H. Leon Abrams, Jr., MA, EDS
Associate Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, ECJC,
University System of Georgia, Swainsboro, Georgia.
Journal of Applied Nutrition, 1982, 16:1:38-45
Many claims are set forth stating what the “natural” diet of humans is or should be, but in order to ascertain what constitutes the basic dietary requirements for optimal health, the problem must be approached from an anthropological perspective which encompasses the total dietary evolution and history of mankind, a scrutinization and syntheses of human diets from the earliest times to the present, the diets of mankind’s nearest relatives, the primates, and cross-cultural dietary comparisons of primitive and modern societies.
There are one hundred and ninety-two living higher species of primates in addition to humans. (30) Until recently, it was taken for granted that all monkeys and apes were vegetarians, but ethological studies (1, 2, 12) revealed that all primates, in their natural habitat, also eat small animals. The National Zoo in Washington attempted to breed the Amazon Golden Marmoset monkey in captivity, but failed until animal protein was added to their diet. (5) It had been erroneously assumed that they were complete vegetarians, but apparently they must have some animal protein in order to be fertile. With the addition of animal protein, they reproduce rapidly in captivity. (5)
Until the research of Goodall (16, 52) it was assumed that Chimpanzees eat only plant foods, but she discovered that they kill and eat monkeys, baby baboons, and other small animals and concluded that there was a small but fairly regular number of them captured and eaten throughout the year. Gibbons, orangutans, and baboons also kill and eat small animals regularly. (35, 44) The simplest of all primates, the tree shrew, which resembles the supposed ancestor of today’s primates most closely, lives entirely on small animals. Ethological studies have necessitated the reclassification of monkeys and apes from herbivores to omnivores, and indicate that all primates have a basic need for some animal protein in their diet if health is to be maintained. (1)
The first humans, the Australopithecines (9, 11, 54) (and Homo habilis), who appeared around four million years ago, included food plants in their diets, but they apparently ate a large number of small animals and were scavengers; they ate the remains of any large animals they could find, and therefore were able to secure a large amount of meat. (43) Around one million years ago, man had evolved into Homo Erectur (Peking and Java Man), and had greatly increased his ability to hunt large game. His life centered entirely around the hunt for game (4, 20, 50). Following in the evolutionary sequence was Neanderthal man (early Homo Sapiens), followed by Cro-Magnon Man. (36) Again, there has been a progressive increase in the hunting technology especially for large game. The driving force that compelled Cro-Magnon man to all unpopulated parts of the inhabitable world was his quest for game. Actually, the disappearance of many game species, such as the wild horse, mammoth, et. al., was not due to climatic change, but to man hunting them to extinction in his quest for meat. (7, 28) From the very beginning, the diet of humans has been meat oriented, therefore the evidence seems to warrant the conclusion that our human progenitors, from the very beginning around four million years ago, have relied heavily upon meat as a major source of food; they were omnivorous, but the emphasis was on meat, not on plant foods. (7) Man turned only to agriculture, which began around 10,000 years ago, when he had largely exhausted the seemingly endless supply of game due to his ever increasing population. (7)
Of humans some four million years on earth, 99% of this time has been that of hunting game and gathering wild plants. (21) And, when the animals had been hunted to either extinction or near extinction, then and only then did humans turn to agriculture and animal domestication. (7) However, when humans turned to agriculture, a large percentage of the crops was devoted to rearing domesticated animals for meat. Meat has been, and remains so when available, the choice food of mankind because it supplies all the nutrients, amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and essential elements necessary to sustain sound health. For example, the surest source of vitamin B-12 is animal protein. (2)
No cultures or people in the world have ever been 100% vegetarians; however, a number, such as the Masai of Africa (25, 26), Plains Indians (7), the Eskimo (29, 42, 47, 48, 49) and the Lapps (34), in their traditional culture, subsist almost entirely on meat and have been very healthy. When they adapted to our modern diet which is high in refined carbohydrates, their health deteriorated rapidly; they developed a high incidence of degenerative diseases characteristic of our modern civilization, especially heart disease. (2)
In 1957, several hypotheses maintained that there is a direct relationship between diet, especially animal fats, and coronary heart disease and cancer of the colon. (19) All of these studies are controversial because a large percentage of the supporting data has been epidemiological in nature, and many studies contradictory to these findings have been made (13, 14, 15, 22, 24, 25, 26, 27, 31, 32, 51).
