This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
While I'm not fan of nanny states dictating what people can eat, vegetarians really are the bane of institutional food. The core of ancient peasant cooking was using the whole animal and that meant cooking things in broths, sauteing and frying animal fat, and using bits of dried/cured meat in soups/stews/beans/etc. Countless restaurants and cafeterias have switched to MSG-based bouillon and vegetable oils so that their dishes are vegetable-friendly. I admire Chipotle for standing its ground and continuing to cook many of their beans with pork bits/fat. This is truly sustainable cooking, utilizing regional products to their full extent. Some other favorite restaurants of mine, such as Momofuku, also explicitly do not serve vegetarian dishes because they buy and USE whole animals.
Contrast this with meat-free Monday, which encourages cafeterias to serve foods based on imported industrial monocultures (soy/corn/wheat) in the form of "textured vegetable protein" or "veggie burgers" and often utilizing industrial vegetable oils, additives, and flavorings. Or low-quality factory-farmed dairy, often with food coloring and sugar added.
I've eaten at many cafeterias and tend to think there is really no way to do institutional cafeteria food well. The goal is to feed a large diverse group of people as cheaply as possible. And the industry is dominated by a few large corporations that have deals with processed food companies.
And the cafeteria model in general may encourage over-eating and other problems. Since I was homeschooled until high school, I didn't encounter cafeterias until I was older. That's also when I started to gain weight. It's no wonder scientists use a "cafeteria" diet in experiments to induce obesity.
The solution probably lies with smaller schools with more local control and parental involvement. Unfortunately, the Federal government is increasingly dominating education, so this may be limited to private or homeschooling-hybrid* systems.
I think there is also a clash here between the politically-correct ideal of accommodating everyone and the fact that this accommodation often leads to inferior compromises.
*homeschooling hybrid is what I did for a lot of my youth. Some education is at home, but some classes/other stuff is done with other homeschoolers communally outside the home.
Here in the District of Columbia, children were being fed meals manufactured in a suburban factory until Chartwells in the fall of 2009 introduced something it called "fresh cooked." As I discovered while spending a week in the kitchen at my daughter's elementary school, what that entailed was reheating pre-fabricated meal components such as chicken nuggets and tater tots. For breakfast, children were often consuming up to 15 teaspoons of sugar in the form of processed cereals, flavored milk, cookies and muffins...The manufacturers of those sugar-laden products pay hefty rebates--some call them "kickbacks"--to giant food service companies as an inducement to purchase their highly processed goods. But I have now learned it's not just the lousy food that's fueled by rebates. Just about everything that goes into running a public school cafeteria comes with a rebate check that helps make sure the industrial version of food wins out.
This makes me furious because any nutritionally sane person would abhor these foods. But nutritionally sane people are few and far between. I've seen interviews with dieticians that excuse sugar in kid's food because they say kids wouldn't drink their low-fat milk without it. What's even more scary to me is that all these food service companies, from odious Chartwell to somewhat "sustainable" Bon Appetit Management company are owned by the same "Compass Group." Compass Group serves the world 4 billion meals a year.
But the list of companies providing rebates is a great resource because if I could engineer a diet to make people sick, these are exactly the foods I'd pick:
$ 41,218.07 General Mills: breakfast cereals (mmm sugar flavored sugar)
$ 36,165.78 Kraft General Foods: salad dressings, condiments (mm vegetable oils!)
$ 34,991.20 Country Pure Foods-Ardmore Farms: fruit juices (it has fruit in the name, so it must be healthy right?)
$ 24,561.45 Schwan's: frozen pizza
$ 21,377.88 Otis Spunkmeyer: muffins
$ 20,717.38 Kellogg's: breakfast cereal
$ 14,324.32 Frito Lay: chips and snacks
$ 13,974.08 JAFCO Foods: breaded chicken
$ 4,388.70 Cargill Meat Solutions: processed beef
I’m pissed that my students spend almost a quarter of the year taking tests and that the annual 30 hour test is longer than the Bar Exam, the MCATS, the teacher certification test and pretty much every other test required of adult professionals. And I’m pissed that when a teacher points out the flaws of the test, he or she is accused of “low expectations” and trouble-making.
