By Michel Montignac
By Michel Montignac
There are several lessons to be learnt from the evolution of mans’ eating habits throughout history.
Firstly, man, even if he is omnivorous, for over 98% of his existence on Earth, (from3 to 7 million years) has essentially fed himself on a meat diet (proteins + lipids) complemented by very few glucidic foods, the few carbohydrates he ate had a low blood sugar potential, thus very low GIs.
Ten millenniums ago, with the emergence of agriculture and variations in geological and climatic conditions, people’s eating habits gradually started to change. Later, as lifestyles began to change and under the influence of migratory movements and the first great Antique civilizations, man’s eating styles changed even more.
Many new foodstuffs became a part of his diet (cereals, leguminous plants, cheese, poultry, olive oil…) and new processing technologies were invented (oven baked bread, fermentations, meat curing…).
These past 10 000 years (a short time span when compared to the whole of human history, but long when seen from the perspective of one man’s lifetime) have undoubtedly allowed the human metabolism to gradually adapt to the corresponding dietary changes and to generate the specialized system of enzymes required to assimilate new foods.
However, it would be unwarranted to consider these changes in man’s alimentary landscape as the emergence of a radically different style of nutrition. These changes are basically a process of evolution from primitive lifestyles, more than a true mutation.
This means that all of these new foodstuffs were perfectly compatible with prehistoric man’s metabolism. This was above all true in the case of the «new » carbohydrates (cereals, pulses, dry beans, vegetables…) whose GIs were particularly low and which, like roots and berries for primitive men, were rich in fiber.
For 18 centuries —from the beginning of the Christian era to times of the French Revolution— apart from a few exotic plants imported from the New World and tasted by a very small number of people, no new foodstuffs came to revolutionize European’s eating habits.
Even if we consider the distinctions from one social class to another, the nutritional quality of the food eaten in Europe did not really vary for millions of years. True, the rich, who were a minority, did eat large amounts of meat products and, after millions of years of eating mainly proteins and lipids, the metabolic genetic legacy bequeathed to them by their primitive ancestors had prepared them for this “unbalanced” diet.
The rich (in all of the civilizations which preceded ours) could be said to have been usually fatter than the poor. For centuries there was a widespread belief that this was due to the fact that they ate more, even excessively (too much fat foods). This might have been true for some but certainly not for the great majority of the rich. Answering a question posed by a member of the Communist party, the rich businessman Marcel Dassault pointed this out in the 1960s when he stated: “Being rich does not mean that one eats more than three meals a day”.
The question then is, why were a good number of the rich and privileged in past centuries overweight? - Simply because, unlike the primitive men with whom they shared the same alimentary balance, the portions of carbohydrates that they consumed were of a different nature.
The bread they ate was refined since the flour was sifted. Added to this was the fact that they already consumed sugar, a very expensive and rare commodity. Honey, which was also fairly rare since it was not cultivated but naturally obtained, was also reserved to the rich.
Rich people, and particularly the post-industrial bourgeoisie, who proudly paraded their stoutness, were not fat because of the amounts of food they ate but because of what they ate: the carbohydrate rations in their meals were of the type to provoke high blood sugar levels. Thus, those people in the upper class with a propensity to high blood sugar levels naturally gained more weight.
This is why Louis the XVI, who was already chubby when he was a child, became an obese adult. Louis the XVI adored pastry. Comparatively, Napoleon I, who also adored sweets and cakes, had a resistant pancreas which allowed him to stay slim. Nonetheless, his consumption of sugary foods eventually changed his body and, by the time he was 40, Napoleon had become fairly plump.
As concerns the rest, the common people, they basically lived on an ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet. The common man, instead of eating meat every day like the rich, got his proteins from leguminous plants (lentil, peas, beans…) as well as eggs and, above all, cheese.
The vegetables and cereals he ate thus constituted significant portions of carbs at each meal. Nonetheless, since these foodstuffs were not refined, their fiber content was high. Accordingly, the glycemic outcome of these meals was low since these foodstuffs had low, and even extremely low, GIs. This is why the common people were not habitually afflicted by chubbiness, much less by obesity.
During the Middle Ages and even beyond the 18th century, Europe underwent a series of cultural mixtures, mainly due to invasions by other peoples. Even if there were noteworthy differences from one country to another and from one region to another, the basis of European alimentary style was basically the result of practices inherited from preceding civilizations only marginally complemented by botanic species brought from the New World. The upper classes (nobility, high clergy, bourgeoisie) had always had diets in which meat was the predominant ingredient (beef, pork, poultry, animals of prey as well as fish and cheese). The bread they consumed was made with sifted flours.
The rest of the people, who lived in the rural areas, basically ate eggs, milk products and vegetables.
