College Green Magazine: The New Human Diet

In an age of swift globalization and thumb-happy digitalization, it’s no delusion that the traditional American meal has digressed into small, packaged containers of ready-made indulgences. In fact, the health of Americans over the last several decades has taken a sharp decline as cardiovascular disease, obesity rates, and blood pressure levels have all but skyrocketed previous baselines. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, “How can we fix this nationwide health crisis?”

The revival of a sustainable, holistic food culture in the United States has received some momentum throughout the dawn of the twenty-first century. More and more young adults are defining their diets with words like vegetarian, vegan, soy-free, and gluten-free. These specifications pertaining to one’s diet can lessen critical environmental impacts in sectors like the meat industry, as in the example of vegans and vegetarians who inadvertently reduce the resources necessary for raising livestock. In addition, these more plant-based diets are harkening back to those of our prehistoric ancestors, when human beings were merely hunter-gathers struggling to survive on a daily basis.

This conversation on food sustainability in America and ultimately the rest of the world has even manifested itself into the form of an eight-month project for National Geographic. September’s “Future of Food” feature article discussed the benefits of perhaps returning to a more paleo-reminiscent diet, instead of continuing on this high-meat, high-starch diet Americans are currently pursuing.

“A lot of people believe there is a discourse between what we eat today and what our ancestors evolved to eat,” paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas said in this month’s National Geographic article.

At Ohio University, the prospect of alternative diets is gaining ground. In addition to Culinary Services offering a selection, though subjectively limited, of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-sensitive meal options, the Food Studies Theme is providing its students with a unique understanding of the original paleo diet.

As part of the Anthropology 3600: Origins of Food foodProduction class, students were assigned to read Ancestral Appetites, a book written by Professor Kristen J. Gremillion of the Department of Anthropology at Ohio State University. This specific class at Ohio University is a course offered through one of the College of Arts and Science’s “Curricular Themes.” This new concept of “themes” combines related courses and content material, while giving students the opportunity to learn from a variety of professors with multiple disciplines in areas of particular study. ‘Origins of Food Production’ belongs to the recently-popular Food Studies Theme.

The coordinator of the OU Food Studies Curricular Theme, Dr. Theresa Moran, believes food education is a vital component in this globalized world. “Food, its production, consumption and meaning, is of deep social, political, cultural and economic consequence. Food is at the heart of debates about globalization, science, technology, and social progress. The study of food is a growing area of scholarship that transcends disciplinary boundaries,” Moran states on the Food Studies Theme webpage.

Dr. Paul Patton, one of the contributing professors in this year’s Food Studies Curriculum, selected the book Ancestral Appetites as part of the course reading material. He believes the text effectively exemplifies the transition of the human diet from paleo origins, while still maintaining an enjoyable reading experience for the students.

Photo by Bethany Bella.

“It is the only text currently available that deals with how modern diet is the result of a long process of biological and cultural evolution in our prehistoric and paleo past,” Dr. Patton stated in an email. “Furthermore, it is among the few books that I have read which successfully integrates aspects of our biological and cultural evolution as a species to understand pressing issues such as food shortages, hunger, overindulgence, and sustainability.”

Gremillion’s text highlights the relationship between prehistoric peoples and their food consumption, specifically documenting what they ate, why they ate it, and how they prepared these meals. Despite the discrepancies between the traditional hunter-gatherer meal of the prehistoric age and today’s fast-food mania, the evolving human diet has maintained a common theme: provide basic nutritional needs for the human body. This process of acquiring adequate nutrition has been evolving for millions of years, reflecting complex social and experimental issues mirrored in the human transformation through the ages.

As part of a special Food Matters series, Professor Gremillion visited Ohio University to discuss her latest fieldwork studies: multi-ethnic communities and the evolution of southern cuisine. A paleoethnobotanist, Gremillion specializes in Eastern North American cultures, studying how these early peoples’ diets were constructed.

“My question is always why,” Professor Gremillion said during her discussion. “Why do some regions develop, what you might call, a fusion cuisine that incorporates all these different elements into a single diversified way of eating, as opposed to situations in which that just doesn’t happen?”

Gremillion took to studying two different ethnic groups both once located in southeast America: ‘interior’ Native American communities and coastal, more ‘external,’ multiethnic communities.

More specifically, Gremillion took to examining how these two distinct cultures acquired their varied dietary choices from either the surrounding land or surrounding colonial inhabitants.

“Why are some foods adopted, maybe very rapidly, and other foods are not? That’s the question I want to answer,” Gremillion said during her talk at Ohio University. “And I want to know specifically what role does the transfer of information play.”

During her studies in the field, Gremillion developed a still-workable model for reasoning how and why foods are adopted more readily in one social context versus another, as in the case of her two distinct cultural groups.

The model compares the readability of processing certain foods with the ease of consumption. For example, a food choice that is both low in cost of production and processing for consumption would be local fruits, such as kiwi and peaches in the case with these cultural groups. On the other hand, a food that is both costly for production and consumption would be a dish that requires elaborate preparation and harvesting of ingredients, such as tapioca. This category of foods would be considered delicacies within the cultural context because of their high-cost factors, and probably wouldn’t be subjected to high-risks in terms of meal preparation. A high-risk preparation food would only be prepared in a few select ways, known and passed-on exclusively within that individual culture, to preserve supplies and cost.

“Individual trial-and-error learning is costly, whereas social learning…is a valuable, inexpensive shortcut. It’s going to have a big effect on what kinds of things get adopted,” Gremillion added.

Professor Gremillion’s model can potentially aid future anthropologists in discovering ancient food preferences of early human peoples. In turn, this model demonstrates the benefits of returning to a less-processed diet while incorporating more locally-harvested ingredients. Perhaps a shift to a more cost-effective production and consumption model for foods, with a particular focus on local foods, will preserve a quality level of health for American consumers.

This story also appears on College Green Magazine