I’m pissed that the laws are formed by transnational corporations who create curriculum, “advise” on standards, push for accountability and then provide the resources, tutoring and conferences that help people reach a standard that they cannot attain (as long as every question is re-normed for fifty percent). It’s more rigged than a casino and Chuck-E-Cheese combined.
I'm glad to see that the government has found a way to make public schools into corporate subsidies.
The Aka pygmies are nomadic horticulturalists that trade with nearby farmers for staple carbohydrates. I've written about the pygmy diet before, but variations exist among the various pygmy tribes in terms of culture. The Aka are considered "the best fathers in the world," at least among studied tribal peoples. While fathers play an important role in every tribal culture, one that liberal cultural anthropologists have tried to play down with disputed anecdotes about some cultures that may not have ideas about paternity, the Aka are still unusual in the importance of fathers. Their culture is distinguished by close bonds between couples, who net-hunt together to provide food for the family. Fathers participate in childcare and hold their children for many hours. The article linked to above is false in that there are still non-interchangeable gender roles, but genders are much less differentiated than in most tribal cultures.
In the book Intimate Fathers they describe how, like the Yequana, the Aka parents are physically indulgent, but not emotionally smothering. Many modern parents are excessively child-focused and protective, yet neglect the basic biological needs of their babies for physical closeness with their biological parents (and other relatives) and breastmilk.
Aka infancy is indulgent: infants are held almost constantly, they have skin-to-skin contact most of the day as Aka seldom wear shirts or blouses, and they are nursed on demand and attended to immediately if they fuss or cry. Aka parents interact with and stimulate their infants throughout the day. They talk to, play with, show affection to, and transit subsistence skills to their infants during the day. I was rather surprised to find parents teaching their eight-to-twelve-month-old infants how to use small pointed digging sticks, throw small spears, use miniature axes with sharp metal blades, and carry small baskets. Most of this direct teaching takes place while resting on the net hunt.
While Aka are very indulgent and intimate with their infants, they are not a child-focused society. Some have suggested that many American parents are child-focused, in that parents will give undivided attention to the child (quality time) and dramatically change their behavior or activities to attend to the desires of the children. American parents allow their children to interrupt their conversations with other adults; they ask their children what they want to eat and try to accommodate other desires of the children. Aka society is adult-centered in that parents seldom stop their activities to pay undivided attention to their children. If an infant fusses or urinates on a parent who is talking to others or playing the drums, the parent continues his activity while gently rocking the infant or wiping the urine off with a nearby leaf. There are times when the infant's desires are not considered and the infant is actually placed in danger by the parents. For instance, on the net hunt, if a woman chases a game animal into the net, she will place the infant on the ground to run after the game and kill it. The infant is left there crying until the mother or someone else comes back.*
*women don't participate in the most dangerous hunts, like the elephant hunt
Some of my readers might be interested in The Atlantic's debate on "alternative medicine." Reading it, what amused me is that opponents of alternative medicine accuse it of not being "evidence-based." Unfortunately our "normal medicine" isn't really evidence-based either. What doctors and hospitals do often seems more about the status quo than science. That explains why my sister (a biologist) and I are not exactly our doctor's favorite patients. We don't accept treatments based on outdated science, particularly when they have harmful side effects.
For example, the idea that GERD is a disease of acid burning the esophagus is several years outdated, but doctors continue to hand out medicine based on that theory (proton-pump inhibitors) like it's Halloween candy, despite a growing body of evidence that it causes immune dysfunction and bacterial overgrowth!
The list really could go on and on, from unwillingness to adopt life-saving safety practices to the handing out of antibiotics to children for every little thing (even illnesses obviously caused by viruses!) to the use of questionable materials for hip-replacements just because they are "new."
Another example showed up in my RSS reader today: Keeping Mother and Baby Together – It’s Best for Mother, Baby, and Breastfeeding. I suggest you read that post, as it has great information. Basically, in our species, the time immediately after birth is critical. Direct skin to skin contact between mother and baby is important for establishing breast feeding, bonding, and regulating the baby's physical health. That's how our species evolved, it's the infant's natural ecology. This isn't about just doing what our ancestors did; science has confirmed that these practices have important functions. Despite that, hospitals often fight this practice and a woman who wants to simply do what is appropriate for her as a Homo sapians must exert an effort to convince the hospital staff, find a sympathetic birthing center, or arrange for a home birth.
