The Diet We Were Designed to Eat

There are three broad theories about evolution and food. One is that humans have become adapted to grains and other products of the agricultural revolution over the last 10,000 years. Two is the paleo view “that 10,000 years is a blink of an evolutionary eye, and that humans are adapted to paleolithic diets with a lot of lean meat,” but why stop there? The third theory is that the last 200,000 years “is a minute of the evolutionary year” when we were mostly Stone Age humans and represents just the last 1 percent of the roughly 20 million years we’ve been evolving since our common great ape ancestor. So, What Is the “Natural” Human Diet?

During our truly formative years, which one might say was the first 90 percent of our existence, our nutritional requirements reflected an ancestral past in which we ate mostly leaves, flowers, and fruits, with some bugs thrown in, thanks to wormy apples, to get our vitamin B12. “For this reason, another approach that might improve our understanding of the best dietary practices for modern humans is to focus attention not on the past but rather on the here and now; that is, on study of the foods eaten by the closest living relatives of modern humans,” given the bulk of our ancestral diets and “the lack of evidence supporting any notable diet-related changes in human nutrient requirements, metabolism, or digestive physiology” compared to our fellow great apes.

This could explain why fruits and vegetables are not only good for us but are vital to our survival. Indeed, we’re one of the few species so adapted to a plant-based diet that we could actually die from not eating fruits and vegetables, from the vitamin C-deficiency disease, scurvy. Most other animals simply make their own vitamin C, but why would our body waste all that effort when we evolved hanging out in the trees just eating fruits and veggies all day long?

Presumably, it’s not a coincidence that the few other mammals unable to synthesize their own vitamin C—including guinea pigs, some bunny rabbits, and fruit bats—are all, like us great apes, strongly herbivorous. Even during the Stone Age, data from rehydrated human fossilized feces tell us we may have been getting up to ten times more vitamin C and ten times more dietary fiber than we get today. The question is: Are these incredibly high-nutrient intakes simply an unavoidable by-product of eating whole, plant foods all the time, or might they actually be serving some important function, like antioxidant defense?

Plants create antioxidants to defend their own structures against free radicals. The human body must defend itself against the same types of pro-oxidants, so we too have evolved an array of amazing antioxidant enzymes, which are effective but not infallible. Free radicals can breach our defenses and cause damage that accumulates with age, leading to a variety of disease-causing and ultimately fatal changes. This is where plants may come in: “Plant-based, antioxidant-rich foods traditionally formed the major part of the human diet,” so we didn’t have to evolve that great of an antioxidant system. We could just let the plants in our diet pull some of the weight, like giving us vitamin C so we don’t have to be bothered to make it ourselves. Using plants as a crutch may well have relieved the pressure for further evolutionary development of our own defenses. That is we’ve become dependent on getting lots of plant foods in our diet, and when we don’t, we may suffer adverse health consequences.

Even during the Stone Age, this may not have been a problem. Only in recent history did we start giving up on whole plant foods. Even modern-day paleo and low-carb followers may be eating more vegetables than those on standard Western diets. There’s a perception that low-carbers are chowing down on the three Bs—beef, bacon, and butter—but that’s only a small minority. What they are eating more of is salad. Indeed, according to an online low-carb community, the number one thing they said they were eating more of was vegetables. Great! The problem isn’t people wanting to cut their carb intake by swapping junk food for vegetables. The concern is the shift to animal-sourced foods. “Greater adherence to [a low-carb diet] high in animal sources of fat and protein was associated with higher all-cause and cardiovascular mortality post-MI,” or after a heart attack, meaning they cut their lives short.

If there’s one takeaway from our studies of ancestral diets, perhaps it’s that “diets based largely on plant foods promote health and longevity.”


For more on the paleo and low carb diets, see:

If you were fascinated by how we can take advantage of plant defense mechanisms, check out my videos Appropriating Plant Defenses and Xenohormesis: What Doesn’t Kill Plants May Make Us Stronger.

