Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lucy was a vegetarian and sapiens an omnivore: Plant foods as natural supplements

Early hominid ancestors like the Australopithecines (e.g., Lucy) were likely strict vegetarians. Meat consumption seems to have occurred at least occasionally among Homo habilis, with more widespread consumption among Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens (i.e., us).

The figure below (from: becominghuman.org; click on it to enlarge) shows a depiction of the human lineage, according to a widely accepted theory developed by Ian Tattersall. As you can see, Neanderthals are on a different branch, and are not believed to have been part of the human lineage.

Does the clear move toward increased meat consumption mean that a meat-only diet is optimal for you?

The answer is “perhaps”; especially if your ancestors were Inuit and you retained their genetic adaptations.

Food specialization tends to increase the chances of extinction of a species, because changes in the environment may lead to the elimination of a single food source, or a limited set of food sources. On a scale from highly specialized to omnivorous, evolution should generally favor adaptations toward the omnivorous end of the scale.

Meat, which naturally comes together with fat, has the advantage of being an energy-dense food. Given this advantage, it is possible that the human species evolved to be exclusively meat eaters, with consumption of plant foods being mostly optional. But this goes somewhat against what we know about evolution.

Consumption of plant matter AND meat – that is, being an omnivore – leads to certain digestive tract adaptations, which would not be present if they were not absolutely necessary. Those adaptations are too costly to be retained without a good reason.

The digestive tract of pure carnivores is usually shorter than that of omnivores. Growing a longer digestive tract and keeping it healthy during a lifetime is a costly proposition.

Let us assume that an ancient human group migrated to a geographical area that forced them to adhere to a particular type of diet, like the ancient Inuit. They would probably have evolved adaptations to that diet. This evolution would not have taken millions of years to occur; it might have taken place in as little as 396 years, if not less.

In spite of divergent adaptations that might have occurred relatively recently (i.e., in the last 100,000 years, after the emergence of our species), among the Inuit for instance, we likely have also species-wide adaptations that make an omnivorous diet generally optimal for most of us.

Meat appears to have many health-promoting and a few unhealthy properties. Plant foods have many health-promoting properties, and thus may act like “natural supplements” to a largely meat-based diet. As Biesalski (2002) put it as part of a discussion of meat and cancer:

“… meat consists of a few, not clearly defined cancer-promoting and a lot of cancer-protecting factors. The latter can be optimized by a diet containing fruit and vegetables, which contain hundreds of more or less proven bioactive constituents, many of them showing antioxidative and anticarcinogenic effects in vitro.”


Biesalski, H.K. (2002). Meat and cancer: Meat as a component of a healthy diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 56(1), S2-S11.