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The Very Fiber of Our Being What’s lacking in the modern human diet may have our species at a crossroads by Kristen Andresen

Mescal beans (Sophora secundiflora) have been found in numerous archaelogical sites and were probably used as beads or trade items, or ground into powder for an intoxicating drink.

University of Maine anthropologist Kristin Sobolik argues that you are what you eat — and what your ancestors ate, and what their ancestors ate, and so on, for millennia. For that reason, today’s human diet is in a sad state of affairs and, quite frankly, our bodies weren’t designed for this.

Problem is, it could be too late — and too complicated — to do anything about it, she says.

Our long-ago ancestors hunted, foraged and gathered whatever sustenance they could find. Today, despite the relative abundance at the grocery store — and despite the global food system that attempts to feed a mass population efficiently and inexpensively — humans aren’t getting the same variety of flora and fauna in their diets as they used to.

In a recent article in the British Journal of Nutrition, Sobolik and Jeff Leach of the New Orleans-based Paleobiotics Laboratory note that our forebears had a much higher concentration of fiber — particularly undigested fiber — in their diets than we do today. Humans evolved in synchrony with their intestinal anaerobes, and undigested fiber promotes the growth of positive microbiota, which helps process food efficiently.

However, such high amounts of fiber are missing from most modern diets.

A more “Westernized” diet, consisting of easily digested carbohydrates, promotes negative intestinal flora, which leads to numerous digestive problems and an inability to efficiently process our food — ultimately lending credence to the need for a prebiotic and probiotic dietary change.

“From an archaeological and anthropological standpoint, this has led us to the brink of being able to destroy ourselves,” says Sobolik, one of the world’s leading authorities on paleonutrition — the analysis of prehistoric diets and their relation to modern health and nutrition. “We chose a particular path with our nutrition, with our subsistence strategies (that included domesticating plants and animals), which has led us to where we are today. I think we are way worse off now than we would’ve been if we hadn’t chosen that path.”

The change didn’t happen all at once. It’s the result of a series of seemingly small decisions over a very long period of time. Taken together, these small steps have left a big footprint on the evolution of the human diet — and the way we obtain our food.

In the past as hunter-gatherers, humans foraged off the landscape, had a varied diet and lived in small groups. Once they evolved a system of animal and plant domestication, the population increased at such a rate that it would be impossible to go back to the past, Sobolik argues. We are now very dependent on massive food production to feed a burgeoning population, which allows little leeway in production choice.

“We, in essence, need to produce large amounts of food quickly, which has led us to the large systems of monocropping, and pesticide and herbicide use we see today, as well as the huge industrialized domestic animal factories, where growth hormones and poor living conditions are rampant,” says Sobolik, chair of the University of Maine Anthropology Department and associate director of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute.

These industrial-scale processes have changed the landscape, changed the plants and animals, and, ultimately, changed us.

“I consider this to be one of the, if not the, most important turning points in human evolution,” says Sobolik, who has reconstructed prehistoric diets using the latest innovative technologies to collect data from human remains and human paleofeces. “With such a large population and with such a modified landscape, we can’t go back.”

In order to move forward — or at least toward a more sustainable future — we need to change the current dietary and nutritional system to decrease some of the very negative health aspects, but in a way that maintains or expands current production, Sobolik says. In essence, this means using fewer pollutants in and on our food, and increasing crop diversity, all while maintaining or increasing our level of food production. No easy task.

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Fall 2010

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