Although some of the previous generations had suffered devastating wars, disastrous harvests, food shortages and even famine, these were the exceptions. Generally, people living in the countryside managed to have enough to eat. This is why the idea that people were thin because they did not have enough to eat is totally mistaken. It is also foolish to sustain that the rich were fatter because they ate too much. People were thin as a result of their eating habits; they basically lived on low blood sugar diets.
The above (historical) analysis of people’s weight and size in function of the social groups to which they belonged is also pertinent nowadays in the case of the countries of the South or, at least, in those regions where social structures are still archaic. In India, for example, this social model still applies in certain rural regions where the urbanization phenomenon has not yet become predominant.
Like in Europe in the past, we can observe that the rich are much fatter than the common people, who are for the most part thin.
One can also see that the difference lies, not in the amount of food consumed but in the type of food people eat.
There again what is noticeable is that the calorie intake does not vary significantly from one group to another. Generally speaking, rich people in the countries of the South eat carbohydrates which tend to provoke higher blood sugar levels (white flours, sugar) while the common people’s diet is made up of carbs which have higher fiber content (pulses, various vegetables…).
Why is it that in the industrialized countries (and this is particularly true in the US), the poorer the person is the fatter he tends to be? This is paradoxical and even more so if we consider the fact that, in most countries, poor people are called upon to do those jobs which demand greater physical effort and that, despite this, they do not tend to be thin.
The answer is simple.
Poor people nowadays tend to be heavier than people who are well-off simply because they eat differently. Obviously, since they lack the means, they cannot eat greater quantities of food than the rich. The difference lies not in the amount of food they consume but in the nutritional quality of what they eat. Poor people tend to eat a lot of carbs, particularly those which are cheaper: white bread, potatoes, rice, sugar… These carbs, as we know, are those that tend to provoke higher blood sugar levels and generate the highest risks of hyperinsulinism. To top this off, the saturated fats or "trans" fats that they normally eat (the cheapest in the market) are also those which are more easily stored by our bodies as fatty tissue.
The poorer the person is in the US the more he tends to eat out at any fast food (because it is cheap) and the more he drinks Coca-Cola or an equivalent sugary drink. This is how people become obese through hyperinsulinism.
Comparatively, people who are better off economically tend to eat less fast foods and to shop in luxury food stores, namely, organic or health stores. Those people who have a better education and are more informed adopt the more healthy eating habits of French traditional cuisine, of the Japanese and, above all, Mediterranean cooking. As a result, these people stay slim or, at the least, do not gain excess weight. Accordingly, the better off a person is in the US, the less that person incurs the risk of gaining excess weight and, à fortiori, of becoming obese!
In Japan (where obesity is now wreaking havoc), the opposite of what happens in the US is true: the lower the person is in the social scale, the more focused he is on Japanese traditional nutritional values and culture. The ordinary Japanese citizen tends to respect his ancestors’ eating habits: large amounts of fish (raw), rice with medium GIs, algae and other vegetables which are rich in fiber. This eating style makes for meals with low blood sugar level potential and significant polyunsaturated (omega 3) fatty acids, which can even help to lose weight.
Inversely, the higher the person is in the Japanese social hierarchy, the more open he is to foreign tastes and to the US as the reference model. For the rich Japanese, eating like their ancestors is considered dowdy. Eating Western food, and particularly US food, is considered a luxury which makes people chic.
This is how, without really realizing it, the rich Japanese (and particularly their children) get fat by eating at Mac Donald’s while rich Americans start to lose weight by going to the traditional Japanese restaurants which are those that serve sushis and sashimis.
As we can see, the common (past and present) denominator for gaining weight and becoming obese, both in the rich countries and the less industrialized countries, is one and the same: an dietary model which tends to raise blood sugar levels as a result of excessive consumption of high GI carbs together with bad (saturated) fats.
Similarly, the common denominator to keep from gaining weight, in any country and historical period, has always been an eating style with a low blood sugar potential where the carbs consumed are mostly low GI carbs.
For millions of years throughout human history obesity seems to have been the exception, all of a sudden obesity is no longer the exception but rapidly becoming the rule. Why is this?
To understand the present, we must turn to the past. We have identified the factor —high GI carbs— behind obesity, one of the world’s current health problems. We must now analyze where high GI carbs come from and how they happened to insidiously become part of all eating styles at a planetary level. The emergence of bad carbs can be traced to the beginning of the 18th century. Regrettably, two of these bad carbs were fathered by the French Revolution.
Man has always sifted flour. Formerly, this process was done manually with rustic strainers and, most of the time it was done to remove the bran from the wheat. However, considering the expense and the amount of flour which was lost in the process, sifted flour was a luxury product reserved to the privileged few and common people could not afford white bread. They had to settle for bread made from a coarse type of flour which was called black bread since it also contained a good amount of rye.
