What is the “Optimal” Diet for Humans? (Part 1)

Does this fella offer us nutritional clues?

Part of what first led me to raw foods was a curiosity about our “optimal diet.” It seemed like such a simple concept: a combination of foods that our bodies are best adapted to, that we could easily discern by looking at our anatomy, that evolutionary history supported, and that would lead to the best health possible. It shouldn’t be rocket science, right?

Unfortunately, it kind of is.

Why there is no single “best” diet

I’ve come to realize that there are two very different chronicles of human history out there (religious accounts notwithstanding). There’s science’s history, which says the Homo genus emerged about 2.5 million years ago and we spent millennia evolving, dispersing, fighting for survival, hunting, eating anything we could get our opposable thumbs on—and eventually adopting cooking as a widespread practice about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.

But some people don’t seem to like that account. Especially the emphasis on the hunting and the cooking. So beyond our textbook history we have a different, prettier, underground version of the past: raw vegan history. Dun, dun, dun.

Raw vegan history goes something like this. Once upon a time, early humans lived in a gentle, beautiful, tropical paradise. We frolicked, we played, we loved, we laughed. And nature catered to our whims. We spent our sun-dappled days picking ripe fruit off of trees, living long, disease-free lives and dying quietly on beds of mango peels. We rarely had to kill other creatures for our own survival—not with all that luscious fruit around!—so we adapted to a mainly vegan diet. Then one day, someone started cooking and the whole world went to sh**. The end.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration; I’ve never heard anyone claim that verbatim. But creative embellishments aside, this account isn’t far off from some of the notions I hear time and time again in the raw food movement: that humans spent much of our past eating a completely vegan diet, never adapted to animal foods, and were disease-free until the advent of cooking.

If you’ve studied evolutionary history, that probably sounds dubious to you. But if you’re not a history buff and all you’re going on is raw food books or articles you’ve read online, maybe you simply trusted what you heard and some of the above sounds familiar. Without a doubt, there are some people who would rather believe a glossed-over version of history that supports raw veganism than face evidence to the contrary—and many of those people are the ones writing our most popular raw-food resources.

The truth is, humans had a rough go of it for the last two million years. We never had a raw vegan “golden age.” We live longer now than we ever did in the past. As a species, we developed our current gut morphology while eating paleolithic-era foods like vegetables, meat, fruit, nuts, seeds, and roots, as well as anything else we could dig from the ground, pluck from a tree, or stab with a spear. But the regions we occupied and the eras we endured never offered a stable mix of sustenance. From mostly-plant diets to mostly-meat ones, we developed the flexibility to survive on every single gradient within the hunter-gatherer spectrum.

Unlike species that developed specialized diets by staying in one place, our forte was flexibility: the ability to find something edible (or make something edible) wherever we happened to be. This is why you’ll never find one strictly defined diet that brings great health for everyone, and why there’s more than one diet out there with a track record of producing health (raw vegan, raw vegetarian, raw and cooked paleo, macrobiotics, alkaline, and so forth).

Bottom line: during the two million years we’ve been human (or human-ish), we’ve never eaten a single consistent diet. We’re not adapted to a perfect menu; we’re adapted to adaptability.

Of course, certain diets are more health-producing than others—whether or not you eat a raw cuisine. And even though we’ve survived on a gamut of food types during our past, humans did split from an ancestor that was a folio-frugivore, preferring leaves and fruit above other items. So that begs the question: how much did our digestive systems change since we started hunting and cooking our food? What foods let us thrive instead of simply survive?

I’m going to spend the next few posts looking at the elements of truly healthy diets, as well as examining some of these common claims to see if they really hold up to reality.

  • We have no physical adaptation to cooked foods; our digestive systems haven’t changed since we started cooking
  • Our digestive systems are almost identical to that of other primates (like chimps), so we should be eating what they’re eating
  • Our closest genetic relatives don’t eat meat—or if they do, it’s for social reasons and not nutrition
  • We’re anatomical vegetarians
  • We can healthfully eat anything as long as it’s raw

Stay tuned.

29 comments

    1. I have seen this before from Dr. Jon Barron that by teeth and digestive system we should be eating like the chimp you are correct! And they do eat animal product in small amounts and they don’t cook to my knowledge:) So I wanted to ask you which animal product do you eat raw? I saw you eat raw fish but you do not eat that everyday do you? Some say raw farm eggs? I can get grass fed ground beef and eat that raw? I have been 95% raw for 28 days now. I also wanted to ask you about cooking vegetables like tomato’s that said to exhibit more antioxidants when cooked as well as broccoli. I feel like i’m eliminating a lot of vegetables that i ate before because i cant eat them not steamed or cooked. Any advice would bemuch appreciated, by the way this is my new forum and will not be returning to rawfood talk🙂

      1. Hi Carl, thanks for the comment. To answer your questions: the only raw animal products I eat right now are eggs and fish. I eat fish pretty often because it’s readily available where I live, but I don’t have much in one sitting (just a couple of ounces per day when I eat it).