Interestingly, NICU's (new born intensive care units) have been the first to adopt this practice. For babies on the edge, everything counts, but it's something all babies deserve.
In negative reviews of books on so-called "attachment parenting" like The Continuum Concept people often harp on about how it's "smothering" and emphasis the children at the expense of other social relationships. I suspect those people haven't read the book. The foraging horticulturalists in that book, for example, do breastfeed their children, sleep with them, and carry them around close to their bodies. But overall, these women are not "smothering." The book describes an incident where a toddler is carrying around a rather sharp knife and banging it around. The mother ignores him and chats with another mother. That is, until the toddler drops the knife. Then the mother picks the knife up and gives it back to the kid. Their culture is one where children are biologically fulfilled, but socially the children are not the center of the social life.
Contrast that with our culture, where children are biologically unfulfilled, but our social culture is obsessed with them. We have to endow them with "good self esteem" and make sure they don't get hurt on "dangerous" playgrounds. Our time with our children has increased, but not through passive activities like having dinner with them, but through taking them to extracurricular activities and helping them with homework.
There is an interesting article in The Atlantic asking whether this has been a good thing. The author is a therapist quite surprised to see so many patients who had attentive "good" parents:
Until, one day, another question occurred to me: Was it possible these parents had done too much?
Here I was, seeing the flesh-and-blood results of the kind of parenting that my peers and I were trying to practice with our own kids, precisely so that they wouldn’t end up on a therapist’s couch one day. We were running ourselves ragged in a herculean effort to do right by our kids—yet what seemed like grown-up versions of them were sitting in our offices, saying they felt empty, confused, and anxious. Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child. It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned? What happens to those kids?
I became seriously worried about raising my own children when I was a camp counselor in a wealthy suburban area and found out the games that were "banned", which included:
- Star Wars (and anything else with wars)
- Cowboys and Indians (and anything else politically incorrect)
- Police and Robbers (and anything else with "weapons" even if you used your hand and went "bang bang".)
- Good old fashioned Tag and Hide and Go Seek... too "dangerous"
Meanwhile, everyone was unconcerned with the massive amounts of sugar we fed those kids. I was also quite alarmed by the large "food allergy" table we maintained and heavily policed. I don't remember having such things when I was a kid. Seemed like every child was allergic to something.
When I was a kid we ate junk food, but we played Star Wars and often our version of Dagobah was a seriously gross insect and snake infested creek...completely unsupervised. I'm sure it was probiotic and tons of exercise :) I'm hoping my kids can have a childhood like that, but seems like it's bucking the trend enough that it means public school and whatnot just aren't options, despite some backlash such as Free Range Kids. I'd love to find a private school that has a good philosophy, but since I was homeschooled myself, I know it doesn't kill you or anything :P Increasingly, members of the ancestral health community seem interested in this approach, given that most public and private schools
- feed kids sugar and fried crap, among other poisonous foods
- force them to sit for hours and hours a day when they should be playing outside
- structure them into a social strata alien to our evolutionary context. I wouldn't be surprised if putting children of all the same age together all day instead of mixing children by ages and with elders is the cause of much social stresses like bullying.
- socialize them into a homogenous worldview, causing the loss of unique cultures
Recently I've been reading lots of papers and working through data on violence and pathological conditions during the paleolithic. I think there is a tendency to view paleolithic hunter-gatherers as brutes or angels. I admit I've fallen for both betrayals. When I was young I thought of historical progress as being a march away from our natural brutish Hobbesian condition. Then I read things like The Worst Mistake by Jared Diamond and became sympathetic to the idea that instead, hunter-gatherers represented humans living as they were meant to, avoiding the physical and mental neuroses of the present. Having taken up study of the paleolithic more seriously at an academic level, I'm now of the opinion that while both stories are nice, they are just a vain attempt to deal with the utter chaos of both the present and past, where progress is actually non-linear and highly variable. I've seen skull casts from the paleolithic that are beautiful in their perfection and those bashed in by clubs. I've read polemics on both sides such as Sex at Dawn and War Before Civilization.
