METI’s Column - The evolution of human food consumption

By Dr Walter Vermeulen 25 February 2024, 12:00PM

The diet of the closest ‘relative’ of humans -the chimpanzee- is almost purely plant-based. Genetic testing has demonstrated that human and chimpanzee DNA is identical, except for minor genetic differences, which nevertheless have led over many millions of years to important evolutionary differences.

Humans have gradually straightened up and can walk long distances, whereas chimps and apes are mostly tree-dwellers. Another important difference that evolved is the food humans consume, compared to the apes. And that has to do with the composition of the saliva. Both human and chimpanzee saliva contains an enzyme, amylase, that breaks down starch, an important component of starchy vegetables like root crops such as taro, yams, or sweet potatoes and grains.

However, human saliva produces six to eight times more of the starch-digesting enzyme than the saliva of the so-called primates. As a result, these primates - because of their limited ability to digest starches- are forced to live in the tropical forests around the equator, where there is an abundant supply of fruits, leaves and vegetable matter.

On the other hand, humans were able to roam around and eventually migrate out of Africa -approximately 40,000 years ago- and then inhabit the entire planet, as starchy foods were widely available around the world and easy to gather from underground (tubers and roots) or aboveground (grains and beans) sources. Starch’s abundant calories supplied the extra energy the humans needed to further increase their brain capacity and survival skills.

Our ancestors in the Paleolithic period (roughly 2.5 million years ago to 12,000 years ago) managed to make the basic tools needed to catch the occasional animal prey. But more recent anthropological studies and observations of the few remaining such populations (like the bushmen in the Kalahari Desert in Africa) emphasize that ‘plant gathering’ was the more frequent occupation of humans. Therefore, instead of being referred to as ‘hunter-gatherers’, they should be termed more correctly as ‘gatherer-hunters’!

This all changed about 12,000 years ago, when humans invented agriculture and - from being roaming groups -decided to remain located in a particular area, where they produced crops and tended to domesticated animals. It is only from then on, that humans increased their consumption of animal products. But even then, the regular consumption of animal products remained restricted to the very few, those belonging to the ruling classes.

And since then, science has been able to unearth the ravages that animal-based diets inflicted, even on these earlier population groups: special CT scanning techniques of the Egyptian mummies (of 3500 years ago), those that  exclusively belonged to the elites of society, showed the same type of calcifications of the arteries (atherosclerosis) that one sees in CT scans of present-day heart disease patients, proving wrong the proponents of the keto or the paleo diets that promote fatty animal-based foods based on their erroneous contention that humans were regular meat-eaters.

It is agreed that humans can be classified as ‘omnivores’, meaning, they can eat anything. But in view of the evidence that regular consumption of animal products leads to disease, it makes more sense to categorize humans as preponderately plant eaters. Further, the anatomical evidence is straightforward: our anatomy places us in the camp of the herbivores, regardless of beliefs or preferences. And so, since humans are anatomical herbivores, it means that our bodies are better suited for plant-based diets.

All one has to do is compare the anatomy of ‘carnivores’ (like cats or tigers) with that of ‘herbivores’ (like the great apes or -yes- humans).  Carnivores have wide mouth openings relative to head size and have short, pointed canine and long, sharp incisor teeth that allow them to capture, kill, and dismember their prey and tear through the skin, muscles, and ligaments before chewing the meat. Herbivores on the other hand have small mouth openings compared to the head size and have flat canine and short incisor teeth, which allow them to properly grind the fiber found in plants and crush the seeds and grains.

However, the other major anatomical difference between the two groups is the length of their intestinal tract. Herbivores have a long intestinal tract because of the need to thoroughly digest the large mass of plant material. Carnivores on the contrary have a short intestinal tract that allows these animals to excrete rapidly the sudden large amounts of fats ingested when devouring a carcass.

In summary, humans are a long way from being comfortable as meat-eaters. All that can be said is that as ‘omnivores’ they have the advantage over exclusive plant eaters to be able to eat the occasional fowl or fish but anything more than that -like regularly consuming the animal-based Western diet- will have dire consequences. The takeaway message: when suffering from any of the NCD conditions, strictly follow the plant-based diet like the whole foods, plant-based diet that METI promotes.

But when your health has recovered, embrace the traditional Samoan diet, mostly plant-based during the week, but on Sundays, enjoy -as a treat- modest helpings of animal food. As always, we invite you to visit METI’s Healthy Living Clinic at House No. 51 at Motootua (across from the Kokobanana Restaurant) and attend our weekly Health seminar and cooking demonstration that will help you to become acquainted with METI’s whole food plant-based diet. You can call us at 30550.





By Dr Walter Vermeulen 25 February 2024, 12:00PM
Samoa Observer

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