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Evolutionary Nutrition

Dietary Quality & Generational Health

By David Marsh

The Fruits of Considering Nutrition with Evolution

Only when we understand the conditions under which our forebears evolved will we be able to understand how to avoid the 'diseases of civilisation' and to ensure that the brain, the organ that enabled us to rise to dominance over the rest of creation, continues to evolve positively, hopefully in sensitivity as well as capability.

Since the late 19th century when Darwinism became common currency (which period coincided with the early use of artificial fertilizers) an ever-widening gulf has appeared in the understanding that health is related to dietary quality (Marsh, Oct 2001). 

Darwin stated there were 'two great engines' driving the evolutionary process, his & Alfred Russell Wallace's (with some 15 other thinkers of the day) concept of 'natural selection' and what he termed 'the conditions of life', meaning the environment (which term was not coined until 1913). Although he spent his life trying to work out the precise mechanism that connected the two forces, he never succeeded. Indeed the conundrum has only recently begun to be understood, thanks to the completion of the human genome map & work done since.

Post Darwin, Professor August Wiesmann from Frieburg University, creator of neoDarwinism convincingly argued there was nothing in the physical environment which could affect the germ plasm of the reproductive mechanism: genes were then yet to be discovered.

Natural selection was thereafter seen as a force sufficient unto itself: environmental factors lost serious consideration as a direct collaborator in evolution apart from providing the gene pool from which natural selection fed. This is the origin of the gaping void of ignorance responsible for today's misapprehension - that nutritional quality has anything whatsoever to do with the health of living cells, plants, animals and people.

Generations have now grown up who have had a singular lack of education in nutrition, which used to be contained in the school curriculum under domestic science or home economics. We currently therefore have powerful business-people, bankers and politicians who have risen to positions of power devoid of this vital knowledge. Such people are amongst those (i) who legislate for us masses, and those (ii) who spend large sums of money attempting - often successfully - to influence the former.

On the other hand, there is agreement amongst a growing number of front-line researchers that whilst quantities of food consumed are, for the fortunate minority living in the developed world, adequate - even superfluous, the nutritional quality of many foodstuffs has diminished over the last century (Broadhurst et al, 2002). Worldwide the nutritional qualities of many staple foods produced for mass markets have been far from ideal for the requirements of the human body from pre-conception throughout life, leading to the 'degenerative diseases' once named, now somewhat misleadingly termed 'non-communicable diseases' meaning not contagious. It's misleading because many are indeed communicated, albeit slowly, through the generations: this being a root cause of 'familial disease' (House, S. H. 2000).

Widespread national deficiencies of minerals within staple foods reflect the continued downward trend of the fertility - particularly mineral content, worm populations and microfauna - of soils and therefore staple foods through the last century and a half. This is a result of ever-increasing use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and the abandonment of crop rotation and composting (in whatever form), which practices returned to the land some of those minerals and other soil matter removed by previous cropping: whilst simultaneously nurturing the microorganisms.

David Thomas has painstakingly charted such losses in a number of common staple foods consumed by the majority of our populations today, indicating widespread shortages of important minerals and trace elements (Thomas, D; 2003).

Current research tells us that terrestrial mammals were originally small, gradually evolving larger and larger bodies. As this happened, the rapid increase of body growth seemingly outstripped the rate of synthesis of the long chain essential fatty acids (efa's) from the efa parents. Thus in all land mammals apart from the small mammals and man, there ensued a universal contraction of brain size (relative and actual) in the process. The only other class of animals not suffering similar relative brain diminution, was the cetaceans (aquatic mammals), pointing to the aquatic foodchain providing densities of brain-specific nutrients that the land food chain did not.

