Before I start this blog post, I want to state up front that I am not a dietician, a nutritionist, or a doctor. I do not purport that one way of eating is the only way or the best way. I encourage people to continue to seek the right balanced diet that suits their individual needs and seek the advice of experts as needed.
A lot of runners and fitness nuts that I know are quasi-obsessed with protein, or macronutrients in general. I am most fascinated by protein. In an article published earlier this year in Competitor, the author discusses the role of protein intake during and immediately after running to help muscle damage repair. I usually consume a protein bar when I am doing my very long training runs, and also have some more with an electrolyte drink when I am luxuriating in the bath afterwards (OK, champagne and caviar it is not, but hey – very necessary!).
I have been quite fortunate to have an eminent world expert in anthropological nutrition as one of my guest lecturers this year during my Masters program. Professor Neil Mann from RMIT University in Melbourne has published innumerable journal articles and books on the evolution of the human diet from an anthropological perspective. During the seminar that Professor Mann conducted we were reminded of the role of macronutrients in the evolution of the human species. I would like to share a couple of fascinating take home messages that struck a chord with me.
- There was no hunter-gatherer society that was vegetarian. Animal protein was consumed by each and every one of them. The proportions did vary though. The primary living environment of the hunter-gatherer society played a role in determining the degree of dependence on different food types due to availability. Societies that lived in environments dominated by desert grasses and shrubs had the lowest dependence on hunted and fished animal foods: 45-54% (ie 55-45% of the diet came from gathered plant foods), with societies who lived in environments dominated by northern tundra regions being 85-94% dependent on hunted or fished animal foods (Cordain L, et al 2000).
That was a bit of a shock to me to learn. But it makes sense in some ways. Not a lot of green stuff on the northern tundra! Seal blubber, fish and bear though. Yet I was curious as to the very high proportion of animal food to plant food ratio in localities where greens and awesome fruits abound. The answer lies in the human species tendency for ‘optimal foraging’. “The major survival determinant for hunter-gatherers was daily energy procurement (less energy expenditure)” (Mann, N, 2000. P.73). Putting it simply, we are hard wired to take the easiest options to obtain our nutrient needs. Whether that is laziness or efficiency depends on the perspective, I guess! Our ancestors were able to obtain more of their macronutrient needs in animal foods rather than plant foods due to the lower energy output required to procure it by killing one large animal than gathering a swag of plants.
- Our brain is 4 times larger than it should be for our body’s size, and that has come about due to the balance of macronutrients our caveman ancestors consumed. Fats and carbs. Sadly (or happily) we are hard wired as a species to crave fats and carbs. The key is to eat the right ones : )
- We were primarily scavengers first. When we first made our way out of the trees and learned to engage with the land we consumed what we found on the ground. In particular, the ‘left overs’ from other species’ kills. That is – we were a bit akin to hyenas. We did not become the great hunter-gatherer societies until we were on the land and we faced different challenges to obtain our nutrient needs.
Many anthropologists propose that it was our role as predator that drove our role as hunter at the top of the food chain. However I read an interesting article today that suggested that it is more likely our role in the food chain as prey that aided in the advances in technology that assisted our survival. This makes sense to me, as we were safely in the trees first, then once we made our way onto the land, we would have faced some pretty fierce species who were well accustomed to being the dominant players. So I guess one of the take homes for me is that we are often driven to significant change by the immense challenges that we face.
Anyway, I ramble a bit. Back to protein: my body craves protein in various forms pretty regularly. I assume it is because of the demands I place on my body due to all of the training. The key thing is to listen to what my body is asking for and think about how I can meet those needs.