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book review

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Twenty years ago, after suffering from an assortment of uncomfortable physical symptoms, I found out that I was sensitive to eating gluten. Ever since then, my relationship to the foods I eat (and those I actively avoid) has changed. I became interested in learning more about how food affected my body, for better or worse, and in the early days of my food re-education, I would visit the health and food sections of the bookstore and browse shelves bloated with information on dozens of dietary plans. In the time since, health-related advice has continued to grow, and each diet – from Paleo to low-fat, vegetarian to gluten-free, hormone-related to superfood-focused – has its proponents.

And now we have Stephen Le's 100 Million Years of Food. A biological anthropologist, Le approaches the question of eating from a much different perspective than many food writers today. If it's commonly believed that humans have been on Earth for approximately 200,000 years, it wouldn't be an understatement to say that Le is taking the long view on how people have fed themselves over the duration. "If you and I had been born 100 million years ago," he writes in the first chapter, "we would have leapt from tree to tree limb in the depths of a humid tropical forest, scouring the leafy shadows for our favourite foods: skittery bugs that yielded a satisfying squirt of fat and peanutty protein when eaten." Le starts his expansive narrative about the history of eating with insects – the delicacy of our primate ancestors – and moves to other foods that human beings, and those we've evolved from, have feasted on over millennia: fruits, meats, fish and beverages such as milk and alcohol.

One particularly fascinating chapter describes how vegetables and other plants historically made their way into the human diet – called "The Empire of Starches" – overturns what's usually a given in the West: Vegetables are the healthiest fare. Le asks the question: "Why did humans give up hunting and gathering for sedentary agricultural life?" Archaeologists don't agree on the answer, says Le, so we don't really know why – it could have been dwindling food supplies combined with population growth, climate change, or the extinction of "big fatty prey." Lean diets didn't work for our hunter-gatherer ancestors because the fat on the meat was just as essential as the meat itself. Vegetables and grains, though – even though it was food that couldn't move and therefore was easier to obtain – weren't preferred by traditional societies because many plants were in fact dangerous, their natural defence mechanisms possibly harmful to humans. Over time, our ancestors figured out which vegetables were safe for human consumption. However, it's often through the same processing and cooking that's necessary for safety that leads to "the sugar-like" quality of some vegetables, which increases "our risk of acquiring common diseases like Type 2 diabetes and gout," making the value of eating plants ambiguous. In fact, as Le points out, our teeth and digestive systems aren't set up for eating loads of "unprocessed plant foods."

Peppered throughout, Le outlines what most readers probably know but don't entirely understand the significance of: That, due to technological advances, people living in the past 1,000 years encounter food that is vastly different than anything our ancestors would recognize, and this is even more pronounced in the genetically modified seed revolution of more recent times. The widely unknown effects of the rapid and extreme changes in food production during industrialization and other breakthroughs – understood in contrast to the lengthiness of our evolution alongside food – could be Le's most relevant argument. Considering that current human existence is just a blip on our evolutionary radar screen, we don't quite yet know how what we're eating now will eventually affect our bodies. Because of this, there's definitely a tenor of worry underscoring parts of this book.

Le makes some health and dietary suggestions, and most of them are common sense. (For example, walk a lot.) At the same time, he squashes some commonly held beliefs in the process, noting that intermittent vigorous exercise (with a lot of sitting in between) hasn't been proven – through science or history – to actually improve health. Avoiding fad diets, enjoying alcohol moderately and considering the "overall composition of the meal" rather than individual ingredients are good rules to live by, according to Le. There are really provocative points here, too, such as when he points out "the health benefits of alcohol for mitigating heart disease and mortality in general are stronger than any known benefit from any other food item, including vegetables, fruit and fish." There are other examples in 100 Million Years of Food that perform similar manoeuvres: I'd go as far as saying that Le's argument – taken as a whole and based on the myriad studies he cites – could constitute a paradigm shift regarding how we view food.

"Focusing on nutrients is often a fool's errand," Le writes, and "we should eat traditional cuisines, the older the better [for example, from five hundred years ago]." This kind of view, given our current cultural obsession with particular diets, leaves me hungry for more of his work.

Dilia Narduzzi is a Hamilton-based writer. Her work has appeared in Canadian Living, Maclean's and other publications.