Proponents of 'evolution at the waters-edge' (littoral evolution) suggest we look back and see how life evolved. We can see how the blue-green algae (bga's) were the dominant species for some 2.5 billion years. This statistic gains perspective on reflection that all ensuing animal evolution happened in 600 million years. The oceans teemed with the ultra-successful bga's, which created food from sunlight, collected minerals from the water and produced oxygen as a waste product. The oceans were awash with algae which were rich in the two parent essential fatty acids linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), as well as the longer chain GLA & EPA, and the long chain DHA. The bga's also contained broad spectra of essential amino-acids and vitamins, as well as minerals and efa's. They became the foundations of the food-chain for ensuing life-forms which have ever-since had a high requirement for similar high quality nutrition.

Research tells us more: that various components of the brain, such as the photoreceptors in the eye, and the synaptic junctions in the brain, indeed the brain itself, evolved in the sea 600 - 500 million years ago. The biochemical precursor used for the above was - and has been ever since - a highly specific molecule unique in biochemistry, namely DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which as we have seen, was (and still is) plentifully available in rivers, lakes and seas (Crawford et al; 2001).

The impressive track record of DHA over hundreds of millions of years is accounted for not only by virtue of its necessity for building eyes and brains, but by dictating gene expression for the growth and development of these organs: an example of environmental conditions interacting with DNA. Without plentiful DHA, genes for neural growth slow down, the brain contracts, thus preserving body-cell membrane integrity.

For example, it's now known that DHA directs certain controller genes, affecting the expression of specific groups of genes: so whilst the physical structure of the genome (genotype) remains unchanged, the behaviour of these genes is modified. Research since completion of the human genome map suggests that 104 cranial genes are affected in this way (Chakravati & Little, 2003; Crawford & Marsh, 1989, 1995. Kitajka K et al 2002. Cairns J et al, 1988; The Origin of Mutants, Nature 3235).

Until demographic explosion took place, early 'homo, even with access to little water, could have obtained enough DHA from the ultimately limited terrestrial sources of brain nutrients (animals', birds' and even humans' brains - eggs, insects, grubs, algae, etc). But as early populations multiplied, emigration to sites nearer water would have followed, as suggested by mounting paleontological evidence (Chris Stringer, C., 2000).

So with the current knowledge that the human system can only elongate the parent fatty acid ALA very slowly into its longer chain counterpart DHA (for whatever reason), the uniquely plentiful traditional source of DHA in aquatic foods seems essential. It's a sad reflection that most fish caught today gets fed to farmed animals or fish: wasting the precious DHA & slaughtering innumerable cetaceans in the process, and many human populations suffer sub-optimal levels of DHA, whilst turning up their noses at the thought of using BG algae in their kitchens. Sad, when such BG 'staple foods' as spirulina and chlorella go superbly in soups, juices, smoothies, casseroles, pasta dishes and bread.

Future research should indeed clarify the chemical requirements of the enzymic reactions. Many enzymes need specific minerals and vitamins to work: as such mineral and vitamin deficiencies are known to be widespread, consumption of mineral rich aquatic foods should be encouraged. The nutrition of shore or near-shore dwelling communities provides countless examples of community health. A specific example being iodine deficiency which affects some 1.6 billion people worldwide, a quarter of the planet's population. None of these happen to be shore, near-shore or island dwellers. Those affected are mainly inland or upland dwellers: tragically, the same people are at high risk of vitamin A deficiency.

In Java 60% of the school children have palpable goitre. There are 1.5 million severely mentally retarded children and 800,000 sufferers of iodine deficiency disease (cretinism) in Indonesia. There are none in the fishing villages. The same story is true in India (which has seventy percent of the world's blindness) and many other parts of the world.

Some high mountain dwellers demonstrate examples of supreme longevity, and have surprisingly high mineral content foods - from the mineral content of their water supply (some are so 'milky' they are referred to a 'glacial milk'). It is alleged that some of the longest-lived folk are high altitude dwellers, but these could be the exception rather than the rule.

Finally the brain/body ratio of small mammals such as squirrels and tree shrews could be reappraised. They have equivalent brain/bodyweight ratio's as homo sapiens, demonstrating their ability to synthesise the parent fatty acids to the long chain derivatives (has anyone researched the mineral & efa content of squirrels diets?)

