Food, Genes, and Culture: Eating Right for Your Origins
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Vegan, low fat, low carb, slow carb: Every diet seems to promise a one-size-fits-all solution to health. But they ignore the diversity of human genes and how they interact with what we eat.
In Food, Genes, and Culture, renowned ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan shows why the perfect diet for one person could be disastrous for another. If your ancestors were herders in Northern Europe, milk might well provide you with important nutrients, whereas if you’re Native American, you have a higher likelihood of lactose intolerance. If your roots lie in the Greek islands, the acclaimed Mediterranean diet might save your heart; if not, all that olive oil could just give you stomach cramps.
Nabhan traces food traditions around the world, from Bali to Mexico, uncovering the links between ancestry and individual responses to food. The implications go well beyond personal taste. Today’s widespread mismatch between diet and genes is leading to serious health conditions, including a dramatic growth over the last 50 years in auto-immune and inflammatory diseases.
Readers will not only learn why diabetes is running rampant among indigenous peoples and heart disease has risen among those of northern European descent, but may find the path to their own perfect diet.
diet, its proponents claim that we will look the same. Curiously, some proposals for what the optimal diet may be sidestep the peculiar challenges of staying healthy in the current tech-nonindustrial world while encouraging us to delve into the past; these diets want us to remember our bodies’ inherent capacities and our minds’ predilections for foods that have been shaped over evolutionary time. As nutritional anthropologist Boyd Eaton and his colleagues have recommended for some two decades,
alleles have markedly different responses to high-fat diets, with the carriers of some alleles suffering from elevated cholesterol levels while carriers of other alleles show negligible effects. In addition, the kind of fat or oil produces different responses among different ethnic populations. In short, all consumers of olive-based to eleoladho and other edible oils are not created equal. After centuries of consuming the largest quantities of olive oil of any people in the world, Cretans have
indicates that the Seri exhibit “several micro-polymorphisms [that] may be important in conferring a biological advantage” in their desert coastal homeland. The study claimed that “these may emphasize the relevance of interactions between genes and environment,” for Seri hunter-gatherers express several alleles not found in more agriculture-dependent U.S. and Mexican indigenous peoples (Infante et al. 1999). But do long-time hunter-gatherers with such polymorphisms respond to certain desert and
them or to fatalistically stand by and watch as they are lost. As Dr. Terry Shintani has told me of what he has gained through his years of working in the Hawaiian community of Waianae and encountering similar situations elsewhere in the world, “The health problems of Native Hawaiians are reflective of what happens to all people when they abandon the diet and ways of their ancestors.” Fully facing the implications of these problems forces us to make choices about our own lives. Each of us must
audiences—scientists, policymakers, environmental advocates, the media, and concerned citizens—who can and will take action to protect the plants and animals that enrich our world, the ecosystems we need to survive, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Island Press gratefully acknowledges the support of its work by the Agua Fund, Inc., The Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Forrest and