Wednesday, January 6, 2016

100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today

Title:  100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today
Author:  Stephen Le
Publication Information:  Picador. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250050413 / 978-1250050410

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Around the world, people are increasing beset with vexing conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes, gout, hypertension, breast cancer, food allergies, acne, and myopia."

Favorite Quote:  "The robustness of meat-eaters and the long lives of meat-abstainers are two sides of the same biological coin. It all depends on how you define healthy. Does healthy mean being in a great mood and being fertile and stronger at a younger age, or does healthy mean dealing cancer for a couple of years and hanging out with your greatgrandchildren? This is a question that each of us - and especially parents-needs to carefully consider."

Part history, part memoir, part fun facts, part guidance on how to eat. This book covers a lot of bases.
The  premise of the book is as follows:  "Without understanding the evolutionary history behind humans, trying to determine the optimal diet is like trying to decipher a difficult text by only reading one page; only evolutionary theory provides the means to understand how all the components of an organism's life are linked together, including nutrition and health."

The book gives a broad tour of world cuisines and foods consumed around the world. For each food, the book talks about how it was or was not part of our ancestor's diets, how it is or is not part of our modern diet, its health pros and cons, and the role the food can play in our diet. Portions of this book read like a travel food memoir, tempering the facts with personal stories.

For example, the first chapter begins with insects. The book's argument is as follows. Insects were and are part of many societies' diets. They are a nutritious and eco-friendly food. The book backs up this statement with facts about the nutritional profile of insects and about the environmental efficiency of farming insects as compared to traditional sources of protein.

In talking about insects, the book begins in Saigon with an invitation to eat insects. It proceeds to a description of that experience and of people's willingness or unwillingness to try the food. The story then moves to trying different types of insects and to visiting a cricket farm. These personal stories lighten the book and interject breaks amidst the science of the book.

Of course, the book moves much beyond insects, taking on food after food - fruits, meat, fish, dairy, etc. The concept for each remains the same - a presentation of a premise, a anthropological look at the food's consumption, a recommendation and the science to back it up, and personal stories to tie the whole thing together.

In this survey look at foods, the book also takes on some diets popular at this time. In particular, the book makes a statement against the Paleo diet. Like this book, the literature supporting the Paleo diet claims to return to the way our ancestors ate. So, what's the difference? "The Paleo diet looks and sounds evolutionary, but some paleoanthropologist dismiss it as overly simplistic, a caricature of actual evidence - like dividing the world into good guys and bad guys." This sentiment repeats several times during the book along with the solid advice that "fad diets don't work."

This book is a surprisingly quick read. About 30% of the book (per my ebook pagination) is the end notes so it is shorter read than the page count implies. I learned much from the science and may incorporate some ideas - no insects though - into my family's diet. I really enjoyed Stephen Le's personal stories and hope to read more of a travel memoir.  As a diet prescription, the book does not offer anything new. This is fine though because ultimately "the final message:  Eat good food, keep moving, and let your body take care of the rest."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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