        You can definitely do raw eggs, but they should be from a reliable source — preferably organic ones from free-roaming hens (they’re treated much better than ones stuffed in cages, and carry less risk of pathogenic bacteria).

        I don’t have much experience with grass-fed ground beef, but some people certainly eat it. If you have questions about it, you might want to try the animal foods forum on the “Give it to Me Raw” website, which is here:
        http://www.giveittomeraw.com/forum/categories/paleo-nonveg/listForCategory

        In some vegetables, cooking makes certain nutrients more absorbable, but it never actually increases the nutritional or antioxidant content of the food. With tomatoes, cooking increases the availability of lycopene (which is often cited as a reason to cook vegetables) — but at the same time, it damages heat-sensitive nutrients like vitamin C, so it’s basically a tradeoff. You get more of one thing but less of another. If you decide to keep some cooked food in your diet, steamed vegetables are your best bet as they have relatively few ‘cons’… but if you feel like your vegetable options are limited on a raw food diet, try shopping at ethnic grocers, farmers’ markets, etc. instead of standard grocery stores, because there are tons of raw-friendly vegetables most people don’t even know exist — you’ve just got to hunt around for them!

        Let me know if you have any other questions Carl. Congrats on making it 28 days on 95% raw!🙂

  1. There are some things about vegetarinism(and vegan) that i just dont feel confortable with

    the three main reasons for people to apply this lifestyle are health , moral or religion

    in the case of health i think is more than proven that vegetarianism is not the only way to be healthy, in fact if you dont have a very good idea of how to eat, you can end up worst, unhealthy

    in the case of the moral reasons i have some doubts there too.
    first of all if you eat a plant, grain, or practicaly anything with the exeption of fruits you end up killing the plant, so at what point did we get to decide that a plant’s life is less important than an animal’s. I just dont get it , if the pourpose of this lifestyle is to avoid killing other “living being” the only diet that works that way is 100% frutarian , and we all know its not the healthiest choise

    the way i see it life feeds from life, the cruelty with which we treat the animals before killing them is a different story, and animal rights should be respected, the way they are trated is inhuman , i agree.

    But then again , i will ask one question , this question is a very unusual one. what makes us so sure plants dont feel anything when tear out of the ground or anything people do to them?dont forget that its proven that plants actually feel, they are not as “insensitive” as people use to think. I know in the begining it sounds ridiculous , at least thats what i thought the first time i heard it, but after thinking about it ,well i didnt find it so ridiculous.
    When i asked some people in vegan blogs to hear their opinion , well… some made fun of it , some called me names (so much for open minded people, right?) but no one gave an answer

    anyway

    what do you think?

    1. If you get a chance, check out the book “The Secret Life of Plants,” which explores the very question you’ve asked.

      Plants don’t feel pain in the same manner animals do because they don’t have nervous systems, but they may be sentient in other ways. Some types of trees emit a particular scent when they’re sick or getting mauled by pests — the scent alerts other trees to raise their own defense systems so they don’t suffer the same fate. Plants have amazing ways of communicating with each other. And like all organisms, they come with an innate drive to survive; nothing living is desiring or even indifferent about death. There is always an effort to persist. Hence why plants grow thorns, produce phytotoxins, etc. to deter predators.

      It’s impossible to live a life that doesn’t directly or indirectly result in death, both plant and animal. What’s appalling isn’t that life eventually comes to an end, but that the life can be full of so much suffering (as with factory farming). Whether someone is a fruitarian or omnivore, all life forms deserve respect and kindness, even if they eventually become part of the circle of life as food.

  2. i was thinking about my previous comment and i want to say that i absolutly respect all opinions ,

    my doubts come from my own experience because this same questions were in my head when i was thinking of changing to vegetarianism for ethical reasons.

  3. yup, i absolutly agree.
    the worst tragedy is the way animals are treated, and something has to be done about it.
    (where tha $&%$% are animal rights when needed?)
    im not an expert in the suject but i have heard that animal farming and modern agriculture are so damaging for the earth that wont be sustainable in 100 years or so.

  4. “im not an expert in the suject but i have heard that animal farming and modern agriculture are so damaging for the earth that wont be sustainable in 100 years or so.”

    Civilization in general isn’t sustainable. Oil supply has peaked in most places or is in decline. Many places (like Hawaii) export their garbage because they have run out of space to dump it. When we have polluted and populated every square inch of Earth, maybe more people will take an interest in sustainability. Right now, nobody cares.

  5. “Then one day, someone started cooking and the whole world went to sh**.”
    Fu***** hilarious!! Thanks for the laugh Denise…

  6. “Bottom line: during the two million years we’ve been human (or human-ish), we’ve never eaten a single consistent diet.”

