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Cave Men Didn't Eat Cornflakes

by Diana Earnshaw(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 186 - September 2011

We are uniquely equipped for life in our modern world. Evolution has ensured that we are a finely honed animal species - capable of evaluating and responding to a multitude of stimuli. There are numerous mechanisms in place, beyond our control, to ensure survival. Here are a few:

  • Insulin - the fat storage hormone - preserved our lives thousands of years ago by storing a surplus of available carbohydrates (fruit or honey maybe) as fat reserves. Today however, the very same hormone is killing many of us. We now store far too much carbohydrate which never has a chance of being used up, so we become obese and diabetic with all the health issues that accompany these illnesses;
  • The Omegas - the balance of these ensures that we can deal with a microbial attack by providing inflammation and anti-inflammation;
  • Cholesterol - the balance of hdl and ldl ensures that we can form hormones (including the 'new' pre-steroid hormone Vitamin D), line our cells, repair damage to our bodies and more. Cholesterol is so important that we not only manufacture it, but we also recycle it;
  • The starvation sequence - every stage of this is designed to preserve life. Low calorie diets fire up this reaction.

These of course are just a few of the amazing functions of our amazing bodies.

shellfish image

So then we come to the mechanisms which are within our control, and which allow us to help ourselves. Again, just a few:

  • Thirst, to ensure we stay hydrated;
  • Hunger, to ensure that we obtain the necessary nutrients;
  • Sensing heat and cold, to ensure that we take measures to control our temperatures;
  • Sensing pain, to tell us that the woolly mammoth is standing on our foot!

We take them as a given - no one would argue this. They are, by and large, proven and accepted by all, by the health professions, the scientists and the general public.

So here's the rub. Why do we choose to either ignore these instincts or fight them? Evolution has provided these attributes for our benefit. What on earth are we doing?

Some questions then:

  • When we go for a run or to the gym, why do we only feel that we've done well when we have passed through the 'pain barrier'?
  • Why is it 'naughty' when we respond to our hunger by eating a high fat food? (I am aware that this is not a simple question but I will return to it a little later.);
  • Why do we insist on lying in the sun even though we recognize that we are overheating or conversely, why jump into an ice-cold plunge-pool just because someone believes it's good for us?
  • Why do we 'need' to drink three litres of water a day? Why do we drink if we're not thirsty? Drinking water is a good thing, but I believe you can have too much of a good thing.

Why must we employ our brains when they are unnecessary? We think we're so clever, outdoing nature, but in reality we are creating problems for ourselves or even making ourselves ill. Instincts are ignored at our peril.

The main reason for this article is to do with taste buds. Genetically, we have changed around 0.01% in the last 10,000 years. People at that time did not have dieticians, the internet or governments to tell them what they should eat, when they should eat it or how much they should eat. Consider this: wild animals don't need this help; they just get on with it, responding to their perceived needs - and, interestingly, neither do they generally suffer chronic illness, but domestic animals do. I'll leave that one for another time!

We are still genetically programmed for the hunter-gatherer diet. What was good for us then is good for us now. Taste buds were the only guide to the foods that contained the necessary nutrients in a form that would be easy to absorb.

Imagine that you knew nothing of nutrition. You are stranded in the wilderness and there is an abundance of plants and animals. You have fire but no cooking pots (the veg have to be raw!). How will you decide what to eat? You can try a few leaves and some grass but your taste buds will tell you in no uncertain terms that you do not have the correct digestive system to deal with these 'foods'. There may be a few roots that you could dig up, but whilst they may be sweeter than the leaves, you still are unlikely to make a feast of them. Are you going to look for seeds or grain? You could starve by the time you have enough to make a meal for the family, especially if it is spring time! In any case, grain is inedible without lengthy processing and really only became a part of everyday food when we settled into a life of farming 10,000 years ago. Corn did not exist - it is 'man-made' - so don't waste your time looking for it! (Dairy foods were introduced soon after this time, but that's another story too.)