One thing I've read with great interesting is Robin Hanson's series on foragers. One provocative post tries to map modern liberal values to foragers. Unfortunately, I think it paints a rather unrealistic view of foragers. Another example is this feel-good article about how great hunter-gatherer parents are and how we should be more like them:
Natural birth: If you want to up your chances of rearing an empathetic, well-adjusted kid, you might try to give birth as our ancestors did: naturally. Research shows that various medical interventions can inhibit important “love hormones” like oxytocin from being released during labor and delivery, interfering with the mother-baby bonding process. These hormones help provide moms with the energy and instinct to nurture their children, says Narvaez.
Breastfeeding: When possible, moms should breastfeed their infants—for a long time, says Narvaez. Ideally, for two to five years. A child’s immune system isn’t fully formed until around 6 years old, she explains, and breast milk lays its building blocks. The World Health Organization recommends that babies nurse for at least two years.
Lots of cuddling—and no spanking: Along with the nutritional value of breast milk, kids develop a sense of wellbeing from the positive touch that breastfeeding involves. Narvaez advocates near-constant holding and cuddling. “We know that positive touch has benefits to brain development, hormone-functioning, and appropriate social interactions,” she says, noting that babies’ brains are only a quarter developed at birth. She also encourages co-sleeping, and she cautions against spanking.
Responsiveness: Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t likely see much value in letting a baby fuss or cry. You can’t “spoil” a baby, says Narvaez. Parents should aim to meet a child’s needs before he or she gets upset. “Kids who have really responsive parents tend to be more agreeable, and they tend to develop a conscience earlier,” Narvaez says. “This responsivity helps the child regulate. Gradually, the baby learns to calm him- or herself down.”
Many adult caregivers: Our early infant ancestors benefited from being cared for by mom, dad, and other adults who loved them. Surrogate parents also help to share some of the burden of parenting, helping to prevent exhaustion.
Free play with kids of varying ages: Needless to say, hunter-gatherers weren’t separated into age-specific play circles, exposing them to kids at different stages of development—and thus, enhancing their own growth. And studies show that children who don’t spend enough time playing are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health problems.
The whole thing seems rather euphemistic to me, coddling both moderns and presenting a noble savage view. It only lists "nice" things. Trolls in the comment section pick this up immediately. Where is the mention that paleolithic babies didn't go to daycare to be cared for by an unrelated adult alongside 10 other unrelated babies? I suppose that can't be mentioned, along with the reason why most modern women don't breastfeed very long (because most work long hours and most workplaces don't allow children), because it's illiberal and doesn't fit with the feel-good advice.
What about the big-Is: Infanticide and infant mortality. I feel these are played down too much is these discussions despite the fact they really are the major difference between modern and ancient babyhood. Maybe forager mothers got to breastfed their babies and spend a lot of time with them, but they died in alarming numbers. Sometimes they died at their mother's hand- foragers didn't worry about raising sickly or developmentally-disabled babies because they often simply didn't raise them. Infanticide often also occurs because forager women DO work and they can't carry more than one baby on their back. This is called birth-spacing infanticide.
Of course, this varies quite heavily among foragers. In the data I've seen, infanticide rates range from 1% in the San to 11% in some Australian Aboriginal groups to 67% of female babies in some Inuit groups.
And then I'm reading Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, where he presents some convincing data that it doesn't really matter whether or not an upper middle class parent chooses co-sleep or not, since nature matters more than nurture. I'm not entirely convinced by all his data, but that deserves its own post. Either way I do believe in some of the precepts listed above, but I'm playing devil's advocate because it irks me when I see the paleolithic or foragers used in just-so feel-good narratives.
It's easy enough to stop eating crap and start eating a diet closer to what evolution intended. Other evolutionary disconnects are harder to remedy. As a young woman, I can say one of the hardest is childbearing. Most middle-class young women in developed countries cannot afford to have children during our prime childbearing years. Furthermore, having children often means relying on two incomes and leaving the childcare to someone else outside the family. American children start school young (Swedish children start school at 7, American at 4-5) and our schools generally do a terrible job at providing an evolutionarily-appropriate environment. Think about hunter-gatherer children: lots of play, mixed age groups, and spending time and learning from relatives.
