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