How many antioxidants should we shoot for? See:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Why We Should Cut Down on Salt Independently of Blood Pressure

If you put people on a low-salt diet, meaning only getting twice as much sodium as they need, as opposed to a usual salt diet where they’re getting five times more, you get a significant improvement in artery function. Lower salt begets better arterial function, suggesting heart-protective effects beyond just blood pressure reduction. Now, this was after dropping people’s salt intake by about a teaspoon a day for two weeks. What if you only dropped salt intake by a half teaspoon or so a day? You still get a significant improvement in artery function, and it happens within just two days of reducing one’s salt intake—or, even after a single meal. A high-salt meal, which is to say just a “typical amount of salt consumed in a commonly eaten meal, can significantly suppress [artery function] within 30 [minutes].” In my video Sodium and Arterial Function: A-Salting Our Endothelium, I show what happens 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes after consuming a meal with just a pinch of salt in it versus eating the same meal, but made with a quarter teaspoon of salt rather than a pinch: a significant suppression of arterial function. Now, is this in addition to the spike in blood pressure from salt or because of the spike in blood pressure?

If you take people with normal blood pressure and give them a bowl of soup containing the amount of salt a regular meal might contain, their blood pressure goes up over the next three hours compared to the same soup with no added salt. Now, this doesn’t happen to everyone; this is just the average response. Some people are resistant to the effects of salt on their blood pressure. So what if you repeated the artery function experiment on them? You get a paper entitled (*spoiler alert*): “High dietary sodium intake impairs endothelium-dependent dilation in healthy salt-resistant humans.” Indeed, even in people whose blood pressure is unresponsive to salt intake, they still suffer significant suppression of their artery function. So, independent of any effects on blood pressure, salt hurts our arteries, and that harm begins within minutes of consumption for our major arteries and even our tiny blood vessels.

Using something called laser Doppler flowmetry, you can measure blood flow in the tiny vessels in our skin. In the video, you can see the measurement of blood flow at baseline. Now, to get the blood vessels to open up, they warmed the skin. The reason we may turn pink when we get into a hot bath is that the blood vessels in our skin are opening up, and that’s what happened: a big increase in blood flow with the warming. That was on the low-salt diet, however. A high-salt diet starts out the same, but after the same warming, there’s significantly less blood flow. The arteries just don’t seem to open up as well on a high-salt diet, unless you inject vitamin C into the skin. That seems to reverse the salt-induced suppression of blood vessel function. So if an antioxidant reverses the salt effect, then the way salt may be damaging our artery function is through oxidative stress, the formation of free radicals in our blood stream. But, how?

There’s an enzyme in our body that can detoxify a million free radicals per second (!), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But, compared to a low-salt diet, if we consume a normal-salt diet, we suppress the activity of this detoxifying powerhouse of an enzyme. That may help explain why our artery function is much lower on salt. With our antioxidant enzymes crippled by the salt, all the excess free radicals may be crippling our arteries. Mop up those extra free radicals by infusing vitamin C into the bloodstream, however, and artery function returns to normal. In contrast, on a low-salt diet, if you drip vitamin C into people’s veins, nothing happens because our antioxidant enzymes are already taking care of business and haven’t been shackled by the sodium of a normal-salt diet.

Whereas potassium, concentrated in fruits and vegetables, softens the cells that line our arteries and increases the release of nitric oxide that allows our arteries to relax, sodium in our blood stiffens the artery lining within minutes and reduces nitric oxide release. The more salt, the less nitric oxide is produced. Consume one salty meal, and not only does our blood pressure go up, but our arteries literally stiffen. That’s why we could figure out four thousand years ago that too much salt was bad for us. Maybe we don’t need a double-blind trial. Maybe we don’t need to follow people around for a decade. We may just have to feed someone a bag of potato chips and take their pulse.


