Brent Lockridge, CNP
The Disease of Kings
It has long been understood that the human species largely evolved in a world where sustenance was not a given. For much of our 200,000-year history, our biggest advantage, our ability to think and communicate in detailed and abstract manners served us well, but by no means did it push us to the top of the food chain.
For a great deal of that time our hunter gatherer ancestors were as susceptible to starvation as they were to becoming the meal of another animal. During much of this time it was very common for humans to live in food scarcity, often living on the brink of starvation. But just 8500 years ago (a mere blip in evolutionary time) a revolution took place that vaulted our species from a global population of perhaps 10,000 individuals in 65,000 B.C., to 1.5 million in the time of Christ. That transformation was, of course, the agricultural revolution, and for the first time in our history the struggle to find food was greatly reduced.
Our new found ability to grow crops in larger quantities than that needed for any single individual, allowed our ancestors to abandon their nomadic ways, and led to more complex societies that allowed people to thrive while pursuing tasks other than hand to mouth living, such as craftmanship, trade, and increasingly sophisticated food processing. This advance was a pivotal moment in human history that set us on the path unlike that of any other species in history.
It was also around this time that we learned how to control and exploit other animals to appropriate their milk, flesh and eggs. This provided our ancestors with a consistent (though not abundant) supply of high protein, high animal fat foods that were much less available during the hunter gatherer times. These calorie rich foods were a boon for early agriculturists as they answered the quest for foods that provided dense energy, similar to the periodic animal catch of their hunter gatherer ancestors. While this development is an important moment in human evolutionary history, it did not come without it a deadly cost.
The largest killers of humans since the agricultural revolution have not been war, starvation, accidents, or large predators, as was the case in hunter gatherer days, rather it was microorganisms and viruses such as smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, cholera, and, as we are now experiencing, coronaviruses. These “micro predators” all have something in common: each evolved from a disease that originated in a domesticated animal, then adapted to, and infected human societies.[i]
The good news is that modern science has created interventions in the form of vaccines to eradicate, or greatly reduce many of these infectious diseases. But, as we are presently experiencing in the early days of COVID-19, this is not a guarantee for yet unforeseen microorganisms that our encroachment on other species may present in the future.
But while infectious diseases were a major problem for early individuals as a result of animal domestication, there was another unforeseen issue that would inflict even greater suffering for a species that evolved to survive in scarcity.
As early societies evolved around the agricultural revolution, there was a stratification of society that led to some individuals living more comfortably than others. These self-proclaimed “chosen” individuals were able to indulge in the finer things, including for the first time in history an abundance of calorically rich foods. Now, for a species that had genetically evolved to survive in times of scarcity, a species that, in the past, constantly searched for the most calorically dense foods they could find because they never knew when their next meal would come, their world was about to change. The new problem for the chosen few was not starvation, but rather “getting too much.”
Periodic feasting was not an issue for active individuals such as farmers and trades people, these people were able to manage the odd indulgence, as their roaming ancestors did when they discovered a bounty of food. But for the new societal elites it was an overindulgence of rich, calorically dense foods such as meat, dairy products and sweetened processed foods, on a regular basis, that introduced a new set of deadly diseases, the Diseases of Kings. For the first time in history we had individuals dying of heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, arthritis, gout and cancer. These elites served as harbingers for our modern world.
The Diseases of Kings ushered in a new period in human history. Until this time, we were a species akin to many that struggled to survive. The Agricultural Revolution turned everything on its head for humans and allowed a population explosion never witnessed before.
But something has happened on this path in the last 200 years that has affected the majority of people in the developed world. The availability of inexpensive rich foods is now on offer to most people in modern society, and this has created a proliferation of the “Diseases of Kings,” that was reserved for only the privileged in the past. In present day any individual with $7 can purchase 1200 - 2000 calories of poor-quality nutrition on many street corners in major cities. These are the same calorically dense foods that were rare to our ancestors but are ubiquitous in modern times.
These foods confuse our bodies. Our bodies that have evolved to survive, and even thrive, on much less calorically dense foods. Take for example our ability to store fat as a reserve energy source. This genetic trait does not serve us well in our current food environment. When we eat large amounts of food our body stores some in reserve as fat, this is a survival trait that served us well for the majority of our existence but undermines our health and well-being today.
Do we have to return to our nomadic ways to regain our health? Do we have to subsist the fringe of starvation to survive? Of course not!
The Diseases of Kings are self-inflicted maladies. But the blame for these disorders should not be put solely on the individuals that suffer. Rather it should be, in large part, laid at the feet of two major industry groups. The first group is “Big Food,” the animal agriculture, dairy, and processed food industries. These industries are masters of disseminating misinformation through advertising (milk does not do the body good!), and their big money lobby groups persuade governments to unjustly place their products in such things as dietary food guidelines and school food programs, that promote these foods as something they are not, namely health promoting.
The second group is the health care industry. This industry, including medical doctors, not for profit associations (Canadian Diabetes Association, Heart & Stroke, etc.), and the Dieticians of Canada, continue to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence that has shown that diet and lifestyle are the major drivers of health, and the key to disease prevention. Doctors rarely discuss or recommend nutrition improvements to their patients. Not for profits continue to promote foods in their diet plans that are known to promote disease, and the Dieticians of Canada continue to promote dairy products as essential to good health when we know this is not true. (75% of the global population does not consume dairy, and many people of African and Asian heritage cannot tolerate dairy products).
“People are fed by the food industry that pays no attention to health,
and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”
The good news is that the food our bodies were designed to eat, the same foods that deliver all the nutrients we need to thrive, are available to almost everyone in the developed world, and in many parts of the developing world as well. These foods are all available in a whole food plant-based diet. A diet that consists of fruit, vegetables, high quality whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and mushrooms. These nutrient rich, calorically appropriate foods provide us with all the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and energy we need to live a healthy life.
As a species we have strayed from the diet that aided our proliferation. There is no magic food, pill, procedure or hack that will bring health and vitality going forward. Our ancestors had the answer, their message just got lost in the noise.
Eat like a peasant, live like a king!
[i] The Pleasure Trap, Goldhamer, A., Lisle, D. p. 46