George Armelagos on our Eating Evolution
By Paige Parvin 96G
Illustration by Laura Coyle
If one of our Paleolithic ancestors wandered into a big-chain grocery store, he would no doubt be astonished by the endless aisles of brightly colored boxes, jars, and packages.
He would, however, instinctively know something that we modern-day humans are just beginning to fully grasp: almost none of those tempting items is actually food.
In a paper published recently in the Journal of Anthropological Research, Emory anthropologist George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology, explores some of the ways in which our diet has spun catastrophically off track. For the first 99.75 percent of our three million years on earth, we were hunter-gatherers—a term that has become cliche in diet and nutrition circles, but like most cliches, with a basis in fact. During about the last ten seconds—in evolutionary terms—the dawn of agriculture, the settling of populations, and finally the industrialized food revolution about two hundred years ago have thrown our bodies into mass confusion. Armelagos is among many experts who feel these factors are the culprits behind the obesity epidemic and its attending societal ills.
But we hominids can still channel our inner hunter-gatherers, if we try. Here’s a start.
1. If it’s in a box, bag, or plastic wrap, it’s probably not food. Processed foods are high in calories and contain only a tiny fraction of the nutritional value of “whole” foods, such as fresh vegetables, lean meats, fish and shellfish, nuts, and seeds. As Armelagos points out, “There aren’t any strawberries in a Strawberry Fruit Gusher.” A one-ounce serving of Gushers has the same number of calories as a ten-ounce portion of strawberries, costs 330 percent more than the real thing, and has none of its nutrients.
2. Mix it up. Unfortunately, industrialization has dramatically decreased the variety of foods available to us; in fact, Armelagos says, the United Nations estimates that 75 percent of the genetic diversity of crop plants was lost in the twentieth century. Still, it’s very possible, and good for you, to eat a multiplicity of fresh vegetables, fruits, and lean meats on a daily basis. Skip the cereal and whip up some eggs—with a side of blueberries.
3. Be calorie conscious. One of the biggest problems with processed food, says Armelagos, is that it literally goes down too easy. “Industrialization of the food system has made an overwhelming abundance of inexpensive, high-energy-dense foods—sugar and fats—available to populations in some areas of the world,” he writes. “The disjunction between the small amount of physical energy they expend to obtain significant numbers of calories has created the modern obesity epidemic.” Even making a smoothie at home by blending fresh fruits throws off the calories consumed-to-calories burned ratio, because it requires more energy to break down whole fruits.
4. Make a list, check it twice. According to Armelagos, at 4:00 p.m. each day, 41 percent of Americans don’t know what’s for dinner—a sure recipe for hurried, unhealthy choices. Plan simple, balanced meals ahead of time, and don’t waver; an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the US food supply is wasted, and all the money it costs along with it. And don’t shop between 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.—studies show you’re much more likely to be hungry and buy high-calorie foods near dinnertime.
5. Don’t be corny. Corn is so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to avoid. We all know about corn sweeteners in breads and spaghetti sauce, but did you know a typical fast-food cheeseburger is 52 percent corn? Salad dressing, 65 percent? A milkshake, 78 percent? Some 30 percent of our beef supply is fed exclusively on corn, which means the animals’ tissue takes on the same chemical signature—and so does ours when we eat it. But the availability of grass-fed meats is increasing, along with the understanding that that means everyone is eating like they’re supposed to.
6. Open wide—your wallet, that is. Armelagos cites several studies that establish a link between socioeconomic status and eating habits, finding that lower-income families are more likely to turn to “high-energy dense foods” because they are inexpensive and convenient. But even for families watching their budget, quality food is a good investment in health.