My video Sodium and Arterial Function: A-Salting Our Endothelium is part of an extended video series on sodium, trying to set the record straight on the “controversy” manufactured by the processed food industries. Check out the other installments:

Other salt-related videos of interest include:

I touched on potassium in Preventing Strokes with Diet and Lowering our Sodium-to-Potassium Ratio to Reduce Stroke Risk, but I’m looking forward to doing a deep dive into the mineral when I get a chance.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

The Best Dried Fruit for Osteoporosis

“We are in an epidemic of osteoporosis. There can be no doubt about that.” Ten million Americans have it, and one in three older women will get it. “We urgently need public health strategies to maintain bone health throughout the life cycle and to prevent osteoporosis in later life.” Might fruits and vegetables be the unexpected natural answer to the question of osteoporosis prevention? My video Prunes for Osteoporosis sought to find out.

Evidence from a variety of studies “strongly points to a positive link between fruit and vegetable consumption and indexes of bone health,” such as bone mineral density, and the “size of the effect in the older women [is] impressive: doubling the fruit intake” is associated with a 5 percent higher spine mineralization. The same relationship exists with young women, too. And, eating lots of fruit in childhood may protect bones throughout life—something that was not found for milk intake, as I’ve explored before in my video Is Milk Good For Our Bones?

Bone health isn’t just about calcium. There are several key nutrients found in vegetables, fruits, and beans that are associated with better bone mineral density, but does that translate into lower hip fracture risk? The Singapore Chinese Health Study found that a “diet rich in plant-based foods, namely vegetables, fruit, and legumes such as soy, may reduce the risk of hip fracture.” But, why?

“The underlying mechanism in postmenopausal osteoporosis (PO) is an imbalance between bone resorption [disappearance] and formation,” and oxidative stress may play a role in this balance.

There are two types of bone cells: “the bone-forming osteoblasts and the bone-dismantling osteoclasts.” Osteoblasts are continually laying down new bone, while osteoclasts chisel away old bone, using free radicals as the molecular chisel to chip away our bone. Too many free radicals in our system, though, may lead to excessive bone breakdown. Antioxidant defenses appear “markedly decreased in osteoporotic women,” and “elderly osteoporotic women had consistently lower levels of all natural antioxidants tested than controls.”

“Because excessive [free radicals] may contribute to bone loss, it is important to elucidate the potential role antioxidant-rich fruits play in mitigating bone loss that leads to the development of osteoporosis.” The thought is that fruits up-regulate the bone building cells, and down-regulate the bone-eating cells, tipping the balance towards greater bone mass. So, let’s put a fruit to the test. Which one do we pick? Dried plums were chosen because they have among the highest antioxidant ranking among commonly consumed fruits and vegetables—and because the researchers received a grant from the California Dried Plum Board!

When you think of prunes, you think of bowels, not bones, but, over a decade ago, researchers at Oklahoma State tried giving a dozen prunes a day to a group of postmenopausal women, using a dozen dried apple rings as a control. After three months, only the subjects who consumed the prunes had significant elevations in an enzyme marker of bone formation, although prunes didn’t seem to affect markers of bone breakdown. So, prunes may help more with building bones than preventing bone loss. However, the reverse was found with almonds, so maybe a little prune-and-almond trail mix is in order. 

With this bump in bone formation indices, one might expect that if they did a longer study, we would actually see an impact on bone mineral density. And nine years later, just such a study was done: 12 months on dried plums versus apples. Both dried fruit regimens appeared to have “bone-protective effects,” though the prunes seemed to work better in the arm bone and spine.

So, the dried plum marketing board wants everyone to know that dried plums are “the most effective fruit in both preventing and reversing bone loss,” but only two fruits have ever been tested: plums and apples. If this pans out for other plants, though, “a ‘fruit and vegetables’ approach may provide a very sensible (and natural) alternative therapy for osteoporosis treatment, one that is likely to have numerous additional health-related benefits.” All we have to do is convince people to actually do it.


For more on bone health, see:

What else can prunes do for us? Check out Prunes vs. Metamucil vs. Vegan Diet.

Apple rings have their own benefits. See Dried Apples vs. Cholesterol.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: