When it comes to human nutrition, it is a struggle separating the wheat from the chaff. Each era has its blind alleys of nutrition. Foods deemed healthy today could become detrimental tomorrow… and vice versa. In the 70’s, I got ‘nutrition religion’ and decided to uncover something that was closer to the ‘truth’. I spent weeks at Stockholm’s main library researching all the information I could find on nutrition, biology, great apes, and history.(1)
I soon discovered a wide divergence of opinion on nutrition. The science was a work in progress, as it should be. For all I knew it might take science 1000 years to settle things. I couldn’t wait, so I decided to begin this quest with finding out what the other great apes ate. While humans and the other apes are vastly different in life style, they share pretty much the same biology. I figured knowing what they ate would give me a sound baseline upon which to consider the matter.
The chart below is a summary of the amounts of some essential nutrients in the three main food groups. It shows which nutrients would be available if you had to acquire your daily 2000 calories from only that food group. As you can see, consuming only 2000 calories of green vegetables gives you copious amounts of what you need without the fat that the other two groups provide. Moreover, the other two groups are void of vitamin C, an essential vitamin that our body can’t synthesize, and a paltry-to-none amount of vitamin A, another essential vitamin… and who knows what other undiscovered essential veggie micro-nutrients are lacking!
Not surprisingly, the chimpanzee diet is more similar to the ‘greens’ food group than the other two. In fact, Jane Goodall found that chimpanzees in the wild consume over 200 different plants.
Essential Nutrient Comparison Chart
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Recent research shows we may need up to 10 times more vitamin D than previously thought. I realize this makes total sense. Skin produces vitamin D from sunshine, and we evolved in the very sunny environment of Africa. People who migrated north out of Africa had to evolve lighter skin to admit more sunlight to synthesize adequate vitamin D. Now we do most of our living indoors, and there’s no sunshine there. Hence, vitamin D supplements would be crucial. That is even truer for darker skin folks living in northern climates.
The lack of essential fats in our diet has been another recent discovery. Unlike most fats in our diet, these turn out to play a key role in the health of the immune system, among other things. Fish is a major source for these essential fats. However, great apes don’t eat many, if any, fish. So where else would primates get these essential oils? Interestingly, the most widespread source of these particular lipids (fatty acids) is green vegetables! There you go — just eat your several kilograms of veggies.
Well, we know that’s not practical. It turns out, animals that eat green veggies have a higher proportion of omega-3 lipids in their fat, and insects are the main green veggie predator out there. There you go — just eat your several ounces of bugs too.
Insects would have been a major food for our ancestors, just as they are for chimpanzees today. Alas, dietary insects are not very practical — at least yet. A good alternative is to eat green veggies, walnuts, and ground flax seed. They’re tasty and contain many other essential nutrients.
Faulty information and hype
The hype around Vitamin E may offer an example of nutritional misinformation. I have noticed over the years the buzz surrounding the benefits of ‘mega doses’ of vitamin E. Yet, I found no natural source for substantial amounts of vitamin E that our ancestors or other apes could have consumed. Hmm… Now, come to find out, ‘mega dose’ vitamin E actually helps cancers grow. In addition, ‘mega dose’ vitamin E, or ‘mega dose’ anything else, will probably create an imbalance vis-à-vis other nutrients. Doesn’t this remind you of chapter 16’s, Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant!
Balance is key
The same balance issue surrounding vitamin E is true of the amounts and types of fats we consume. The body manufactures omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) by converting the essential fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in veggies, flaxseeds, walnuts, etc. However, this conversion rate is low if the diet is too high in omega-6 fatty acids found in vegetable oils made from corn, sunflower, soybean, or safflower. Oops! As you might guess, modern diets are extremely over weight in those omega-6 fatty acids.
(1) It is odd looking back on this now, pre-Google. What an information wilderness that was. Without Google, it was much harder to come by information. Ironically, the difficulty now is sifting through tons of information to find what is truly relevant. Win some, lose some. In this post, I’ve just given an overview of this situation – the big picture. Now, with Google, you can chase down the particulars you need.