100 Million Years of Food: Back to the Future

Stephan Le looks at the notorious Western Diet as the son of Vietnamese immigrants to Canada and through the lens of a biological anthropologist. His book, 100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today challenges both the standard American diet and the many prescriptions of how to change it as advanced by modern food pundits.  His refreshing point of view is sure to draw in anyone who is interested in why we eat what we do and the consequences of those choices.

Dr. Le starts by encouraging us to give insects a chance as part of our daily fare. Insects are plentiful, easily gathered or farmed, and rich in protein. Thus, in the first chapter he challenges us to crawl out of our box of preconceived notions and entertain thoughts that clash with American cultural norms. In this dialogue he weaves in a personal history of his food choices as influenced by his grandmother who came to live with his family when he was eight years old. He paints a portrait of the value of insects as food in many indigenous diets and asks us to overcome our squeamishness. For readers not completely grossed out by the thought of eating dead, creepy, crawly organisms, the rest of the book tends to look less threatening and more approachable.

Although he is a scientist, he rejects the science of nutrition for its inability to capture the complexity of human metabolism and its reductionist rather than a more holistic approach. In my research career I practiced reductionist (breaking down nature in its component parts to attempt to understand how things work) science in studying the cellular basis of injury when susceptible fruits like bell peppers and tomatoes are exposed to low temperatures above freezing.1 I also conducted studies from a more biologically holistic (interaction of whole organisms within their natural and manmade environment) perspective while tracing changes in quality of fresh fruits and vegetables  from harvest to purchase using a systems approach.2 To me the battle between reductionism and holism is counterproductive. To understand our world and how we fit in requires an appreciation of both approaches. Tearing down one side to make the other one look “good” does not advance knowledge but only promotes polemics and dogmatism.

Having written off over a century of nutrition research on understanding how different components of food affect human health, Le directs us to consuming traditional foods. He strings together a series of apparently unrelated studies to develop a theory on food and nutrition that is not fully revealed until the final chapter. As a scientist I am troubled by his selection of tidbits from studies that fit his personal story but are not substantiated by scientific consensus. I realize that we live in a society that rejects established convention and embraces dissent, but developing policy based on a rejection of established science does not seem wise to me. Some of his other recommendations include cutting back on salt and sugar, moderate consumption of alcohol and becoming slightly overweight. He is skeptical of plant-based diets suggesting that fruits and vegetables are overrated. He also rejects our overemphasis on using calories as a guide to maintaining a healthy weight. Rather he suggests that sedentary lifestyles contribute to obesity and other diseases of civilization beyond the effect of calorie consumption and utilization. The nutritional science he rejects has a technical explanation—a drop of basal metabolic rate due to reduced physical activity.

100 Million Years of Food provides us with an entertaining tour around the world to explore indigenous cuisines and people who practice them. At times I wondered where he was taking us and what lesson he was trying to convey, but he never lost my interest. By the time we arrive at the final chapter, however, he unveils his basic philosophy about food. His perspective involves getting more physical activity without overdoing it, eating traditional cuisines and cutting back on animal protein. He is an advocate of eating sustainably, but I fail to see how scaling up traditional practices will be sufficient to feed a world population predicted to grow to over 9 billion people by 2050 is going to prove to be more sustainable than current practices. I contend that it was technology that brought us to an overcrowded world and that only technology, if used wisely, can provide a sustainable future. This book provides an interesting read for someone tired of hearing the same old solutions to what we should eat and why.


Next week: How successful was Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative?

1 Florkowski, W.J., R.L. Shewfelt, B. Brueckner & S.E. Prussia, eds., 2014, Postharvest Handling: A Systems Approach, San Diego: Academic Press

2 Shewfelt, R.L. and A.C. Purvis, 1995, Toward a comprehensive model for lipid peroxidation in plant tissue disorders.  HortScience 30:213-218.



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