When I first got really interested in nutrition, this was something I looked into in-depth. I came across a number of theories, my favourite of which was the Homoaquaticus theory. Not necessarily because I though it was right, but because I liked the idea. This theory suggests we lived in coastal areas. It draws parallels between humans and marine mammals, such as a well developed brain (possibly from eating lots of oily fish), a requirement to breath air and the fact that (interestingly) dolphins have the same bone structure in their fins as we do in our hands. The theory also suggests that the reason we have lost much of our body hair is because we often waded into the sea to find food – something which hair would not help with. The reason we maintained hair on our head, is simply because our heads rarely were under water (because we needed to breathe!). We would have access to fruits etc inland, and so could easily meet our nutritional needs. Humans typically love the sea and beach and who wouldn’t want to live there? Seems quite plausible right? Are we a modern day Homoaquaticus?
It has also been observed that the human population thrived and grew rapidly when we started growing crops and farming animals. There was also no evidence of chronic diseases (such as cancer or obesity) during that time, and everyone was healthy as far as we can tell. We know that many crops (such as carrots, beans, leafy greens etc) are high in many vitamins and minerals – something which is lacking in the diet of many people today. This lack of vegetables is widely thought to, at least in part, be a cause in the rise of chronic diseases. So, should we stick to an agricultural diet?
Then we see cave painting and other archaeological evidence that early humans were hunters, and very good at it! Suggesting that animals were our primary source of energy, with some nuts/berries/roots thrown in. Looking at some of our close evolutionary relatives (chimpanzees) we can see that they love meat, and eat it whenever they can. Was it our success as hunter/ gatherers which lead us to need to start farming to support the growing population? Should we eat like a hunter/ gatherer?
Then there are those who will draw our attention to the awesome might and physical supremacy of the Roman Gladiator! Highly active, strong, and, from what we know healthy individuals who followed a strict vegetarian diet, consisting of largely of barley, and legumes, like beans. Although gladiators did over eat (they deliberately tried to put on fat to protected vital organs and nerves), they were not unhealthy and were extremely fit. Is a vegetarian diet the real answer?
Which part of our history do we look at for the answer, and in which region of the world?
There are more theories than the above 4, and holes to be picked in all of them. All are very difficult to prove/ disprove beyond any doubt, people thrive and fail on all the diets mentioned, and each diet changes in popularity with time.
So, what should I eat to be healthy?
This is inevitably the question which follows “what is our natural diet?, and my answer is always ‘eat natural’.
What I mean by this is; if you can’t recognize what is in a ‘food’ without reading the label, or if the food isn’t found in nature, you probably shouldn’t be eating it. This point was fantastically illustrated in the Horse Meat Scandal, where people had no idea that the meat they were eating was up to 100% horse meat, not beef. It posed no real health threat, but it does just go to show – you really do have no idea what really is in highly processed foods even if you do read the label.
The food world is always changing, with new foods are being made every day, and it is becoming more and more artificial. To be healthy, you can’t go far wrong with avoiding these foods, and just eating foods found naturally in nature such as fish, meats, potatoes, beans, berries, nuts etc. No processing, or refining – just foods as it should be. I read somewhere that the rule for eating healthy should be ‘if you great-grandma won’t recognize it, you shouldn’t eat it‘, and it is a very good rule to stick to, as most modern foods are really little better than mild poisons. The natural foods mentioned contain aspects from all the above diets, but that shouldn’t be an issue. These are foods which are have been a part of our evolution and development – the body is robust, and as long as you are getting a healthy variety of natural foods your diet won’t be wrong. Yes – there are genetic variations which results in different nutritional requirements, but sticking to the ‘natural’ rule, you can play around with different foods and find out what fits your needs perfectly.
I have never advocated a specific diet for everyone, I know what works best for me, but that might not work best for you. I do however know, that no one will thrive on an artificial and processed diet, and everyone can thrive on a naturally derived diet.
What is the one thing that all the 4 diets mentioned above have in common? Exercise. Swimming, farming, hunting and fighting are all extremely hard work! There is no doubt in any health professionals mind that exercise is essential for our health. Our heart needs to pump hard, muscles need to be tested and lung potential needs to be maximized. Exercise makes are cells more efficient, strengthens our immune system, cardiovascular system, nervous system, bones, and promotes overall health. Exercise is needed by our body as much as any vitamin (or maybe even more so), and cannot be omitted from your lifestyle if you are trying to be healthy. Eat natural and exercise hard, and good health will follow.