Food, Digestion and the Primeval Landscape

The quest for alternative explanation, untainted by overweening ideology, led me to thinking about nutrition and how our progress on from knuckle dragging has presented us with another example of the modern dilemma – is there such a thing as healthy food, or are we what we eat?

 Being omnivorous was a survival strategy for our early ancestors, allowing them to exploit food from every ecological niche – a bit like being able to pick anything off the menu. Food just existed rather than we toil in its production. Its availability was a bit haphazard, subject to seasonal change or elusive through its flight, and there was an element of discovery involved: if it did not immediately kill us or make us sick, we persevered in its consumption. It would been have been fascinating to observe at what point we made the connection between eating certain “foods” and actually gaining sustenance from them (much like recognising at some point the connection between having intercourse and making babies). A lot of what we probably ate just went straight through us without making a contribution (fruitarians take note). But at least we could laugh at the carnivores as their eating habits restricted their potential for population growth (think about the dynamics) and we didn’t have the enforced annual migration of many of the herbivores and ruminants.

 We did learn some lessons from the grass eaters. Their diet of plant cellulose, indigestible to us, was attached to something more important –seeds packed with good people food. And so we took the grasses and we learnt how to grow them and we gradually selected the offspring that made bigger and better seeds (grains). Thus nutrition was born (and farming) over 5000 years before food stylists, eco-health consultants and Big Macs came on to the scene. Carrying seeds gave us mobile food, not only in the sense that it was a storable ration, but that we could plant it wherever we went. Try carrying a few sheep around to test the relevance of this theory – and would you carry live or dead sheep?

 The seed thing had other consequences. The spread of its use out of its original area (now called Iran) led to wholesale destruction of natural woodland to clear space for its cultivation. This clear space allowed other grasses to grow and it probably didn’t take the fusion of too many primitive brains for it to be realised that this was what the ruminants used for grub, and that we could now take the uncertainty out of eating meat. Thus it was eventually worth some biped lugging a few sheep over the English Channel, along with a few cattle, setting us up later on for scares over spongiform encephalopathies. Must have been really boring waiting the next few thousand years before Sir Walter Raleigh brought in the last ingredient, the potato, that would make the fast food franchise possible (although it was 500 years on before it would happen – were we Wimp(ey)s?).

 Fast food is just another way of saying food with no waste. Fast food has high people nutrition content – such as protein, carbohydrate and fats - and is digestible and absorbable to leave little that has to be voided. If some people weren’t such oral sensualists, we could go the whole mile (not hog!) and opt for a food pill and get on with more important things like not making babies. (Movie buffs will recognise one drawback with food pills – Soylent Green described a future world where potential waste of nutritional value was avoided by recycling people into food pills). But there are those that take a lot of their food in this functional way, the processing of food rendering up protein, carbohydrate and fat in an economically viable form, free from wastage. Oral food sensualists aghast!

 And then we seem to turn full circle and the recommendation is to stuff down our throats a lot of plant material that is useless from a food perspective, but creates a lot more waste to be voided. (The Five a Day campaign could be a self-interested conspiracy of the middle classes to increase their time in a confined space catching up on their reading or philosophical thought.) However, there are some benefits of this flood of roughage: the increased gut motility, the satiety response and possible flushing effects from increased throughflow. The problem is that the inevitable conclusion would be that good nutrition can not be gauged necessarily by what goes in. It will have to judged by the amount that then comes out. Anyone for bulk transit tomography then?

Mark Fisher, 24 October 2001