Summary of 100 Million Years of Food by Stephen Le

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of 100 Million Years of Food by Stephen Le

There’s no doubt about it, without food, we would cease to exist. However, diseases related to diet is more prevalent than ever before. So, what are we doing wrong? Where have modern eating habits gone awry? People have sought the answer for decades, comparing our eating habits to that of our ancestors. It is also the reason why caveman and paleo diets gained so much popularity in recent years. 

To truly understand how our eating habits have changed over time and their effects, it is crucial to look all the way back to our earliest primate ancestors. They were capable of adapting to changing environments, so maybe we can look to them for the answers we need today.

In this book summary, readers will discover:

  • Contrary to popular belief, insects and fruits are not the solutions for modern living
  • The pros and cons of meat
  • When vegetables came into the picture
  • Diets and disease – how they are linked
  • Everyone is unique and their diets should be too

Key lesson one: Contrary to popular belief, insects and fruits are not the solutions for modern living

Looking back at our ancestors, 100 million years ago the earliest primates were tree dwellers and their diet consisted mainly of insects. Insects have also gained much popularity in recent years as they are an excellent source of vitamins and are rich in calories. This is despite how disgusting they may seem. However, it is quite impossible to survive solely on insects as our ancestors did and the reason for that is simple. We no longer possess the enzymes that our ancestors did which were able to break down and digest chitin. 

Chances are that if we had to consume large quantities of insects, we would end up with some sort of allergy due to the toxins they produce. In moderation, however, insects can be extremely beneficial to the human diet. In addition, they are also an efficient competitor to modern food production producing less carbon dioxide than cows per pound. 

Our ancestors moved away from an insect only diet when fruit trees emerged approximately 60 million years ago. Over the next 30 million years, they became complete fruit eaters. But eating too much fruit can have repercussions nowadays as well. Our bodies can only metabolize a certain amount of fructose. Beyond this amount, insulin resistance, as well as pancreatic cancer, can develop. 

So, even though our ancestors started off with insects and fruit, this is not something we can pursue in order to maintain a healthy and disease-free diet.

Key lesson two: The pros and cons of meat

It was not until two million years ago that our ancestors took on a more terrestrial lifestyle and moved out of trees. This led to an adaptation in their diet as well as they began to forage and hunt for food. This introduced meat into their diet and as a result, their brains rapidly expanded. The meat that they consumed had the necessary fatty acids which facilitated brain growth. A larger brain was a huge evolutionary step that gave our ancestors a great advantage. They could coordinate their hunts and strategise which led to more success and therefore more meat was taken back to their families. This ensured that they survived and successfully reproduced. 

While nowadays, meat is an important part of most diets, too much of it can cause problems. Our bodies can only handle so much protein as when it is digested, nitrogen compounds are produced. If the levels of these compounds are too high, they become toxic to the body. Meat also contains large quantities of cholesterol which is the main cause of clogged arteries. Although not all cholesterol is bad, in fact, it plays an important part in hormone production and cell production, too much of it gained from a meat-heavy diet is dangerous. 

To escape this problem nowadays, people have tried alternatives to red meat. Fish was and still remains a popular choice in many cultures especially in those where meat was hard to source. It was a good choice considering the healthy fatty acids and vitamins which can be obtained in a diet rich in fish. However, fish was also avoided by those who considered them to be sacred and also by those who simply hated the taste. 

The other substitute to meat that man found was animal milk. This trend emerged around 8000 years ago in Nothern Europe. Animal milk is rich in calcium and nutritious. Furthermore, it provided an added benefit of being in constant supply if you had milk-producing animals. Whereas eating an animal is a once-off thing, milk production is ongoing. Milk consumption also has its pros and cons. It is linked with increased growth in children, but this growth also leads to bone health issues later on in life. This has been proven when studying nations with a high dairy intake – although they exhibit above average height, their hip fracture rates are amongst the highest in the world.

Key lesson three: When vegetables came into the picture

Vegetables only became a source of food around 12 000 years ago and it was mostly as a result of the lack of prey. Overhunting and mass extinctions meant there were fewer animals to hunt. So humans turned to farming and eating plants that were readily available. This led to vegetables and plant-based foods becoming the main food source in densely populated areas where it was hard to keep animals.

