Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"How to Live Wild in the Modern World"

Why Hunter-Gatherers?

How do you keep a wild animal healthy?

Say that you're a zoo-keeper in a zoo, and your job is to keep the animals happy and healthy -- what would you do?  Put them all in the same pen and feed them all dog chow?  No.  You would replicate each animal's natural habitat as closely as possible, and feed them the diet that they would naturally eat in the wild.  Feed raw meat to the lions, rodents to the snakes, and bamboo to the pandas.  Give the monkeys trees to climb and give the birds space to fly.  Make the penguin house cold, and the reptile house hot.  Animals thrive in their natural habitat.  They are healthier, often live longer, and fall sick less frequently. And the same general principle applies to human beings: to be happy and healthy, we should eat, move, and live in ways that resemble our ancestral habitat.

Re-creating the natural human habitat

But what is the natural human habitat?  For most of human history on this earth, humans lived as hunter-gatherers in the wild.  Wild humans, living in the wild.  And we were good at it.  We survived on flat grassy savannahs and on the sides of steep mountains, in parched deserts and in drenched rain forests, next to the sea and far inland, on the hot equator and in the eternal winter of the Arctic.

We accomplished all this without the help of domesticated plants and animals -- just using language, smarts, tools, and a little teamwork.  But ten thousand years ago, we started to tame the wilderness: the Agricultural Revolution.  The Agricultural Revolution ushered in a new set of foods into the human diet that previously had no place.  We domesticated wild grains, turning them into wheat, corn, and rice.  We domesticated wolves into loyal companions, and bred wild animals and raised them for their meat and milk.  And at the same time that human civilization began to flourish, individual human health began to worsen.

Hunter-gatherers were healthy

More and more evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers were tall, strong, and healthy.  And that shorter lifespans were due to violence, infection, and other causes of death that do not afflict modern people -- plenty of hunter-gatherers lived long lives free of "Diseases of Civilization", like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.  This blog will cover evidence (for and against) the idea that modern humans would be healthier if we ate the types of foods that existed in the wild before the advent of agriculture.

Health should be simple

Here is a simple way to understand how to be healthy.  This is the shortest history of humanity you'll ever read.  Three words: wild, domesticated, industrial.

Wild: Humans lived as hunter-gatherers in the wild (~1-2 million years, including recent ancestors)

Domesticated: Humans domesticated plants and animals during the Agricultural Revolution, and lived as farmers and herders (~10k years)

Industrial: Humans built the industrial food system and started eating processed foods (~100 years or fewer)

Nearly all conventional health authorities recommend that you move from anIndustrial Diet (processed foods, soda, Pop Tarts) to a traditional Farmer's Diet(whole grains, dairy, organic). It's a good first step. I'm simply recommending that we go one step further back in time, to a Hunter-Gatherer Diet.

                          About John Durant

For the first 23 years of my life, I never paid a single thought to what food I put in my mouth. Not one. I had always been athletic, never had been overweight, and my health always seemed normal. But a year into my first desk job out of college, it increasingly felt like my health was holding me back. I had trouble staying awake in meetings, particularly after lunch. My energy would spike and crash throughout the day, and with it my mood.  My complexion was spotty and I put on a (couple) dozen pounds.     
So I started to search for a solution.  Not just a diet -- no one needs another weight loss diet.  And not another nutrition study that requires you to memorize the names of twelve anti-oxidants and learn Latin.  My brother sent me an essay by Art De Vany, who argued that we should take an evolutionary perspective on human health.  Humans are not fully adapted to modern foods -- processed foods are too new on the scene, of course, but so are the grains and dairy that entered the human diet during the agricultural revolution.  Similarly, our activity patterns have lost their intensity and natural variability. 
Interesting theory.  But the real test of any theory is whether it works.  If it solves problems.  And it did for me. More even energy levels, improved mood, better complexion, and the extra weight just evaporated.
Taking an evolutionary or paleo approach to health doesn't mean we know all the answers about what is healthy and what is not.  That's not the point.  The point is that we're moving in the right direction.  People are solving their health problems. 
And we're just getting started.
I was born and raised in the great state of Michigan.  I studied history, economics, and evolutionary psychology at Harvard, graduating in 2005.  Spent a year and a half learning to play Excel like a piano at a consulting firm in New York City. In 2007, I jumped ship for a tech start-up doing online advertising.  After NYT and Colbert, I landed a book deal -- so now I'm a professional caveman, I guess.  (Almost as cool as being an astronaut.)  I live in the wilds of Manhattan.

Follow John on Twitter: @johndurant
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