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You Are What You Eat: What Will the Researchers Say About You?


If researchers pried open your genetic material in 2 million years, what would they find?

As the saying goes, “you are what you eat.” So what does that mean for us?

New research that looks at some of our distant genetic relatives suggests that decisions on eating habits will affect species survival in the long-term.

Not-so-fortunate relatives

According to a recent press release, “They were what they ate,” researchers have identified the eating patterns of a pre-human relative that lived in South Africa 2 million years ago.  Australopithecus sediba, an ape-like creature with human features, lived in a region about 80 km northwest of today's Johannesburg.

According to carbon testing of fossilized tooth enamel, au. sediba ate almost exclusively fruits, leaves, and other forest-based foods, even though its habitat was near grassy savanna with rich varieties of nutritious sedges, tubers, and animals.

The study is significant because it illustrates why some of our pre-human relatives continued to evolve, while others became extinct.

Benjamin Passey, a Johns Hopkins University geochemist on the international team that conducted the study, explains that in order for hominins to survive and evolve, it was necessary to leave their native forest habitats.

According to Passey, the survival of the species came down to the story of “‘dids’ and ‘did nots.’”

The western diet

Two million years from now, what will researches be digging out of our own tooth enamel?

For many of us English-speakers, it’s commonly understood that we rely heavily on what is known as “the western diet.” This is a diet that consists primarily of industrial era foods: dairy products, cereals, refined cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, fatty meats, and salt. These ingredients are often found in foods such as pizza, instant pasta, cookies, sweets (cake, pudding, and ice cream), mayonnaise, butter, margarine, and sugary beverages (sodas and powdered drinks).

The consequences of this type of diet are manifested within the number of chronic, diet-related diseases, which are the largest cause of morbidity and mortality in most western countries. Chronic, diet-related diseases typically afflict 50 to 65 percent of adult populations in contemporary westernized populations.

Struggling to adapt

Is this normal? The short answer is “no.” These types of diseases are rare or nonexistent hunter-gatherers and other less westernized people.

The underlying issue behind our reliance on industrial era foods is that the nutrient qualities of these foods are vastly different from those of our genetic ancestors—and our bodies haven’t been able to adapt.

How to impress our future researchers

In order to increase the chances that future researchers resemble the type of human beings that we represent today, we may need to adapt better eating practices—specifically, ones that rely more on foods such as whole grain products, fruits, vegetables, fish, and less processed dairy products.  




Innovation for Good

Innovation for Good

Neil ZevnikNeil Zevnik