Magazine article Science News

Of Berries and Bison: Stone Age Standards for Modern Diets

Magazine article Science News

Of Berries and Bison: Stone Age Standards for Modern Diets

Article excerpt

Reverting to old habits might not be such a bad idea, at least when they're the dietary habits of prehistoric ancestors. The ancient diets are "genetically what we are designed to eat, digest and metabolize," says S. Boyd Eaton, a physician at Emory University in Atlanta. He and anthropologist Melvin Konner suggest in the Jan. 31 NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE that veering from this nutritional genetic program might be why modern humans suffer from "diseases of civilization," while modern hunter-gatherers, who most closely resemble our Stone Age ancestors, do not. Other researchers, however, caution against assuming modern humans should follow ancient diets.

Physicians and nutritionists have become increasingly convinced that modern

diets play a role in the development of cancer, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. These "diseases of civilization" are among the top killers in Western society, but they are virtually unknown among the few surviving hunter-gatherer populations. For example, when diabetic Australian aborigines living near Melbourne returned to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, their diabetic abnormalities improved greatly, according to an earlier study reported in the June 1984 DIABETES.

Eaton and Konner used nutrient values for foods eaten by modern hunter-gatherers to estimate the daily nutirent intake of Paleolithic humans, who lived from the first manufacturer of stone tools about 1.6 million years ago to shortlsy before the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago. The researchers say the diets of these humans might provide standards for modern nutrition.

But the standards would have to be adapted to modern lifestyles. For instance, Paleolithic humans ate much more meat than nutritionists recommend today. Yet changing modern diets to include more meat could be disastrous because the wild game consumed by hunter-gatherers is much less fatty than the highly marbled cuts available in supermarkets today. …

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