Now you see a duck swimming on a river. If you accurately throw a hefty stone at it (my apologies to the vegetarians but I am trying to create a realistic scene), you have a meal. After removing the feathers and roasting it, even your sense of smell will tell you that this is the real deal. Your digestive juices and enzymes prepare you for digestion even before you have tasted it. This is nature working the way it should. Do you think, even for a second, that the fat and skin would be removed before eating? No! This is the most delicious part of a duck and as you are probably aware, quite apart from the abundance of fat soluble vitamins and fatty acids, fat is needed for the proper metabolism of protein. If you had lobbed a rock at a pig and you were having that for your meal, I think we might see the same scene as we see now - the whole family arguing over the last piece of crackling! In those times of course, they would have eaten the lot. Everything that was chewable and tasted good would have been eaten.

I doubt that they had the sense of squeamishness that we do, because they ate what was available and did not have the preconceived ideas of what was not 'nice'. This just means that they would have eaten lungs, kidneys, liver, gonads, eyes (great source of vitamin A), ears, brain and every other morsel possible. They would all have tasted good, but we are now conditioned, for many reasons, to consider these parts to be at best unhealthy (due to the BSE problem years ago) and at worst, disgusting! It is a sad fact that we, in the Western World, now choose muscle meats over offal. Offal, historically and amongst primitive people today, was and is, highly prized as a magnificent source of nutrients. Now, we take frequent trips to the supermarket which means that we can have our choice of foods available all the time - in our fridges, or in cans and packets in our cupboards.

Our conditioning is, at least in part, to blame for our confused taste buds. Children of the Inuit are used to the taste and texture of raw seal liver because they have always had it. Our children gain the taste for baby rice - and just where does that lead? To a life of seeking out simple, nutrient-poor carbohydrate foods at the expense of proper nutrient-dense food! How on earth did babies born 10,000 years ago manage without it?! I suspect that once teeth had formed in their gums, their parents would have partially chewed their food to make weaning easier - and that food would have been the full hunter-gatherer diet.

The other reason that our taste buds have become confused is because we insist on mixing food groups. Nutritionists and dieticians are fond of glibly blaming 'processed foods' for the devastating effects on our health, but just what does that imply? Much processed food is made from poor quality ingredients, combined and flavoured to make cheap food appealing to our confused, modern palates. But then, it is perfectly possible to use the best quality organic butter, flour, eggs and sugar to make a cake. Does that make it ok? Our palates know it tastes good because we naturally like sweet things (probably to ensure that we eat fruit when it is available) and fats. The fats that taste the best are the ones that have the most nutrients - animal fats, butter in this case. When cake is eaten, we unconsciously detect that these nutrients could be there, but when they are mixed, we are fooled. Even if margarine has been used, the unpleasant taste is disguised and we happily have a second helping.

So, what's on the menu for you in the wilderness? Exactly what we should be eating today - all meat, offal and fat, fish, shellfish, eggs, nuts, seeds (if they are a reasonable size and taste good), some young leaves and a few roots, fruits when in season and honey once in a while. Cornflakes for breakfast? Never!


  1. Kevin Dennis said..

    Congratulations, Mrs Earnshaw, you have caught and held the attention of this aging cynic and - I'm sure this was your purpose - encouraged me to reappraise my long (mis)held certainty that, as a vegetarian, I knew more of the nutrition answers than most.

    Your article above confirms my long held belief that the best objective science is that which is delivered in clear, unpretentious language, so that it may be understood by the greater number for the greater good.

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About Diana Earnshaw

Diana Earnshaw RN SAC Dip (Clinical Nutrition) ITEC Aromatherapy Food For Health Practitioner is a Registered Nurse who started her career in 1973. Her passion with nutrition emerged from nursing countless people suffering with preventable illnesses. She has independently researched the human diet since 2000, has a qualification in Clinical Nutrition and has read numerous research papers. Her approach is different, unorthodox probably - but her advice is entirely logical. She has written several blogs and contributes to forums. Recently, a client appeared in local press and on BBC radio. Contact Diana on

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