Friday, January 12, 2007

How does that work?

I watched the telly last night, in itself a strange enough occurrence. Mostly there's nothing on, and I was reminded why it is I tend not to bother. But there was one program, on BBC2, all about food and how our diet affects us which was marginally interesting once you got past all the 'reality show' nonsense.

The core of the program involved a group of volunteers who were put in a zoo and fed a diet similar to that which the experts hired by the production team thought our early ancestors would eat. The idea was that we evolved for that diet - mostly raw vegetables and leaves - and that all our current unhealthiness was down to food production techniques galloping ahead of any evolution in the last several thousand years.

The gallant volunteers munched their way through five kilos of raw fruit and vegetables a day for a couple of weeks, with the obvious effects on their bowel movements, and expected reduction in cholesterol. Most impressive was the borderline diabetic salt-junky who, reduced to no more salt than was in one brine-soaked olive a day, managed to pull himself back from the brink, so to speak.

Woven into the program in a manner no doubt intended to keep easily-distracted couch-potatoes from getting bored, were a number of shorter items about food. In one, a jolly white-coated scientist collected faecal samples from two groups of young men and women working on a ranch somewhere in mid-west America. Half of them were fed a probiotic mix of leaves, onions, garlic and other good stuff, the other half one of these active yoghurt things with the 'friendly' bacteria in them. The results (which would have appalled anyone who understands the first thing about the scientific process) suggested that a leafy diet was the best way to improve gut flora.

Viewers were also introduced to two international truck drivers and their bowel movements. Or lack thereof. Increasing their fibre intake had the expected result of making them crap more, but as one of the truckers said, this was not the wonderful life-enhancing change it should have been, as he could no longer sit in the cab for seven hour stretches, needing instead to stop every couple of hours to let it all flood out.

My particular favourite was the item about erectile dysfunction and how it can be combated by eating four cloves of uncooked garlic a day. They persuaded seven men to try this, and six reported welcome stirrings in the loins after a week of garlic munching. On the down side, I can't think anyone would have wanted to get all that close to them by then.

So all in all, a mildly diverting program dressing up common sense as science in an attempt to get us to eat more healthily. Nothing wrong with that: the more varied ways that can be found to make people think about all the shit they put in their mouths the better, as far as I'm concerned. But I was struck, in the shower this morning, by an odd thought.

The central tenet of all the best dietary advice today is that our problems stem from eating differently to the way we evolved up to about fifty thousand years ago. The development of tool use and agriculture has meant that we no longer have to spend all our time scavenging and hunting, and the increased amount of protein and energy available from a plentiful food source has allowed us to develop bigger brains, etc. etc. The downside of this is an inbuilt desire for sweet, salty and fatty foods - in short supply back then, but easy to get a hold of now. We overindulge and underexercise, leading to furry arteries, big bums and xxxxl size clothing.

But hang on a minute. Way back when we were just beginning to think swinging from the trees wasn't cool anymore, life expectancy was about half what it is today. Living to a ripe old age is a relatively new phenomenon, and most prevalent in the developed countries where all the shite food habits are strongest. Sure, ending up looking like the Michelin Man is not going to be good for your longevity, but the vast improvements in modern life come from medicine and social care. OK, so we could probably live even longer if we all ate only raw vegetables, and the cost of that medicine and social care would be deferred a bit, but I can't help thinking that the diet gurus are laying it on a bit thick when they suggest we should eat like cavemen.

It's true that there is an obesity epidemic and something needs to be done about it, so my above complaint is somewhat tongue in cheek. The cost to any nation that provides healthcare of looking after people so fat they can't walk is a burden we taxpayers could do without. But if everyone is thin, they'll still need the treatment for cancer, osteoporosis, neurodegenerative diseases or whatever in later life. The fatties are really doing us all a favour by dying off young.

And if we should ever run out of food, there's always Soylent Green.

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