Intelligent Nutrition

Cultural impresario John Brockman and his wily band of third culture intellectuals over at the online magazine, recently posted over 100 essays responding to this year’s Edge question, “What is your dangerous idea?”

This newly emerging annual event – last year’s question was “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” – asked our leading scientific and forward thinking minds to ponder what dangerous ideas might just play out in the future – no matter how far fetched they may seem to us mere mortals.

Some dangerous ideas from this Who’s Who of modern thinkers included “we have no souls,” “science must destroy religion,” “being alone in the universe,” and my favorite “you can’t keep that newborn unless you are 21, married and self-supporting.”

Assuming my electronic invitation from Mr. Brockman to contribute to this heady group of essays was swallowed up in some multi-dimensional black hole in cyberspace, I wanted to make sure my dangerous idea made it into the fold. Given all the hoop-la in 2005 over the word “intelligent,” I figured it was time we considered the dangerous idea of Intelligent Nutrition.

At its core, Intelligent Nutrition assumes that our ancestors diverged from our tree swinging cousins between 5 to 7 millions ago and that the first member of our genus Homo appeared about 2 million years ago – give or take. Intelligent Nutrition further assumes that throughout our long, evolutionary march to mammalian dominance, humans lived off wild plants and animals foraged from the landscape. This means our genome and accompanying physiological and metabolic parameters that make us human were conditioned on a diet of wild, nutrient rich plants and lean meats.

Such things as agriculture and domesticated animals (that means dairy) came very late in our evolutionary history – roughly between 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. Evolutionary biology 101 teaches us – and Intelligent Nutrition adheres to – that the cultural adaptations of agriculture and animal domestication occurred too recently in our evolutionary past for our genome to adapt. While we currently drive around in hybrid cars and live in comfortable surroundings, our nutritional needs are genetically rooted in our ancient lifestyle.

If we fast forward to 2006, we see that the average American diet is in discordance with the nutritional landscape in which our genome was originally selected. Based on the evolutionary biological principles that underpin Intelligent Nutrition, the current epidemic of obesity and accompanying maladies and chronic diseases plaguing Americans were predictable.

Take the US Food Pyramid for example. Based on this graphical piece of nutritional wisdom and the recommendations used to build it, added sugars can comprise “up to” 25% of daily calories. That means it’s appropriate to get a full one quarter of your caloric intake from soft drinks and donuts. This modern wisdom further suggests that “up to” 35% of daily calories may come from added fats, “half” of your grains can be from highly-processed, insulin-spiking and nutrient and fiber-poor sources, and that you should get 2 to 3 “cups” a day of dairy products.

Based on these modern recommendations, the average American promptly consumes nearly 40% of daily calories from added sugars and fats. Adding “refined grains” to the mix means that the average American consumes nearly 60 to 70% of daily calories from foods not part of our evolutionary determined Intelligent Nutrition plan. Considering dairy products just makes things worse.

Nutritional guidelines for Americans built on the dangerous idea of the principles underlying Intelligent Nutrition would require that everyone involved in the creation of these guidelines and accompanying Food Pyramid, that means lobbyists, Congressional aids, food industry, agribusiness, scientists, and various other special interests, would be required to understand the basics of our evolutionary past and its role in conditioning our very specific nutritional needs coded in our genome. Intelligent Nutrition as a guide would point to the rapid cultural (agriculture) and technological (steel roller mills, packaged foods and snacks) advances as occurring to recent in our past for our genome to adapt and consequences of such behavior would be maladaptive.

Only time will tell if this dangerous idea will retake its position in human health. In a little over 2 million years and at 6 billion strong it seems to have worked so far. Let’s not screw it up too much.

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