The questions posed by critics, and those in the vegan, vegetarian and macrobiotic movements, is whether h. Sapiens could synthesise the long chain efa's by equivalent changes in gene expression as witnessed in small mammals, given a plentiful supply of parent fatty acids such as would be present in the diet of small mammals, i.e. seeds, nuts, roots, shoots, fruits, leaves, algae and so on, together with a rich supply of minerals and micro-nutrients.

However, in the absence of this knowledge it can be seen that it is desirable to eat aquatic foods today if possible, helping thereby to ensure an optimum supply of minerals, the parent efa's, namely linoleic and alpha-linolenic fatty acids, and, in certain blue-green algae, some of the other long chain efa's including EPA & DHA.

Plant sources of efa's in their optimal form, as found in the microscopic green leaves of certain 'blue-green algae' such as spirulina and chlorella could be more widely used, as they are in Japan (where the largest selling nutritional supplement is the DNA/RNA extract from chlorella). DHA is now being produced commercially from algae.

The ideal ratio of the omega 6 and omega 3 efa's should be 3:1, as is found in hemp seed & oil, which is an excellent provider of both parent efa's together with GLA. It is being successfully employed in the treatment of a number of diseases today, particularly skin problems (Calloway, J. 2001)

In a world suffering overpopulation and food shortages, it would make sense to make greater use of those widely available foods used by living creatures throughout evolution, namely blue-green algae and other aquatic foods, andthe diet of the ultra-successful small mammals.

It is interesting to remember that the current lake Chad (at least as far from the sea as mountain dwellers) on whose earlier shores Sahelanthropus tchadensis' remains from an estimated 6-7 million years ago, who lived between the vast lake Chad on one side with gallery forest on the other (Kuliukas, A; 2002) were recently discovered, is the provider of the spirulina on which the local people, the Kanembou, today depend for up to 40% of their dietary energy (Dubacq J-P, 1993; Hudson, 1974)

Nor indeed should we forget the work of the great pioneer of nutrition the late Sir Robert McCarrison's advice on the 'unsophisticated foods of nature', ideally grown organically; whilst attempting to avoid the white flours, fats, salt & sugar, and the alcohol so readily advertised and widely available in our current 'conditions of existence' (Origin of Species, Darwin, C. 1859).

Investigation should be continued into the recent widely reported research of the food industries' representatives who have allegedly over decades infiltrated the committees of the great and good (Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, World Health Organisation) who set nutritional targets on a global basis (Heirschhorn, N., 2003). One result being the ever-increasing consumption of sugar, in direct disregard of the work of McCarrison & T. L. Cleave whose work (and names) are now rarely known in contemporary society (McCarrison Society for Nutrition & Health).

Today, much is made of the term 'environment'. To avoid current pitfalls and errors we should include the teaching of basic nutrition to our children. For whether they are aware of it or not, food choice over their lifetime will be creating their own inner environment, which will affect their future health, well being, behaviour and understanding, and most significantly, that of their children and children's children (House, 2000; Gesch, 2000; Hibbeln, 2001).

At the moment, owing to lack of nutrition education in school curricula, children are simply not equipped to make informed decisions about food and lifestyle. Nutrition and Health education needs to start at preschool and go up to 'A' level. If Sesame Street programmes can teach the importance of feeding the mother to feed the baby inside her, and while suckling, then it could start at preschool age. Only in this way will young people be prepared for their first pregnancies and nutrition in adult life.

As we are considering the bedrock of future generations, this subject can indeed be seen as important as learning to read and write.

David Marsh (www.davidmarsh.org.uk)


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A more technical version of this article was published Oct 2003 Nutrition & Health, Vol 17, issue 2, pp. 157-162, 0260-1060/03 Letter: Nutrition & Health Editor, Dr Edward Kirby. 

David Marsh, 22 July 2004