Is It The Meat, or Cooking The Meat?

This sounds plausible enough, right?

Humans became human, as it were, with the emergence 1.8m years ago of a species called Homo erectus. This had a skeleton much like modern man’s—a big, brain-filled skull and a narrow pelvis and rib cage, which imply a small abdomen and thus a small gut. Hitherto, the explanation for this shift from the smaller skulls and wider pelvises of man’s apelike ancestors has been a shift from a vegetable-based diet to a meat-based one. Meat has more calories than plant matter, the theory went. A smaller gut could therefore support a larger brain.

So far, so good? Well, via a commenter on Art's private blog who called attention to this article in The Economist, maybe not. What's Cooking? – The evolutionary role of cookery. And, so…

Dr Wrangham disagrees. When you do the sums, he argues, raw meat is still insufficient to bridge the gap. He points out that even modern “raw foodists”, members of a town-dwelling, back-to-nature social movement, struggle to maintain their weight—and they have access to animals and plants that have been bred for the table. Pre-agricultural man confined to raw food would have starved.

Start cooking, however, and things change radically. Cooking alters food in three important ways. It breaks starch molecules into more digestible fragments. It “denatures” protein molecules, so that their amino-acid chains unfold and digestive enzymes can attack them more easily. And heat physically softens food. That makes it easier to digest, so even though the stuff is no more calorific, the body uses fewer calories dealing with it.

In support of his thesis, Dr Wrangham, who is an anthropologist, has ransacked other fields and come up with an impressive array of material. Cooking increases the share of food digested in the stomach and small intestine, where it can be absorbed, from 50% to 95% according to work done on people fitted for medical reasons with collection bags at the ends of their small intestines.

Wow, not such good news for the vegan raw foodists. Not only is the diet designed for large, fermenting guts (and tiny brains), which is bad enough, but now they must also contend with the likelihood that they're getting from 5-50% less nutrition from what they eat than if it were cooked. Then take away the high nutrition of meat and animal fat and it's a recipe for a long-term disaster; and I just don't see how anyone could conclude otherwise. This is why a Palo-like diet with plenty of all such nutritious food (cooked, normally) is super nutritious.

And, there's yet another twist to the story.

Another telling experiment, conducted on rats, did not rely on cooking. Rather the experimenters ground up food pellets and then recompacted them to make them softer. Rats fed on the softer pellets weighed 30% more after 26 weeks than those fed the same weight of standard pellets. The difference was because of the lower cost of digestion. Indeed, Dr Wrangham suspects the main cause of the modern epidemic of obesity is not overeating (which the evidence suggests—in America, at least—is a myth) but the rise of processed foods.

Gratifying to see someone thinking independently, rather than the same old saw that you eat to much and don't exercise enough. The one bugaboo, however, would be the advent of fire. In the article, Dr. Wrangham concedes that the evidence is not conclusive, and thus, there are those all over the map, from 200,000 years all the way back to the advent of Homo erectus 1.8 million years ago.

But it's an interesting hypothesis, that's it's not the meat that evolved us as it did, but the ability to cook; meaning, that our existence is potentially the effect of a technological innovation 1.8 million years ago rather than merely "dumb" stumbling upon or scavenging new food sources.

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  1. shea on March 2, 2009 at 00:12

    Thanks for posting this. This is very interesting. I find this kind of stuff fascinating. It'd be great if you would do some more posts on this and elaborate a bit more.

  2. billy-jay on March 1, 2009 at 20:12

    Interesting. Doesn't cooking often have a negative effect on the nutritional content of food, though?

  3. Brock on March 2, 2009 at 05:33

    Depends on how you cook it. Done correctly, no. It improves the nutritional value.

    "Nourishing Traditions" by Sally Fallon may be of interest to you.

  4. David Brown on March 2, 2009 at 05:36

    Then again, maybe we were created with "a big, brain-filled skull and a narrow pelvis and rib cage." Check out this essay:

    Dave Brown
    Nutrition Education Project

  5. Mario Encinias on March 1, 2009 at 22:37

    Dr. Wrangham also believes that tubers (underground storage organs) played the bigger role in the increase of the human brain. Who knows? But it does seem that early man was a meat and potatoes kind of guy. He dropped weight in the spring and summer, as the meat/fat supply increased (with the entry of the newly fattened ungulates), and the consumption of tubers dropped(i.e. low carb), while the changing environments of the fall and winter signaled weight gain via the withering of their grass-eating prey and the inreased reliance on tubers (i.e. lowfat, high-carb, low calorie). D3 may have played a role in this eolopgical dynamic as well. Therefore, if we want to lose weight, it behooves us to emulate the economic and seasonal circumstances of a springtime savannah, hence high-fat, low carb, and plenty of D3 (sunshine).

  6. on March 2, 2009 at 07:20

    I apologize for all of my trolling, Richard. I promise not to do it anymore. I agree on the saturated fat/CAD thing. I was only repeating word for word what persons have countered me with.

    Very good article.


  7. Richard Nikoley on March 2, 2009 at 07:39

    Yea, and some of us were "created" with tails, complete with vertebra and connective musculature.

  8. Mark on March 2, 2009 at 04:52

    Interesting post.

