What make a diet "natural?"

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2008

What do you think is natural food for humans? Should we be meat-eaters or vegetarians or both? Is cooking natural? Is raw food better?

The Agricultural Revolution began about 12,000 years ago. Instead of day-to-day food gathering — hunting, searching for edible plants or stumbling across some other animal's kill — humans finally had a relatively constant supply of grains, milk products and fresh meat. No longer was every person responsible for his or her own family's food. Instead of following their food supply across the seasons, small bands of new farmers formed permanent villages. It was the first step toward civilization.

The human race paid a great price for becoming civilized. For three million years they had been evolving to match their environment. For the first couple of million years — thousands of generations — change was unimaginably slow. During this period various human species evolved and those who adapted well to the environment were able to survive. Not all did.

Stone Agers rarely starved. During the most severe winter or driest summer they could always find some species of plant or animal that had evolved to survive, even thrive. Hunger? Yes. Famine? Rare. When they started to domesticate grains they ran into a serious problem: lack of diversity. Humans evolved among hundreds of edible plant species. Something had to give when they switched to a handful, mostly grains.

Cereal grains and dairy products appear to be natural foods for us because of our ten-thousand-year association and because they do provide us with most of what we need to survive. That they are not optimal is evident from the fossil record, which reveals that every society that made the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer paid the price in high infant mortality, shortened life span, widespread anemia and high rates of infectious disease and parasite infestation. Modern plumbing and advances in medicine have eliminated almost all of these hazards but technology has brought us some new ones: refined flour and processed oils.

Finely milled flour and vegetable oils are so new to the human race that our body chemistry has not evolved to handle them. They are natural products but not necessarily natural foods for us. They present us with lots of calories in a small volume so that we tend to take in energy that we don't burn off with our sedentary lifestyle. Oils that come from grains and legumes (corn, soy, safflower, sunflower) contain relatively high levels of omega-6 fatty acids that promote inflammation and contribute to diseases such as lupus, ulcerative colitis, heart disease and cancer.

Is cooking natural? It's as natural as fire itself and we have lived with it for hundreds of thousands of years. Cooking not only makes some foods such as grains digestible at all, it actually releases more nutrients from many foods. The fact that it inactivates plant enzymes doesn't matter. The human intestinal tract doesn't depend on plant enzymes anyway. It just digests them like any other protein.

Natural food is that to which our bodies became adapted in the course of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Cheeseburgers, fries, donuts and milk shakes don't qualify. Want proof? Look around.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.