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The Gene Factor

by Nicki Woodward(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 125 - July 2006

I'm a hunter gatherer. My genes are 10,000 years-old and so are yours. That means we are designed to forage for food and eat small regular meals with fish, lean meat, eggs, starchy roots, nuts, fruits, seeds and a few grains making up the mainstay of our diet. It suits our digestion, our metabolism and ultimately our health. Our bodies have not yet evolved to cope with junk food on a regular basis, and statistics on disease highlight this fact. Of course most of us try our best to eat what we think is healthy, but the underlying challenge is what is truly healthy. As a race we are strong and have adapted to many socio and ecological changes. But our brains have hastened forward whilst our genes are left behind. Inherently we are flesh and blood and our genetic makeup demands the care of good nutrition. The food provided by Mother Nature is rich in antioxidants, high in fibre, low in unhealthy fats and not excessive in simple sugars. Today, we feast on excess carbohydrates such as bread and pasta. This is a sharp contrast to meat and vegetable loving Homo sapiens who was unlikely to drag home a bag of fresh pasta to share with his hungry clan. Of course, geographically the nutritional needs and availability of food types differed in early man. Hunter gatherers who lived on the alpine grasslands liked to tuck into grains for example, and they would have had a similar diet for thousands of years. On the evolutionary time scale, it's only very recently that our diet has changed at an unprecedented rate.

How has the modern diet gone so awry? A key word here is availability, as Mr Neanderthal never munched his way through the amount of simple sugars we do today as they were in short supply. He would, therefore, not experience the weight gain and pancreatic exhaustion they can cause in the long term. Starchy roots and grass seeds took time to dig up and collect, and many were stored for the lean winter months. My cave is very rarely stockpiled with food, as starvation is a scenario my brain has yet to experience. But my genes have not forgotten. If I went on a diet, my body would consider that a famine has ensued and tell my fat cells to hold on for dear life. Meanwhile, once I started to eat normally again, those storage cells would be experts at holding onto fat more efficiently, proudly declaring that they now know how to cope with the hard times. As I said, our genes are slow developers whilst our brains have excelled in class. Agrarian man used the large brain he was blessed with and started to grow and herd his food close to hand, reducing the risk of starvation and abolishing the need to hunt, which was both risky and energy consuming. This in itself was not nutritional damnation, as the foods he cultivated were unprocessed, fibre rich and provided just the energy he required to work the land. Many feel that when Man started to cook his food his troubles began, but even then our hairy friend remained lean and healthy. I suspect that it is industrialization and intensive farming which have been the downfall of our health. We grow and rear enough food in the UK on a yearly basis to feed Europe and much of it is pulverized to unrecognizable fast food. No wonder our children struggle to name a vegetable or describe where a sausage comes from. In support of our forefathers, it seems we got it right the first time around.

So why are natural foods a cut above the rest? Well, for example, fruit and vegetables provide the antioxidants which protect against cancer. Animals left to roam the land free from intensive farming provide lean healthy meats, whilst factory farmed animals have an increasingly high body fat ratio. The nutrient rich foods our relations ate millions of years ago have now been dubbed 'super foods', but to them they were everyday staples. Today, our preference is nutrient poor food and an abundance of research links poor diet with disease. Naturopathically we can treat certain conditions with supplements, but improvements in health are even greater when the diet is changed and the problem is tackled at the root level. This means looking at what suits the individual at a cellular and therefore, molecular level. Genes govern our body type, dictating our metabolism, digestive capacity and energy levels. They also influence our behaviour and moods. How interesting it is that youngsters react so well to Omega-3 supplements and prison inmates begin to behave themselves when they pop their vitamin pills.

If you are still not convinced that Mother Nature offers the best menu, you should consider the last 84 tribes of hunter-gatherers left in the world. To them arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, depression, schizophrenia and cancer are rarities. They all thrive on the same healthy diet that their ancestors did over two million years ago. So next time you hit the supermarket for your next big hunt, spare a thought for your genes and think cave cuisine.


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About Nicki Woodward

Nicki Woodward BA Hons DN MED MBANT Dip Phyt MNIMH ITEC is a fully qualified Nutritionist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist who practises in Middlesex and Surrey. She is a member of the NIMH (National Institute of Medical Herbalists) and BANT (British Association of Nutritional Therapists). Her experience to-date includes training, research and supplement development. She may be contacted on Tel: 07989 968 349;

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