Under the ideals of the French Revolution of abolishing the privileges of the rich, white bread became one of the symbolic banners of people’s vindications, even if they knew it was wishful thinking. The fact that there was a limited production of wheat and that sifting was an expensive time-consuming process made it practically impossible to satisfy the collective demand of ‘white bread for the people’. People, however, continued to defend this demand as a banner of equality in their struggle for social justice.
Almost a century later, in 1870, the invention of the cylinder mill reduced flour refining costs making it possible for more and more people to have their white daily bread.
This was then the breaking point when, unknowingly and very gradually, we began to dramatically alter the nature (in other words, the metabolic potential) of one of the basic elements of man’s staple diet.
This alteration slightly increased the glycemic outcome of our meals and resulted in an increased stimulation of the pancreas’s insulinic function.
It is surprising to discover that, despite widespread education, people are still often extremely prejudiced, misguided and ignorant regarding the food they eat on a daily basis.
This is particularly true as concerns potatoes.
Potatoes have become such a routine part of our meals that many people believe that this tuber came from Europe. Actually, potatoes showed up on our great-grandfathers’ plates towards the beginning of the 19th century after the French agronomist Parmentier proposed this tuber as a (temporary) substitute for wheat for the periods of famine which preceded the French Revolution.
When first brought to Europe from Peru in the mid 16th century, potatoes were solely used as pig feed. So much so, that potatoes were called the “pig tuber”, people were suspicious of its effects and the Church even banned potato consumption. People were convinced that it transmitted the Bubonic pest.
Potatoes would have been a more positive addition to human diet had we learnt to eat them raw. Humans, unfortunately, find it difficult to digest raw potatoes because, as opposed to pigs, man is not equipped with the enzymes needed to decompose and assimilate potatoes’ natural nutritional content.
This is why man, in order to be able to digest potatoes, has to eat them cooked but, considering the fragile nature of potato starches, cooking tends to increase potatoes’ potential of producing hyperglycemia.
However, throughout the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, potatoes were basically eaten in their jackets and cooked on ashes or boiled; that is, at relatively low temperatures. Nowadays we know that this is the only coking method which limits its GI (65). Fries, mashed or oven baked potatoes have even higher GIs (90 to 95).
For over a century, potatoes were generally part of meals (particularly for the less well-off) and they were eaten along with other vegetables (cabbage, leek, spinach beet… in France) or with leguminous plants (lentils in Spain) with a high fiber content. This way, the meal’s glycemic outcome remained fairly low (approximately 50). The corresponding insulinic response (even if higher than what it had been before adding potatoes) was still low enough so as to not provoke hyperinsulinism.
The first thing housewives do when there is a major national or international crisis (the long French transport strike, the Gulf War) which might threaten regular food supplies is to go food shopping for the basics just in case. Generally, the first thing they buy is white sugar (saccharide) and this is definitely a wrong choice on two counts.
Firstly, because sugar is not food in itself since it does not supply our bodies with anything whatsoever, apart from “empty calories” as admitted and denounced by nutritionists.
Secondly, since sugar does not serve any particular purpose, humans have neither need nor reason to eat sugar. What’s more, the less sugar we eat, the better off we are.
Sugar is so useless that humanity did without it for 99.9% of the millions of years of its existence. Honey, as mentioned previously, was a luxury reserved for the rich and privileged.
Even if Alexander the Great came upon the sugar cane in 325 B.C., sugar was practically unknown in the Western world up until the 16th century. It was occasionally, if exceptionally, eaten as a delicacy at a time when it was rare and expensive. In fact, sugar was basically sold by Apothecaries (former pharmacists).
The discovery of the New World brought sugar closer to Europe, namely in the Antillean Islands. At the time, refining and shipping costs were still high enough to make sugar a luxury product reserved for people who were well off.
On the eve of the French Revolution, in 1780, sugar consumption was less than 2 lbs per inhabitant. In 1812, the discovery that sugar could be extracted from beets, gradually made sugar cheaper and available to one and all.
In France, consumption rates since the beginning of the 19th century are as follows:
1800 = less that 2 lbs a year per inhabitant (approx. 1.2 lbs)
1880 = 16 lbs a year per person
1900 = 34 lbs a year per person
1930 = 60 lbs a year per person
1965 = 80 lbs a year per person
1990 = 70 lbs a year per person
2004 = 78 lbs a year per person
It is alarming to observe that, even in countries like France where the average consumption is lower than in other Western countries (GB: 98 lbs, Germany : 104 lbs, US: 112 lbs) (*), people eat over 50 times more sugar than at the beginning of the 19th century (100 times more in the US.)
