100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today Hardcover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
What kept startling me throughout the book was the assertion that – kind of as Susan Cain revealed that introversion is inborn and can't be easily ignored – there is just nothing you can do about some things, because one's dna has a lot to do with how well one does (or doesn't) thrive in a given environment. Stephen Le uses himself as the exemplar: the area of the globe his ancestors evolved to adapt to, Vietnam, supports a diet which is wildly different from what he grew up with in 20th century Ottawa, and perhaps there is a connection to the fact that his mother only survived her mother by a couple of years. Traditional cuisines adapt to the ecology native to a place, and the people of the area adapt to the traditional cuisine. The book slanted a different light on emigration for me: perhaps there is a bone-deep reason why some people don't thrive when transplanted… which, given the human urge to explore and wander, leads me back to amazement at the human body's fallibility. (Aha, there it is: "when Europeans started to populate sunny colonies in the Americas and Oceania beginning a few hundred years ago, and people from the tropics, like my parents, moved in the opposite direction, to frigid climes, the wonderfully adapted skin color suddenly became a liability.")
Oh, and then there's the little fact of multiple cases of "such-and-such is good for you, but if you succumb to the usual human thinking that 'if some is good more is better!" you will suffer or perhaps die"… Like: "Animals that browse too much on isoflavone-rich plants, such as ewes feeding on clover, can become sterile". And "Others worry about vitamin D deficiency and pop vitamin D pills, but the problem is that no one knows exactly how much vitamin D is a healthy dosage or how vitamin D supplements influence our immune system and increase our risk for diseases like cancer." Or the fact that eating animal products make you grow taller and stronger and all sorts of other good things, but will kill you earlier in the end. Or "In 1966, researchers in Israel observed that the incidence of multiple sclerosis increased with better sanitation, such as cleaner drinking water, less crowding, and the availability of flush toilets." Or "For middle-aged people, consumption of cholesterol and fat is likely to improve mood and sex drive, while there is not much evidence for long-term weight loss”.
Counterintuitive much? No wonder we're all so messed up.
The writing is a lot of fun. ("She brought a bottle of her home-brewed fermented soybean sauce to our house. It smelled like old shoes and tasted like tofu would if it went to a bar, got drunk, was mugged on the way home, and woke up with a hangover.") This is pop science at its best – mass quantities of excellent (if often depressing) information presented in a compulsively readable manner, and carried along by the author's own background and experience. One place this, hilariously, shows up is in the brief quotes that head each chapter:
The supreme irony is that all over the world monies worth billions of rupees are spent every year to save crops . . . by killing a food source (insects) that may contain up to 75% of high quality animal protein. — M. Premalatha et al., "Energ y- Efficient Food Production to Reduce Global Warming and Ecodegradation: The Use of Edible Insects"
If you eat that ant, I'll never kiss you again. — Ex- girlfriend during camping trip
I finished the book with a handful of nascent crusades roiling around in my heart – Save the red squirrels! Get everyone (except perhaps me) eating insects! Exercise (after one more chapter…)! Stamp out MSG (also known as autolyzed yeast, sodium caseinate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein)! Make sure all hospitals and nursing homes have only sunny and south-facing windows! Find whipworm eggs online - ! Wait. No. Not that one.
I received this book from Netgalley for review.
In fact, there is very little information here about what ancient cultures ate, and how we know. The author tries to make up for this by obsessively citing current science regarding diet and health, but this is not the story he promised to tell us.
As if to distract from this switch in subject matter, the explorations of different dietary styles are couched in a sort of globe-trotting culinary travelogue. But Anthony Bourdain this is not. I found the irrelevant personal anecdotes irritating. I grew especially tired of the insistent, self-pitying references to being an impoverished graduate student and graphic descriptions of his digestive processes.
After this literally wandering story, the author dives off the edge of his pile of references to make some recommendations. In a book devoted to diet, we are told at the end that the most important thing is to exercise more. Yet earlier there is a confusing argument that we actually burn calories relative to our metabolism at about the same rate as our foraging ancestors. Oh, and avoid eating meat while young, but switch when older. Right. When he got to advocating ingesting parasites to control the immune system, I had had enough. In a primordial human dietary adaptation, my stomach just couldn’t take it.
As my review headline suggests, the writing can be a little cringeworthy at times, but at others it's downright entertaining. If such a style bothers you, try to look past it as the facts and research provided are clear and well cited. And there is a LOT of great facts and research.
However, one of the best parts in my opinion was that the writing was not overly preaching or opinionated. He does not propose a new fad diet or hidden secret to unlock magical health. Where there is disagreement among scientists, the author objectively mentions all opinions and occasionally supports one side, but does not hide the opposition. He also keeps all his recommendations well within the economic (and psychological! Don't ingest pig parasites!) reach of most everyone living in a modernized country.
Some possible causes of common modern conditions addressed (again, not preachingly) in the book include obesity, asthma, acne, food allergies, and chronic disease such as cancer and diabetes. Overall the message simple: prepare your food as your ancestors did, and don't follow fad diets.
Stephen Le takes you with him on his quest for foodie knowledge, you feel like you are globe-hopping on the most ultimate trip of a lifetime. Because...food.
He tackles so many topics that I found interesting that I read this slowly so that it all could sink in. From the theory that eating a lot of meats and fats may make you more fertile and robust in your younger years to causing your life to end sooner than someone who eats a more low fat diet, to the sad fact that all these fad diets do not work. We know that deep down but everyone always jumps on the bandwagon of the latest fad. Including the doctor I work for..who is educated and should know better but alas.
We get to go with Le as he takes you into the worlds of the quest for true fish sauce (I totally was drooling here), a trip through commercial salmon hatcheries (I was not drooling here).
So much info. I LOVE stuff like this:
Castor oil is widely employed as a highly effective laxative, but the seed contain ricin, one of the most potent poisons know.
(and will make you sick as hell if you want to try an old wives tale and drink some hoping for your labor to start in late pregnancy..yes I was stupid.)
Christopher McCandless, the young American itinerant whose life was recounted in the popular book and movie Into the Wild, may have died from lathyrism incurred by eating wild-potato seeds while attempting to live off the land in the Alaskan woods. (He kinda was stupid too)
Stephen Le gives you things to think about without coming across as preachy.
As I discovered after moments of humilation like this, food in Japan is expensive, due to a confluence of high transportation and labor costs, limited growing season, shortage of arable land, and import barriers. At the other end of the cost spectrum, Americans enjoy access to the cheapest food in the world relative to income.
Don't think it's all just about food though, Le also takes looks at bacteria and parasite that our bodies may do better to just leave alone and let share our space. (totally gross) and something I had heard about but haven't given much thought. Squat toilets. I don't know if I want to be in the same country though if my husband has had Taco Bell and attempts one of these.