    The split between human and chimp ancestors was about 6 million years ago. During this time, our guts were forged in a relatively small area of Africa. Genetically modern humans appeared about 250,000 years ago, and they were still in Africa.

    If true, then your argument that we are adapted to various diets because we inhabited vastly different areas doesn’t hold. That only happened after the African exodus about 50,000 years ago. There really hasn’t been much time for genetic change since then.

  7. “If true, then your argument that we are adapted to various diets because we inhabited vastly different areas doesn’t hold. That only happened after the African exodus about 50,000 years ago. There really hasn’t been much time for genetic change since then.”

    I do love the way that people assert this without any proof and without doing any math.

    If you mean our whole genome can’t change much in 50,000 (or 250,000 years), you’re correct. It isn’t that much different from a chimpanzee’s, which is an imortant point–a handful of changes can make huge differences.

    Ned Kock has a nice little calculation about how quickly a beneficial genetic mutation can spread through a population, and it could be as short as 400 years. He even has a nice spreadsheet for you to play with the numbers. ( http://healthcorrelator.blogspot.com/2010/01/how-long-does-it-take-for-food-related.html ).

    I’m really tired of the argument that evolution can only adapt us to dietary changes over huge time spans–which inevitiably leads to arguments about what our ancestors really ate. The evidence on what they ate is lousy, and we’ll never really know; it turns into something that smacks of religion very quickly.

    But it doesn’t matter, because there has been plenty of time for us to adapt. The idealized caveman diet might not even be good for us–perhaps we’ve lost some adaptations they had. We just don’t know.

    I base my dietary decisions on modern science, not conjectural paleoarchaeology. The modern science is confusing enough on its own.

    1. Yes, a beneficial mutation might take as little as 400 years, providing the selection pressure is huge. After the African diaspora, people probably ate much like they were used to eating. There was game to be had over the entire globe, judging how we wiped out a lot of it during our conquest of the planet. Even since the advent of agriculture, people could still live long enough to reproduce on this suboptimal food, so where’s the selection pressure?

      Just saying there is plenty of time for adaptation says nothing about the actual degree of change, if any at all.

      However, David is probably wise to follow modern science, since the ancestral diet will always be just a guess. But I have similarly grown tired of the argument that every little human subpopulation has “evolved” to thrive on its unique local foods. I think we’re just not that different from one another.

  8. I am quite a fan of the paleo diet — except for the fact that many of the movement’s leaders operate under the assumption that evolution actually happened. (Personally, I think it’s horrible science for us to base our research findings on an assumption of this magnitude). I am all for modern scientific analysis of human health, but jumping to conclusions based on massive assumptions about our evolutionary past does not seem to be very scientific to me… at all. (In the scientific world, I believe this is called having a ‘bias’).

    Thankfully, not everyone in the paleo movement begins their research under the assumption that we all evolved from banana-eating monkeys. And thankfully, there are now some videos online such as “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” that really help us to challenge this assumption.

    Personally, I would like to see the paleo movement focus their energies on modern scientific health analysis, rather than wildly hypothetical discussions about evolutionary history.

    Lastly, I wouldn’t be writing this if I did not think Ms. Minger was intelligent enough to consider challenging her own assumptions. (She certainly seems to be). 🙂

    1. OMG intelligent designers must scour the web looking for any scientific discussion to hijack with their wacky Christian ideas..please stick to the Baptist forums James

  9. Really interesting read, perfectly answering a question I had in my head right before searching for an answer (do we have an optimal diet?). You hit home a suspicion I’ve had for a while, that humans are perhaps the epitome of an adaptive species. I haven’t checked the rest of your site but if you’ve already written more about your findings I’d love to read them.

    1. I had responded to this site simply because I felt people were missing the big picture from what I had read. Hereditary factors, origin in the world of ancestry, genetic mutations and lack of willpower all play a role in “poor vs. optimal” human diets. Moderation of diet, survival, overall wellbeing and living life happily without worry about what’s good or bad for you are all keys to decent fuel for life. How do I do this? My goal is to remain neutral. If I take care and pay attention to what may do harm to me I put equal energy into giving my body what it needs to heal and sustain itself. It’s a karma based diet. I carefully research many of the foods I eat, ( self-educating is I habit I enjoy) I apply them where necessary to remain youthful, energetic and moving forward. Here’s the clincher … I’m a “have” person. I can afford it. Not everyone can. So be it… You never know. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and a Doritos stuffed diabetic with arteries like rebar could out-live me. I’ll stick to my blueberries and cauliflower … I don’t take the bus lol

  10. RAW is the original diet, duh people. we were meant to walk and eat and repeat. if you meat eaters wanna try and catch a squirrel or mouse, lol go right ahead. I’ll put the video on youtube and label it ” watch omni-vore look like an idiot “.

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