The problem is that sugar has a high (70) Glycemic Index* and it can cause hyperglycemia and an excessive stimulation of the pancreas insulinic processes.
It is necessary for us to become aware of the fact that at the beginning of the 19th century man first massively introduced (after seven million of years on Earth) new foods which are affecting his metabolism in perverse manners.
So as to better understand the problem, let’s suppose that suddenly in January 1820 a representative sample group of Western people of the times are given sugar, potatoes and white flour in the same proportions as we carelessly consume them nowadays (50 to 100 times more sugar, for example) or in the same forms as they are consumed today (in products with a high potential to raise blood sugar levels such as ultra refined flours, French fries...), there would surely be an hecatomb (at a pathological level) by December 31 of the same year and it would be extremely conspicuous since the cause of the effect would be there for all to see. Undoubtedly, Health Officials of the time would most probably have taken the necessary measures to ban the production, sale and consumption of these highly harmful products.
However, since these perverse products have only gradually (and progressively depending on the different social classes) become part of our diet, their metabolic repercussions have only been detected years later.
How could we have known a century later in 1930, when obesity was just becoming a health concern in the US, that this was the result of a very gradual and imperceptible process which had begun in homeopathic doses at the beginning of the previous century?
If Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux had given her husband a large glass of cyanide when she decided to get rid of him, he would have died instantly. The poison hypothesis would have been proven almost at once and the assassin unmasked. However, the lady poisoned her husband with very small doses of cyanide over a long period of time; just enough to make him persistently sick with an illness whose symptoms were totally unfamiliar to the doctors of the times. It was the perfect crime since the cause/effect was never established.
The scenario here is basically the same. At a different scale but the process is similar to what has led to the obesity pandemic. What is even more astonishing is that, precisely at a time when we have identified the symptoms of an unknown evil (obesity), the food factors at the root of high blood sugar are paradoxically being further developed and reinforced.
In effect, in June 1944 US forces landed in Normandy to free France from German occupation. Their bags were heavy with foodstuff produced and shipped months before.
In order for this food to withstand times of war, it had to be preserved and special treatments were designed to fit the needs of the times. To conserve these foodstuffs, several processes were developed (industrial treatment, conditioning.) Flour had to be as refined as possible so that it would hold longer and potatoes were made into flakes, something which had never been done before.
What we didn’t know at the time was that all of these processes, which were developed for obvious practical reasons, had resulted in products with much higher Glycemic Indexes than the untreated food they came from. Much like the potato which Parmentier had proposed many years ago as a temporary substitute became a staple part of our meals, these new products, instead of being put away with the rest of the war articles, soon became part of our daily eating habits. They became the precursors of an endless generation of ultra refined and industrialized products which completely transformed our food panorama as of the second half of the 20th century. What people didn’t (couldn’t) know at the time was that these products, like their unfortunate predecessors, are the detonators of a true time bomb.
Science has now shown us that, for the past two centuries, the human species has progressively and unknowingly adopted ways of preparing its foods which cause extremely negative effects on the human metabolism. These chemically-processed foods are not adapted to our human constitution. In other words, they go against our genetic legacy.
For over 7 million years, the pancreas of primitive man, prehistoric man, the man of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance Man, and the man of the Industrial Revolution worked at a slow pace. Their pancreas had no need to learn to produce enormous amounts of insulin because there was no such thing as food with a high potential to produce hypoglycemia.
The human pancreas is in fact the outcome of what it actually needs in order to work together with the record of how it has worked for millions of years and this is what constitutes our metabolic legacy.
Just like it is impossible to stay awake for three days in a row because our organism cannot stand it, it is impossible to over stimulate our pancreas’ insulinic function without harming our bodies.
Excessive weight gaining is thus a symptom of a metabolic abnormality produced by a way of eating which unsuitable, and to which the organism has not yet adapted at a genetic level.
We can now see how the impact of the slow and insidious changes in the foodstuffs and eating habits in the Western world since the beginning of the 19th century (and more so during the past 50 years) is at the root of the endemic obesity which afflicts our times.
However, what is more troubling and can blur our comprehension is that not all human populations react similarly to perverse modern eating habits.
This is what we would like to help elucidate through the Metabolic Atavism Theory.
(*) In Europe, common sugar (white) is saccharide extracted from beets and sugar cane. Saccharide is a disaccharide with a molecule which is 60% glucose (IG=100) and 40% fructose (IG=20). This is why it has a Glycemic Index of 70.
In the US, most of the sugar consumed and above all the sugar used by the food industry is made from corn. This sugar is also a disaccharide but its molecule is basically made up of glucose (high fructose corn). Its Glycemic Index is around 90.
Thus, Americans not only consume more sugar than the rest of the world, but the sugar they consume happens to have a GI which is 30% higher than that of European sugar.