The publicity given these studies implicating foods containing cholesterol and saturated fats, such as “red meat,” in causing heart disease and cancer, has prompted many people to adopt, erroneously, a total or partial vegetarian diet in the hope of maintaining or restoring sound health and thus avoiding heart disease and cancer. (2)
For example, Puerto Ricans eat a large amount of animal fat, but have a very low rate of colon cancer and breast cancer. (13) A comparative study on the incidence of colon and breast cancer was carried out in Finland and the Netherlands because both peoples consume about the same amount of animal fat per capita per day. Even though the animal fat consumption was the same, breast and colon cancer rates in the Netherlands was discovered to be almost double that of Finland although vegetable oil consumption in the Netherlands in much higher than in Finland. (13)
Weidman and his colleagues (53) carried our a cross-cultural study, with a follow-up, centered on specific adult risk factors for atherosclerosis in 103 white school children ranging in age from six to sixteen; and concluded that diet is not of major importance in having an impact on serum cholesterol levels. (53) Although Americans have been recommended to eat a diet moderate in cholesterol and calories, if carried too far it may result in some high risk factors for children and especially for those who show low serum cholesterol levels. (53)
A study conducted by N.E. Hitchcock and M. Bracey in the town of Busselton, Western Australia, contradicts the orthodox view that diet is closely correlated with the body’s level of serum cholesterol content indicating a high risk for heart attack. (17) They studied three groups of mothers and children at Busselton; one with high cholesterol, one with medium and one with low cholesterol levels. They studied the diet patterns of each group and found no significant difference among them in the percentage of daily energy contribution of protein, fat or carbohydrates. They also noted that obesity was not a factor in the cholesterol level since the levels or the obese did not differ from the non-obese. They concluded that the result of their study strongly indicates that diet does not account for the differences in cholesterol levels of culturally homogenous groups. They further state that the “correlation between habitual diet and average serum cholesterol levels is good between contrasting populations (for example, people of Japan and Finland),” and note that “within a given culture, people eating the same kind of food can have different serum lipids. Those who develop coronary heart disease do not necessarily eat differently from those who do not.” (17)
As a result of the widespread publicity and promotion of vegetable oils, millions of Americans are convinced that by not eating meat, eggs, and dairy products and by consuming only plant fats (polyunsaturated fats), that they will greatly reduce their chances of suffering from heart disease that afflicts and kills a million or more Americans every year. Scrutinization of the facts shows that they have been lulled into a sense of false security. (23) They fail to know or understand the following facts that are never carried in the advertisements:
1. There is no positive or direct scientific proof that eating foods high in cholesterol raises serum cholesterol levels. (23)
2. There is no positive or direct proof that high cholesterol levels results in heart disease. (23)
3. There is no positive or direct proof that lowering cholesterol levels will reduce one’s susceptibility to heart disease. (23)
4. Consuming great quantities of polyunsaturated fats or oils may be detrimental to health. (23)
The present state of knowledge in the cholesterol diet controversy has been evaluated by Reiser, who stated that the assumption that serum cholesterol is directly related to saturated (animal fats) and cholesterol in the diet is based upon three erroneous assumptions as follows:
1. That each person is at equal risk of heart disease in proportion to how much animal fat and cholesterol is included in the diet.
2. One’s risk of coronary heart disease will increase with the rise of serum cholesterol.
3. One can control the rise in serum cholesterol by eliminating animal fats and cholesterol containing foods.
He categorically sets forth clinical data that the above assumptions are invalid when subjected to strict scientific investigation and do not provide justification for people eliminating all animal fats and meat from their diet. (38, 39, 40)
Michael DeBakey, world renowned heart surgeon from Houston, who has devoted extensive research into the cholesterol coronary disease theory, states that out of every ten people in the United States who have atherosclerotic heart disease, only three or four of these ten have high cholesterol levels; this is approximately the identical rate of elevated cholesterol found in the general population. (10) His comment: “If you say cholesterol is the cause, how do you explain the other 60 percent to 70 percent with heart disease who don’t have a high cholesterol?” In 1964 DeBakey made an analysis of cholesterol levels from usual hospital laboratory testing of 1,700 patients with atherosclerotic disease and found there was no positive or definitive relationship or correlation between serum cholesterol levels and the extent or nature of atherosclerotic disease. (10)
A comparative study of men in Crete and the village of Crevalcore, Italy, indicates that there is probably no relationship between serum cholesterol and coronary heart disease when the level is 245 mg of cholesterol per 100ml. (38, 39, 40) The men in Crete show serum cholesterol levels of 200mg/dl and have an incidence of less than one coronary heart disease per 100 men in five years. In contrast, the men in Crevalcore with similar serum cholesterol levels suffer an incidence of approximately six cases of coronary heart disease in five years. (38, 39, 40)
