What gorillas teach us about diet and health

When I was in sixth grade, my teach­ers taught me about the Four Food Groups. They told me that I had to eat two serv­ings of meat and three serv­ings of dairy prod­ucts every day. Oth­er­wise, my growth would be stunt­ed. I wouldn’t be able to grow nor­mal hair or fin­ger­nails. Then I went to the zoo, where I saw that the goril­las were eat­ing noth­ing but sal­ad. Yet the goril­las were big and strong and hairy. Wild goril­las are prac­ti­cal­ly veg­an, yet they clear­ly get enough nutri­tion from their diet. How could that be?

How gorillas are like people

Goril­las have near­ly the same DNA as human beings. Thus, their body chem­istry is almost exact­ly the same as ours. Goril­las also have almost the same diges­tive sys­tem that we have. How­ev­er, a sil­ver­back male goril­la can weigh 500 pounds, and is ten times as strong as a man. Yet goril­las eat no meat (oth­er than a few ter­mites), no dairy prod­ucts, no eggs, and no fish. Obvi­ous­ly, it’s time for us to rethink the Four Food Groups dog­ma that we were taught in school, and the My Plate that replaced it.

When goril­las were first being kept in zoos in Europe and North Amer­i­ca, they got fat and sick. Peo­ple were feed­ing the goril­las the same kinds of food that Euro­peans and North Amer­i­cans were eat­ing. As a result, the goril­las died of the same dis­eases that kill Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans. How­ev­er, those dis­eases were rare in Asia and Africa, where peo­ple were eat­ing starchy, plant-based diets. Feed­ing the goril­las their nat­ur­al leafy diet restored their health. Like­wise, Euro­peans got health­i­er when they had to switch to a starchy, plant-based diet dur­ing food rationing.

How gorillas are different from people

Goril­las are ter­rif­ic weight-lifters, but human beings excel at long-dis­tance run­ning. Obvi­ous­ly, the gorilla’s leafy diet pro­vides enough pro­tein to build strong mus­cle, as long as the goril­la gets enough calo­ries, but the food is so low in calo­ries that the goril­las have to spend all day eat­ing. Like most leaf-eaters, goril­las have to con­serve their ener­gy. In con­trast, human beings can get enough ener­gy from eat­ing starchy sta­ples, such as grains or starchy veg­eta­bles, to work all day, or to run marathons. That’s why most human civ­i­liza­tions through­out world his­to­ry have based their diet on some starchy sta­ple, such as rice or wheat or corn or pota­toes or sweet pota­toes. Even our DNA tells us that human beings are starch eaters. Human beings have sev­er­al extra copies of the gene for the starch-digest­ing enzyme.

The peo­ples in Asia, Africa, and Latin Amer­i­ca who eat a starchy, plant-based diet are remark­ably free from chron­ic degen­er­a­tive dis­eases. Those “West­ern” dis­eases are major caus­es of death and dis­abil­i­ty and health­care costs in the Unit­ed States and Europe. The obvi­ous solu­tion to these health prob­lems is to switch back to “hearty peas­ant fare”: a diet based on starchy sta­ples, such as grains and beans and starchy veg­eta­bles, along with oth­er veg­eta­bles and fruit.

The purpose of this site

Mil­lions of peo­ple in North Amer­i­ca and Europe are suf­fer­ing from dis­eases that are caused by the rich West­ern diet. These dis­eases are becom­ing com­mon in Africa and Asia, as peo­ple there start eat­ing a rich­er diet. Yet few peo­ple know how these foods affect their health. They don’t get their infor­ma­tion from real sci­en­tists. Instead, they get infor­ma­tion from peo­ple with no train­ing in nutri­tion or dietet­ics. I want to help peo­ple under­stand the real sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus about how diet affects health. I want to inspire peo­ple to make good choic­es about food.

Talk to your doctor and a registered dietitian (RD)

I am a tech­ni­cal edi­tor who has worked on med­ical text­books and jour­nals and so on for more than 20 years. As a result, I know how to search the med­ical lit­er­a­ture, and I under­stand what I read. How­ev­er, I’m not a med­ical doc­tor or a reg­is­tered dietit­ian. If you have any med­ical prob­lem, talk to your doc­tor (or nurse prac­ti­tion­er or physi­cian assis­tant). If you want to know what you should or should not eat, con­sult a reg­is­tered dietit­ian. Reg­is­tered dieti­tians are the pro­fes­sion­als who know how to use diet to improve health. Look for the “RD” after the name. Remem­ber, “RDs are the real deal.”

Pho­to by scha­con