However, it was not always the safest thing to do. Modern-day plants and vegetables have been domesticated and bred for human consumption. Their wild ancestors were not always so friendly. This was mainly due to the chemical warfare that went on between insects and plants. The plants produced harmful substances in a bid to kill the insect pests that fed on them. Although most of these substances have been bred out of plants now, some still remain. Beans, lentils and soybeans still contain lectins which can cause liver damage if eaten in excess. The seeds of the castor oil plant as well, contain a poisonous substance called ricin which will lead to death if ingested.

Key lesson four: Diets and disease – how they are linked

Throughout time, humans have adapted to new diets but it isn’t something that happens overnight. In fact, major dietary changes can take many generations to settle. Therefore it is unsurprising that many sudden, new diseases emerged when dietary changes occurred.

In East and Southeast Asia in the late nineteenth century, for example, a disease called beriberi arose amongst rich citizens. They exhibited mental confusion, problems with mobility and heart conditions. The cause turned out to be a huge deficit of B1. Rich people were the only ones affected as they were the only ones who could afford highly polished rice. This rice was stripped of almost all its B1. Similarly, pellagra emerged amongst the poor in America when they consumed industrially milled corn which lacked vitamin B3 which is readily available in fresh corn. In both cases, processed food was to blame but those that were affected were from opposite ends in terms of economic status. 

Lifestyle changes can also be linked to the increase in allergies and disease that we see now. Staying indoors for long periods of time and avoiding sunlight has led to an increase in the number of people with inadequate levels of vitamin D and pregnant women with low vitamin D levels are actually more likely to have kids with allergies. There’s also the hygiene hypothesis which states that our modern lifestyles hinder kids from getting dirty. This results in them being more prone to developing allergies and asthma.

Key lesson five: Everyone is unique and their diets should be too

So, how do you decide which is the best diet to follow? The reality is that there is no simple answer. Everyone’s body is different and has different requirements which is why diets that work for some people do not work for others. Simply cutting calories in your daily food intake is not always a healthy option. If your calorie intake is insufficient, your brain may bear the consequences as it will be deprived of the fuel it needs to focus. Similarly, too little protein in your diet will lead to muscle weakness. 

Everything is a trade-off, for example, women who eat fewer calories will live longer but they will probably be less fertile. This is not only true of humans. Many animals forego reproduction when food is scarce. And if you’re looking to lose weight, the correlation between weight and calorie intake is not that strong. Modern-day hunter-gatherers consume almost the same amount of calories as the average American and also exhibit similar levels of exercise. The only difference between the two is the difference in calorie intake in different seasons. You also have to consider where your calories are coming from. If all you are eating is junk food, it does not matter how little calories you eat. 

Therefore dietary requirements vary greatly. Age, heritage and lifestyles can all have an effect on how your body processes certain foods. People of Asian descent, for example, are genetically predisposed to have lower levels of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. This means that they get drunk faster as alcohol cannot be broken down in the stomach and thus enters the bloodstream. Another example is that young girls reach sexual maturity much earlier if their diet consists of large amounts of meat. Thus, diet plays an important role in our lives and development.

The key takeaway from 100 Million Years of Food is:

Our diets have changed greatly over the years as we have adapted to our ever-changing environments. From insects and fruit, we expanded our diet when we crossed over to hunting. This was a crucial evolutionary step not only in terms of diet but also in human brain development. When prey became scarce, we moved over to other meat substitutes and plants. Each had its own benefits and downfalls. There is no diet that is universally best for everyone. Each person has their own requirements based on their lifestyle, age and heritage. Take heed to remember that when you want to judge someone by what they do or do not eat. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in 100 Million Years of Food:

To be healthy you need to follow a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle. This means you need to exercise and not just limit your calorie intake. Simply eating fewer calories can actually do more harm than good in the long run. In addition, don’t forget that eating has and will always be a communal activity. Sure, we all like to enjoy a meal alone sometimes but sharing a meal with family and friends is the oldest and easiest way to strengthen bonds. 

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