Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Civilization has caused the decline of human health

I've just finished reading Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," which is a scary documentation of how modern food technology and 'nutritionism' have significantly increased obesity, diabetes and coronary disease in this century, particularly since the second world war. Thus Ann Gibbons' summary (from presentations at the recent Americal Assoc. of Physical Anthropologists' meeting) of the effects of our earlier transition from hunting/gathering to agriculture makes a lot of sense. A major project has pooled work from 72 researchers to provide the first analysis of data on 11,000 individuals who lived from 3000 years ago until 200 years ago throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. The analysis involves standardized indicators of health from skeletal remains, including stature, dental health, degenerative joint disease, anemia, trauma, and the isotopic signatures of what they ate.
...the health of many Europeans began to worsen markedly about 3000 years ago, after agriculture became widely adopted in Europe and during the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations. They document shrinking stature and growing numbers of skeletal lesions from leprosy and tuberculosis, caused by living close to livestock and other humans in settlements where waste accumulated. The numbers of dental hypoplasias and cavities also increased as people switched to a grain-based diet with fewer nutrients and more sugars...After a long, slow decline through the Middle Ages, health began to improve in the mid-19th century. Stature increased, probably because of several factors: The little Ice Age ended and food production rose, and better trade networks, sanitation, and medicine developed... But take heed: Overall health and stature in the United States has been declining slightly since the 1950s, possibly because obese Americans eat a poor-quality diet, not unlike early farmers whose diet was less diverse and nutritious than that of hunter-gatherers.

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