  9. warren on March 2, 2009 at 06:40

    I remember in anthropology class learning about the theory that one of H. Erectus's othe tech inovations was the use of sharpened rocks uses to scavenge the marrow leftover from the bones of kills of large predators. Ingestion of these dense nutrients helped begin the increase in brain size. I liked to think of our ablity to be obsevational learners and problem solvers as our main advantage. Good stuff!

  10. walter on March 2, 2009 at 06:53

    I believe I read on that cooking meat, and making it easier to chew, allowed a gene mutation to survive that shrank the jaw and increased the size of the cranium, and therefore the brain in humans. The gene is MYH16, and it's also discussed in chapter 1 of How Music Really Works, which is a fascinating book covering the evolutionary explanation of why we humans like music.

  11. David at on March 2, 2009 at 06:45

    This is really interesting. I've read a few things in the past about how raw food is supposed to be good for you. I've never done it though as I can't stand it (except sushi). This is the first article I've read that indicates that cooking food actually makes it more nutritionally valuable. Cool.

    – Dave

  12. David Brown on March 2, 2009 at 21:54

    Did you read the essay, Richard?

  13. Richard Nikoley on March 2, 2009 at 07:42

    I hope so, as you clearly know all the nuts and bolts and can add value here, just as many other commenters do.

    The more sane voices out there, the more sanity will be as the future comes rolling in.


  14. Richard Nikoley on March 2, 2009 at 07:48

    Well, Mario, if man did indeed develop the control of fire as far back as H. erectus (he'd have known about fire just from seeing plains and forrest fires set off by lightening and lava flows and such — maybe even scavenged naturally cooked meat), then that would fall right in line. I doubt tubers are going to be much good — or useful at all — uncooked, but cooked is an entirely different matter and it becomes a dense source of energy. Moreover, it would serve to tide things over in times of sparse success at the hunt, dramatically improving survival chances.

  15. Richard Nikoley on March 2, 2009 at 07:51

    There's probably a tradeoff, but if this is true, it's good news. That is, while the bulk nutrition is greater in the raw, much of it is either inaccessible, or digests in a less optimal way, so that by destroying some of the nutrition via cooking, we actually access more than if raw.

    Quite amazing to speculate that an irony like that could possibly be the real underlying key to the whole evolution of man enchilada.

  16. Richard Nikoley on March 3, 2009 at 00:59

    You've got to be kidding me.

    I was a member of the Creation Research Institute as a college student fundamentalist Christian in the 80s. This, after graduating from a fundamentalist Baptist Christian high school.

    I have been profoundly atheist and an evolutionist going on nearly 20 years. Learned to think for myself.

    Here's a decent post concerning why I have no interest in "questions" of creationism, "ID," santa claus, easter bunnies, tooth fairies, unicorns or any other _arbitrary_ assertions.

    Now, this is not the place for this sort of thing. This is a health blog and I do not require that anyone believe in evolution…

    Move on, please. I am not the slightest bit interested, and I _never_ will be.

  17. David Brown on March 3, 2009 at 05:55

    Glad to move on, Richard, after you answer my question. Did you read this essay?

    I don't claim to be super intelligent but I do study a lot; mostly nutrition literature at this juncture.

    The above essay is about the origin of life rather than evolution. Scientifically, we often observe the adaptation and natural selection that result from random gene expression which may or may not be modulated by environmental factors.

    In the plant and animal kingdoms, random gene expression enables varieties of species to adapt to environmental changes or colonize new environments or simply change for no apparent reason.

    Changes in physical form and biological function can be observed when plants or animals get introduced into novel environments. These changes are termed dauermodifications, a form of cytoplasmic inheritance evolutionists tend to ignore. (Google: Race and Human Evolution: A Fatal Attraction or Dauermodifications for further discussion)

    I've read hundreds of nutrition books of all sorts. I am so weary of the speculation regarding our supposed adaptation to one form of diet or another. The fact is, the human species is highly variable physiologically and biochemically. Consequently, both the micro nutrient and macro nutrient mixes ingested must be both appropriate and adequate for a person to enjoy sound health or for an organism to thrive in its environment.

    This is a great blog and I've been following it for several weeks. I urge you readers, who are truly serious about understanding how nourishment works, to read "Biochemical Individuality" by Roger J. Williams, PhD and "Food for Nought" by Ross Hume Hall, PhD. I'm not saying these authors never brought evolution into the picture. Almost everyone assumes it happened. The books are just well worth reading in terms of their analysis of the impact of industrialization on human health.

  18. Richard Nikoley on March 3, 2009 at 09:47


    Sorry, my "are you kidding" remark was meant to be taken as no, didn't read it.

    I skimmed through a few pages, then went to the punchline and I'm sorry. There is simply not a shred of value there, for me. The essentiall conclusion is that we need the metaphysics of a creator as a foundation for morality.

    I rejected that nearly 20 years ago. When asked what the purpose of life is (as they address), I always reply with a question: WHOSE life?

    It is, as always, the same old ancient antagonism: individualism vs. collectivism. I find that the purpose of my own life is compatible enough with most people and how they pursue purposeful values in their own that I get along fine. As for the rest, well, that's why I keep myself well armed. The very last thing in the world I need is an authoritarian guiding light to "tame the beast." I'm very content to take my chances.

    Sorry; I respect your choice to believe, but I'm not the slightest bit interested in people's hand wringing over the prospect of a wholly material universe. I am a materialist, but one who believes in human free will; or, at least, understands that believing we have free will is tantamount to having free will.

    Enough said.

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