely that the worse is already over, and they'll only go down from there.

If the rates start indeed falling, then perhaps the transition to the new kind of food will have went surprisingly smoothly, compared to all such past transitions.

Case study - USA

The Bite by Ack Ook from flickr (CC-SA)

Let's take a look at how eating patterns changed in one of the worst affected countries - USA. It is so commonly repeated that people eat more sugar, fat and animal products that it gets on my nerves. Here's the definite table of all major food groups (at least 1% share at either date), based on FAO data, as percentage of caloric intake, ordered by relative change. I'd love to have data for 1900, as 1961 was midway the shift from unprocessed to processed food, but we have to do with the data we have, instead of despairing for the data we wished to have.

Poultry Meat2.23%5.48%
Vegetable Oils9.58%18.58%
Vegetal Products64.93%72.77%
Fruits - Excluding Wine2.77%3.03%
Alcoholic Beverages3.77%3.84%
Cereals - Excluding Beer21.76%21.44%
Sugar & Sweeteners17.89%16.92%
Starchy Roots3.14%2.57%
Animal Products35.07%27.23%
Other Alcoholic Beverages1.19%0.92%
Milk - Excluding Butter13.29%9.9%
Bovine Meat4.36%3.02%
Butter, Ghee2.26%1.05%
Animal Fats6.92%2.91%

That is:
  • Americans eat more vegetal, and less animal products - and within this category there's shift towards leaner meats
  • Americans eat about as much sugar & HFCS
  • Americans eat absolutely insane amounts of vegetable oil
And these are the biggest losers. I will slap around with a large healthy trout everyone who dares to suggest that HFCS is responsible for obesity. HFCS is damn sugar - statistics say it's vegetable oil you eat too much of.
"HFCS causes obesity" is the new "vaccines cause autism"

Case study - Germany

Chef cat is watching the sausages by ruudb0y from flickr (CC-NC-SA)

For a second case study, I took a less drastically affected country - Germany. Germany is taking the transition somewhat better than States, and your guess is as good as mine if this is a genuine success, or the worst is simply still ahead of them.

I wished to simply have EU15 average or something like that, but FAO lacks good aggregate data, so here's the next best thing.

Poultry Meat0.66%1.53%
Other Alcoholic Beverages0.81%1.39%
Fish, Seafood0.77%1.17%
Vegetable Oils8.81%11.4%
Sugar & Sweeteners11.71%14.22%
Alcoholic Beverages5.71%6.63%
Milk - Excluding Butter8.09%8.89%
Vegetal Products67.45%69.96%
Cereals - Excluding Beer24.94%25.47%
Animal Products32.55%30.04%
Fruits - Excluding Wine3.75%3.28%
Animal Fats12.43%8.76%
Butter, Ghee6.56%3.6%
Bovine Meat1.99%1.02%

Interesting points:
  • Changes are much less drastic than in States.
  • There's big shift away from local rye and potatoes to more international wheat, maize, and rice.
  • Just like in States, there's shift from butter to vegetable oil, and from fatter to leaner meat - but it's less significant.
  • Other than that, German food preferences are remarkably stable over such a long period of time, and such drastic changes in actual agricultural practice.

Case study - Japan

cat and birdies bento [explored] by gamene from flickr (CC-BY)

And finally the country which takes transition remarkably well - they are essentially free of Western metabolic syndrome troubles. You'd think they sticked to their traditional food? No such luck.

Poultry Meat0.18%2.03%
Vegetable Oils3.26%12.21%
Milk - Excluding Butter1.42%3.78%
Animal Products9.64%20.58%
Other Alcoholic Beverages1.51%2.54%
Demersal Fish1.19%1.83%
Fruits - Excluding Wine1.36%2.0%
Sugar & Sweeteners7.01%10.01%
Animal Fats1.05%1.38%
Fish, Seafood4.52%5.93%
Alcoholic Beverages3.56%4.65%
Pelagic Fish2.5%2.21%
Vegetal Products90.36%79.42%
Cereals - Excluding Beer60.34%38.68%
Fermented Beverages1.3%0.68%
Starchy Roots5.87%2.45%
Sweet Potatoes3.31%0.64%

  • Changes are even more drastic than in other case studies.
  • There has been huge reduction in consumption of rice, barley, sweet potatoes.
  • There has been huge increase in consumption of animal products, and vegetable oil, and big increase in consumption of sugar.
  • Japanese drink far more milk than they used to - and fuck lactose intolerance.
So to sum it up... I makes little sense. There's no going back. Stay-at-home mums are as much a thing of the past as bands of hunters chasing mammoths across tundra. You have to switch. The question remains - what to switch to.

The optimistic answer to this is simply follow the crowd, and hope they'll eventually figure out what works. Even if it ends up as badly as the idea of replacing animal fats with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and simple sugars (yes, these were the original "healthy foods") - someone will come with a pretty good drugs for diabetes by the time you need them. Maybe we'll even stem-cell diabetes away entirely?

The pessimistic answer is to just copy the Japanese.
Enjoy your whale sushi.


Divided Mind said...

Also of note: Japanese seem to drink two entirely different species of alcoholic beverages.

taw said...

"Fermented Beverages" means low-alcohol beverages.

This has been nearly forgotten surprisingly quickly, but before widespread availability of clean drinking water low-alcohol fermented drinks were the primary drink in most parts of the world. As a bonus you get some extra vitamins thanks to fermentation.

Imagine drinking 2 litres of weak very vaguely beer-like something every fucking day of your life since you stopped drinking mother's milk - that's what life used to be like.

Divided Mind said...

Right, but I meant the two 'alcoholic beverages' entries. Which one is mid-alcoholic? ;p

taw said...

Fail. Looking at metadata files, it looks like this smaller category is for distilled alcoholic beverages, but I'll just label it "other" in case I misread this to avoid further confusion (and it doesn't seem to add up with beer and wine to the total).

lacus said...

of course the increase in vegetable consumption is based on the food scientist use of the corn plant and the ability for it to turn into crappy processed foods.

and HFCS consumption does lead to obesity as proven by the recent definitive Princeton study. turns out table sugar and HFCS are metabolized differently.

taw said...

lacus: Just make sure you won't let anyone vaccinate you. Unless it's a homeopathic vaccine, it which case you'll be fine.

Sarah said...

Oh drat. I really wanted to read the whole thing, but I got all sadface when you called feminism "nonsense."

taw said...

Sarah: Oh you poor thing. The kittens are there specially for you.