Ever wonder how ethnic and cultural cuisines developed?
Is it because the Irish are predisposed to prefer the taste of potatoes? Because those in the Levant had a particular yen for lentils?
The actual answer is much, much bigger: Cultural cuisines developed in conjunction with the agricultural revolution. Agrarianism increased the human population 100x by the first millennium and thus required us to produce whatever grew best regionally at a massive scale.
Hunting and foraging were out. The more mouths there were to feed, the more crops needed to be grown and harvested. And before we had harnessed the powers we have today (electricity, long-range transportation, accurate weather predictions), we had little room for risk-taking and mistake-making.
That meant our diet became increasingly limited to crops that were sturdy, easy to grow, and calorie-dense.
Note: we said calorie-dense. Not nutrient-dense.
Tradition is a powerful thing…
Your grandma’s chicken and dumplings may have kept everyone alive when nearby staples were wheat, chickens, and cream… But one bowl from Cracker Barrel nets you 450 calories. For most Americans, that’s only part of dinner – and at best, a third of the food you’re eating all day.
Two points to remember so far: Our diet became less diversified, and it became way heavier in caloric density.
What Did This Do to Our Development?
More calories do not mean more nutrients. And less diversification almost certainly means fewer nutrients.
So in order to feed more people at a more consistent rate, we sacrificed some of what made us adapt and evolve so (relatively) quickly. And can you guess what became the most prominent nutrient in our new limited and energy-sustaining diets?
That’s right – carbohydrates. (Remember earlier, we were talking about the Irish and their potatoes? The Levant and their lentils? We can add West Africa and their yams to the list, as well.)
According to “Homo Sapiens”, there was a critical period in human history responsible for the domestication of the plants that today make up the majority of our diets.
(We’ve talked before about how diversification is the name of the prevention game, but how difficult that can be in terms of the actual plant variety.)
That period is between 9500 and 3500 BC. And most of those crops are exactly the heavy carbohydrate crops you’re thinking of – potatoes, wheat, rice, barley, maize, and millet.
Because we’ve been ingesting so many carbs for so long, we’ve generated blood sugar diseases – like diabetes – and learned to eat beyond the point of satisfaction. This is not to say people weren’t overweight during the agricultural revolution, or even in foraging societies. (There’s even evidence that suggests evolutionary changes in our DNA allowed for fat to store in a way it doesn’t do in primates. That would be partially responsible for the tripling of our brain size, which is what allowed us to even invent agriculture in the first place.)
This enormous shift, however, is basically why we eat more than we need to.
How Much More?
The average American eats more than 3,600 calories per day. In China, that number is around 3,000. In Mexico, it’s closer to 3,300, and in Russia, it’s a bit above.
Adult sedentary men need between 2,000 and 2,600 calories per day – not merely to stave off starvation, but to provide nutrients to their whole body systems and maintain a healthy weight and immune system.
And every culture that evolved from agrarian practices in the world is using carbs to make up the majority of those calories.
Carbs are valid, necessary, and healthy. We need them for energy. Foods that are calorically dense are immensely valuable, especially in parts of the world where meals aren’t guaranteed.
Carbohydrates are largely responsible for every advancement humans have made since the agricultural revolution. But we overemphasized them to create large-scale progress and now depend on them too heavily. (We do the same with meat, but that’s another story.)
What’s the answer?
Higher fiber foods that are more hydrating and more nutritionally complex, for a few reasons. First, while your gut loves the soluble fibers found in carbs, it doesn’t love the sugar carbs ultimately turn into. (It hates processed sugar more, but we’re already getting so much sugar in our diets that turning somewhere else for fiber can only be beneficial.)
Second, eating foods that hydrate – vegetables and fruits with high water contents, for example – help you recognize you’re full faster. And since we as a culture have a problem slow, mindful, chew-intensive eating, we often don’t know we’re full until we’ve eaten too much.
And finally, there’s a reason we’re so deficient in so many essential nutrients – calcium, essential fatty acids, folic acid, iron, magnesium, and vitamins A, B12, C, and D being the most prominent.
Deliberately eating more vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds, and herbs not only crowds out space for carbs on our plates, it introduces more of what we need to our bodies.
Carbs aren’t evil – don’t let anybody tell you they are. But because of that critical 6,000 year period…
We’ve given them more of our time than we really need to. Let them take a back seat for a while!