Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Food for thought

From Scientific American...

According to the fossil record, the australopithecines never became much brainier than living apes, showing only a modest increase in brain size, from around 400 cubic centimeters four million years ago to 500 cubic centimeters two million years later. Homo brain sizes, in contrast, ballooned from 600 cubic centimeters in H. habilis some two million years ago up to 900 cubic centimeters in early H. erectus just 300,000 years later. The H. erectus brain did not attain modern human proportions (1,350 cubic centimeters on average), but it exceeded that of living nonhuman primates.

From a nutritional perspective, what is extraordinary about our large brain is how much energy it consumes-- roughly 16 times as much as muscle tissue per unit weight. Yet although humans have much bigger brains relative to body weight than do other primates (three times larger than expected), the total resting energy requirements of the human body are no greater than those of any other mammal of the same size. We therefore use a much greater share of our daily energy budget to feed our voracious brains. In fact, at rest brain metabolism accounts for a whopping 20 to 25 percent of an adult human's energy needs-- far more than the 8 to 10 percent observed in nonhuman primates, and more still than the 3 to 5 percent allotted to the brain by other mammals.

How did such an energetically costly brain evolve? One theory, developed by Dean Falk of Florida State University, holds that bipedalism enabled hominids to cool their cranial blood, thereby freeing the heat-sensitive brain of the temperature constraints that had kept its size in check.But brain expansion almost certainly could not have occurred until hominids adopted a diet sufficiently rich in calories and nutrients to meet the associated costs.

Across all primates, species with bigger brains dine on richer foods, and humans are the extreme example of this correlation, boasting the largest relative brain size and the choicest diet
contemporary hunter-gatherers derive, on average, 40 to 60 percent of their dietary energy from animal foods (meat, milk and other products). Modern chimps, in comparison, obtain only 5 to 7 percent of their calories from these comestibles. Animal foods are far denser in calories and nutrients than most plant foods. For example, 3.5 ounces of meat provides upward of 200 kilocalories. But the same amount of fruit provides only 50 to 100 kilocalories. And a comparable serving of foliage yields just 10 to 20 kilocalories

that the earliest H. erectus sites outside of Africa, which are in Indonesia and the Republic of Georgia, date to between 1.8 million and 1.7 million years ago. It seems that the first appearance of H. erectus and its initial spread from Africa were almost simultaneous.

The impetus behind this newfound wanderlust again appears to be food. What an animal eats dictates to a large extent how much territory it needs to survive. Carnivorous animals generally require far bigger home ranges than do herbivores of comparable size because they have fewer total calories available to them per unit area.

Innovations such as cooking, agriculture and even aspects of modern food technology can all be considered tactics for boosting the quality of the human diet. Cooking, for one, augmented the energy available in wild plant foods. With the advent of agriculture, humans began to manipulate marginal plant species to increase their productivity, digestibility and nutritional content-- essentially making plants more like animal foods

it is not just changes in diet that have created many of our pervasive health problems but the interaction of shifting diets and changing lifestyles. Too often modern health problems are portrayed as the result of eating "bad" foods that are departures from the natural human diet--an oversimplification embodied by the current debate over the relative merits of a high-protein, high-fat Atkins-type diet or a low-fat one that emphasizes complex carbohydrates. This is a fundamentally flawed approach to assessing human nutritional needs. Our species was not designed to subsist on a single, optimal diet. What is remarkable about human beings is the extraordinary variety of what we eat. We have been able to thrive in almost every ecosystem on the earth, consuming diets ranging from almost all animal foods among populations of the Arctic to primarily tubers and cereal grains among populations in the high Andes. Indeed, the hallmarks of human evolution have been the diversity of strategies that we have developed to create diets that meet our distinctive metabolic requirements and the ever increasing efficiency with which we extract energy and nutrients from the environment. The challenge our modern societies now face is balancing the calories we consume with the calories we burn.


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