Many questions are being asked about the generally accepted and greatly advertised theory that consumption of saturated fatty acids (beef, lamb, mutton, butter, and pork) are major factors contributing to hypercholesterolemia and heart disease, while the consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids (vegetable oils) will prevent coronary heart disease. Rivers states that the trend toward eating so much margarine and other vegetable oil products may be “exactly the wrong thing,” and explains that because polyunsaturates are very unstable, extra polyunsaturated fatty acids are added by substituting soft margarines and stabilized vegetable oils for animal fats and butter. The difficulty is, he continued, that the two changes lead to a dramatic increase in the eating of trans-fatty acids that results in hypercholesterolemic effects that far outweigh the reported benefits of polyunsaturated fats. (41)
It seems that the human body requires some essential polyunsaturated fatty acids such as linoleic and arachidonic acid, but the established requirement seems to be only approximately 1% of calories. (18) Studies strongly indicate that large consumption of margarine, and other polyunsaturated vegetable fats, may be conducive to cancer. (37) Animal experiments found that rats fed a chemical carcinogen in addition to 20% vegetable polyunsaturated fat and a much higher incidence of tumors than when fed a carcinogenic with animal fat. (37) In a similar experiment, rats treated with a carcinogen and given 5% corn oil had a 3.5 times higher incidence of colon tumors that did rats who were maintained on 5% lard. (37)
Studies have also linked a high intake of polyunsaturates, which is probably over 10% of the average American’s diet, with vitamin deficiencies, liver damage, premature aging, nutritional muscular dystrophy, cancer, and severe blood disease in infants. (23) Polyunsaturated fatty acids are believed to be highly reactive chemical compounds that render them possibly harmful; they can be oxidized by ordinary cooking in one’s body when they react with nitrous oxide in smog, from X-rays and sunlight and some trace metals such as iron. (23) Passwater states that of fourteen tests conducted, all showed a high correlation between eating high amounts of polyunsaturates in the form of corn oil, peanut oil, margarines, soybean oil, et al., and notes that presently Americans eat two to three times more vegetable oils than were consumed sixty years ago. He stresses that only from two to four percent of one’s diet should consist of vegetable fats. (33)
Most hunting and gathering societies eat a large amount of meat. The classical example is the Eskimo who lived almost entirely on land and sea mammals, fish and birds. Anthropologist Vilhjalmur Steffansson, who spent many years living with the Eskimo around the turn of the century, found that they were in excellent health and remained so as long as they maintained their traditional diet. (47) It was discovered that as long as they ate fresh meat, they obtained an ample supply of vitamin C which was previously thought to come only from plant sources. However, cooking at high temperatures destroys vitamin C in both meat and plant foods.
Although it was accepted that the Eskimo thrived in a high state of good health on an almost complete meat diet, authorities stated that the diet would probably be harmful for Europeans. To prove the thesis that a 100% meat diet is sufficient for sound health, Vilhjalmur Steffansson and Karsten Anderson submitted themselves to an experiment conducted by The Russell Sage Institute of Pathology at Bellevue Hospital, an affiliate of the Medical College of Cornell University. For a period of one year, they ate only fresh meat in the ratio of two pounds of fresh lean meat to one-half pound of fat per day. Steffansson, who had been on the Eskimo diet for years, remained in good health, while Anderson was found to be in much better physical condition than when he began the experiment. (47) Steffansson continued to live on the Eskimo diet for many decades, in very good health, until his death at the age of 83.
Otto Schaeffer, a specialist in internal medicine and director of the Northern Medical Research Unit at Charles Campbell Hospital, Arctic Canada, found that as long as the Eskimo lived on his native diet in the traditional manner, he remained in sound health and was practically free from degenerative diseases, especially those that afflict Americans. (42) He reports that with the adoption of the white man’s diet, which consists largely of refined carbohydrates (sugar, white flour), processed polyunsaturated fats, and other processed foods, the Eskimo is widely afflicted with all the degenerative diseases common to our modern society. (42)
There is a relationship between diet and degenerative diseases, but the total history of mankind strongly indicates that the relationship is not one of consuming meat and animal fats. Anthropological data strongly suggest that as human societies developed a greater dependence on cereal grain crops and other carbohydrate foods, such was accompanied by undermining the health adaptations of food-producing populations unless they were successfully able to maintain a balance between meat and animal protein and their relatively low content protein plant crops such as rice, wheat, barley, potatoes, and corn. (6, 34) Since the last century, this deterioration has been accelerated to a very high level due to the ever increasing use of sugar (55, 56, 57, 58), refined white flour, coffee and other caffeinated beverages, excessive consumption of salt, alcohol, chemical preservatives, synthetic, processed and junk foods. (2)
it is in investigating the relationship of the effects that these foods have upon the body, including smoking, that will probably be most fruitful in providing answers to the ever increasing rate of degenerative diseases.
Anthropological research proves that humans are both animal and plant eaters, but of the two, animal foods are essential in human nutrition. (2) The wisest diet is no doubt the one humans have followed for millions of years, a diet that emphasizes fresh meat or animal protein supplemented with wholesome plant foods augmented by ample exercise.
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