What are the consequences of this evolutionary disconnect? I think we are just starting to see them. One alarming trend is that the age of puberty is falling. Some blame diet, others blame pollution, but it's probably all that and more. Here is an interesting study on how social factors might influence puberty. It suggests that poor mother-child bonds might lead to early puberty. The unfortunate thing about these studies is that it's often hard to tease out social issues like that fact that children whose mothers have to work long hours often live in environments that are poor in many other ways.
The evolutionary disconnect goes so much deeper than just eating inappropriate foods for our species like bread....it goes into how we work, move, and raise our children. The problem here is that the disconnect is so deep that it's hard to remedy it unless you want to run off and become Amish. And that the disconnect is psychological and social as well. How many 24-year-old women want to spend their days taking care of children anyway? How many of us have the extended family to help us?
This article asks why children are hitting puberty earlier and earlier, with some girls menstrating at 6 or younger! Scientists say that some consequences of early puberty include obesity, reproductive cancer, depression, and anxiety. The average age of puberty for American girls has gone from 17 in the 19th century to about 8.
To contrast, the average age of sexual maturation in hunter-gatherers is from 15-18 years.
Possible causes outlined in the article include phytoestrogens, chemical contaminants, and obesity. I think looking at obesity as a cause is missing the point here.
Last week I found this interesting study of foragers who reach early sexual maturity, the Pume. The word "foragers" is misleading here because the Pume practice agriculture and trade. They still eat some wild foods, but manioc and corn provide much of their calories. They trade for pasta and rice. They reach menarche at the average age of 12, which is usually considered maladaptive because it increases the risk of dying in childbirth.
Not once does that article mention insulin. It says girls who undergo early puberty are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Hmmm...maybe all there issues mentioned here are a result of a high-carb diet that causes insulin resistance? Here is a great study that shows that girls undergoing puberty tend to have insulin issues. Doctors would be wise to screen girls who get their period at 6 for this condition...
Yes, apparently even babies can show signs of the dreaded diseases of civilization. Ugh, very scary.
Here are some WAPF events coming up. WAPFers are paleo allies in the war for real food and delicious fat. I might not be crazy for grains or dairy, but they have some useful things to say. In NYC the paleo tribe seems to be mostly singles, but WAPFers tend to be those with children or thinking about them. That's great- we need more healthy children out there.
Here are some WAPF and Traditional Nutrition Events coming up:
It's too bad my parents didn't know what I know now. What I know is that children and humans in general don't need vegetables to be healthy. ALL the nutrients in vegetables are present in meat and are more bioavailable in meat. While I enjoy eating vegetables myself, I now know that it's unnecessary to force them down the throats of children who are only following their humans instincts to avoid bitter-tasting foods (though the sensitivity varies from person to person and is genetic), which in the wild were often poisonous. That instinct, that kept generations of our ancestors alive, is now something to be punished. Parents spend untold amounts of time trying to force vegetables on their children and on cookbooks purporting to be able to get children to eat vegetables. Some kids love vegetables and it's great if they do, but it's not a tragedy if they don't.
Why? Plenty of people eat nothing but meat and don't suffer from obesity or other diseases parents warn their children they will get if they don't eat broccoli. If anything, parents should encourage their children to eat fat, which luckily most children instinctually like. Looking back at my childhood, I definitely did suffer from sicknesses all the time. My family blamed it on the fact I didn't eat vegetables, rather than my love for biscuits, crackers, and other processed goo. By some miracle I always had shiny hair and glowing skin though, which is probably because I did love fat. I especially always loved chicken skin. It wasn't until I started eating things like Kashi cereal and Nutrigrain bars and less fat that I had problems with weight gain, acne, and hair loss. I traded one type of stomach problem for another.
So encourage kids to eat fat and don't worry if they don't love spinach. The sugar conundrum is a more difficult one, since sugar is a pervasive food in kiddie culture from birthday parties to school lunches. A few weeks ago I was walking down the street and saw a man pushing a stroller. His kid was merrily chewing on some candy and was holding a large bag of it. They pulled alongside another woman pushing a stroller and the man said loudly "Hey, want some gummy bears." The woman looked at him angrily and said "No, my daughter is allergic." I guess that's one strategy...