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Anthropologist and writer Stephen Le traveled all around the globe to research ancestral diets and lifestyles, which are documented in his new book “100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today.”
The book attempts to navigate through a plethora of conflicting food advice, along with health and lifestyle topics, using science to comb through our human history. Le aims to prove that an ancestral diet, versus a modern diet, has a far greater advantage to keeping you healthy.
All images courtesy of Stephen Le.
BTRtoday (BTR): Your book “100 Million Years of Food” traces the dietary evolution of humans. Why did you choose to begin at 100 million instead of 2.5 million years ago when the first Homo evolved? Or even 200,000 years ago when Homo sapiens appeared?
Stephen Le (SL): That’s a great question. I wanted to understand our relationship with insects, which meant I’d have to go back 100 million years in time to when our ancestors were insectivores.
One hundred million years ago was a peak point for our ancestors eating insects.
Around 60 million years ago, the human diet shifted to fruits and later to meats. To understand our relationship with fruits, I also had to go all the way back to the insects.
BTR: In the book you make a valid case for the idea that we should incorporate insects into our diet. Can you expand upon that?
SL: Up until recently, insect eating was fairly common around the world. People only started losing the habit of eating insects around 100 years ago.
I don’t think we should specialize in eating insects, because a lot of cartilage goes along with eating insects and they have a lot of exoskeletons. Insects taste great but my larger point was they should be incorporated into an overall meal.
“You can define being healthy as living long, or you can define it as being fertile and strong with, maybe, a shorter life. People tend to mix up these two” – Stephen Le
BTR: What insects would you recommend to eat?
SL: Palm weevil larvae. They are considered a delicacy around the world. You can find these these big glistening things in the tropics. Just make sure you hold the head and reverse the abdomen into your mouth otherwise it can bite your tongue. If you like sushi, you’ll like palm weevil larvae.
BTR: Were you ever afraid of what might happen to you while eating all these insects?
SL: I once ate a scorpion in China, where the practice has long been associated with virility. It had a lot of crunch to it and I was worried about my digestion afterwards.
Even more worrisome was eating a really long centipede. I saw it on the menu of a restaurant in Saigon and I thought, “I have to do this for the book!”
BTR: Thanks for putting yourself on the frontline for humanity.
SL: I’d never eat a centipede again nor would I recommend it.
BTR: In your own immediate family, your mother passed away radically younger than her own mother, your grandmother, which inspired you to explore whether the shift in diets had something to do with the shortened life spans in your family. Tell me more about that.
SL: The rate of certain diseases, like breast and prostate cancers, tend to increase when people migrate from the tropics to colder, developed countries.
My parents are from Vietnam and I was born and raised in Canada, which is radically different when it comes to climate and diet.
I used to worry a lot about what I ate before because there was so much conflicting advice on how to eat properly. My motivation was to explore the factors that I can control in order to minimize the risk of disease for myself or my family.
BTR: What evidence is there that our great grandparents lived longer or healthier lives?
SL: They didn’t live longer or healthier lives. In fact, if you go back to the Paleo lifestyle, you’ll see our ancestors were quite unhealthy and died much younger from infectious diseases.
What we do know for certain is that it is possible for people to live longer and healthier lives on traditional diets, activity, and with the benefits of access to hospitals, less warfare. People living in traditional ways have easily lived to 100 years in places like Sardinia, Okinawa, Greece; oftentimes they’re farming and eating traditional diets.
BTR: Milk is a controversial subject. In your book you mention that hip fractures are high in Northern Europe, although Northern Europeans consume a lot of milk. This would negate the idea that bone health and milk go together?
SL: The old idea of “drinking a lot of milk, makes your bones stronger” was historically a marketing gimmick for selling milk. Dairy producers needed to sell milk and latched onto this idea that bone health required a lot of Vitamin D.
It turns out our bodies only need 400 mgr. of Vitamin D a day, but there needs to be more studies on this, of course.
Ironically, when you look at the data that is available, you’ll see there’s higher rate of bone fractures the more milk there is consumed.
BTR: You mention the people of Yoruba tribe in Nigeria are 99 percent lactose intolerant. Why have some people genetically adapted to digesting milk and others haven’t?
SL: We’ve had exposure to milk for several thousands of years. Some people, mostly in Europe and some parts of Africa, have the ability to digest it, but two-thirds of the world don’t.
The ones who can digest milk are people with a history of dairying who possess an enzyme called lactase, which allows a person to digest milk well into adulthood.
BTR: The same sort of adaptation is true for alcohol in the book. You mention East Asians get flushed faces when consuming too much alcohol, because 10,000 years ago they developed a gene variant called ADH. What exactly does this gene do?
SL: People who have had longer and greater exposure to alcohol in history developed the ADH gene around 10,000 to 7,000 years ago to protect them from alcohol.
The gene variant creates greater toxicity levels with consumption of alcohol, which gives you a flushed face, makes you sick, hungover, and consequently discourages the gene bearers from over-drinking.
“Fruits are great in moderation, but not in extremes.” – Stephen Le
BTR: Humans, in our evolution, have lost the ability to synthesize Vitamin C. As a result, you claim, too much fruit is bad for us. Why did we lose this ability and how will all the smoothies and fruits that we consume affect our long term health?
SL: Our ancestors were already exposed to a lot of Vitamin C from wild fruits and insect consumption and didn’t need anymore. Wild fruits don’t contain as much sugar as our modern day heavily domesticated fruits.
In our present day, we’re consuming huge amounts of sweet fruits, which contain a lot of fructose. Large amount of fructose can elevate the levels of uric acid. This is a concern because uric acid is linked to gout and other metabolic disorders.
Take home message is fruits are great in moderation, but not in extremes.
BTR: Do we have enough evidence to suggest our cultural and genetic diet trumps our modern diet if we haven’t been on a modern diet for long enough? And considering the modern diet may yield new gene variants that can bolster against future threats…
SL: Jared Diamond, a scientist and evolutionary biologist who teaches geography at UCLA, has pointed out that Europeans have been exposed to diabetes for hundreds of years.
Yet, the rates of diabetes in Europeans are lower, even when they eat the same food as people from tropical countries. In other words, there’s been natural selection going on among European populations.
Simply put, genes that were susceptible to diabetes died out early and people left behind children who were more resistant to the effects of diabetes from eating certain kind of foods and lack of exercise, and so on.
BTR: How do should we define “good health?”
SL: You can define being healthy as living long, or you can define it as being fertile and strong, and with maybe a shorter life. People tend to mix these two up.
If you have a very long life, you’re probably a lot smaller and thinner than, say, a weightlifter. We have to think clearly about what we want to achieve when we talk about achieving good health.
BTR: What did you have for breakfast?
SL: I recently got married to my wife who’s from Vietnam. We prepared a traditional vietnamese breakfast with kimchi, fish soup, and so on. Ironically, while I was enjoying my traditional roots, my father, who sat at the breakfast table, had oatmeal.
BTR: What do you hope is the take-away for your book?
SL: First thing would be to keep moving as much as possible, which is essential, but can obviously be very difficult for people with regular jobs, kids, a busy life, etc. Get away from cars and do a lot of moving around by foot.
Second thing would be to think of cuisine–not nutrition. We’ve gotten so caught up in science that we are removed from what our ancestors ate: ethnic cuisines, recipes, etc. Once we take the science out of food and then the food can taste a lot more enjoyable. From a health standpoint, it’s just as healthy, maybe healthier than some recommended by scientists.
Stephen Le is currently working on his upcoming book about societal trust, examining countries that are kinder than others.