Nutrition, a polemic

A friend I was running with, foolishly asked me how to eat properly while training all year long. I am clearly the right person to ask because I’ve pushed myself into overtraining, probably because of not eating properly.

So now I know all about it.

My take on nutrition is that almost all popular studies on the subject are wrong. There have been a number of meta-studies which reveal just how hard it is to do good medical research and how likely results are to be overturned later. According to Dr. Ioannidis’s work, 80% of all studies will produce the wrong result, and 25% of even the most rigorous ones will do so.

So instead of paying any attention to what’s in the popular press I tend to rely on evolutionary reasoning. Which might also be wrong, but contents me.

We come from a long line of frugivorous primates, and our closest relatives (Chimps, Bonobos) are both basically frugivores. Chimps will also eat flowers and leaves. And they are meat eaters (5% of their diet); now humans evolved tools and became much better at catching meat than chimps (or our mutual ancestors), so I assume meat should make up a greater part of our diet.

Orangutans are hugely frugivorous, and also, occasionally, eat meat, though much less than chimps. (Gorillas don’t but they have evolved a quite different feeding pattern from the other great apes and so I ignore them.)

Chimps also eat a lot of insects. This has not become a big food source for most humans, my guess is that as we became better at killing large game animals there was less need for the fiddly business of catching individual insects.

Fruit & meat.
And to a lesser extent salads.

Fruit, salads & insects have been a significant part of our diets for 50 million years or so, ever since primates arrived on the scene. Meat is more recent but has been part of it for probably 5~15 million years, and has been rising in prominence.

Agriculture is a far more recent invention, and the grains that make up such a large part of our current diets would only have been available in small quantities until ~10,000 years ago.

Domesticated cattle (providers of milk, ice cream, etc.) appeared on the scene ~9,000 years ago. It’s pretty clear that we have been able to adapt to this food source given that Europeans (who have dealt with milk, cheese, etc. for ages) have a far lower chance of lactose-intolerance than most Asians. So we can probably handle grains too.

Primates all have very diverse diets. Chimps usually eat 20 species of plants in a day, and several hundred in the course of a year. So, I think a diverse diet is a good thing in and of itself. As an extreme example, among the lemurs I studied, many of their food sources were toxic if consumed in large quantities, it was only because they only ate small amounts of each species that they were able to survive.

The processed food found in most American diets seems so far from what we evolved to eat that I try to eschew it. I will eat simple sugars (GU) when the occasion demands it, or purified amino acids, but I am very suspicious of any complex food product.

Artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, artificial glop, artificial slop, artificial this, artificial that…
© 1969-1975, The New Yorker Magazine, by George Booth


One Response to “Nutrition, a polemic”

  1. Adger Says:

    I think I remember reading somewhere that humans can digest ants, unlike almost anything else except anteaters.

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