We’ve always been taught that meat played a crucial role in the development of the human race—but more and more research is pointing to the significance of starches in the evolution of our species.
For decades, people believed that humans developed large brains and a higher level of intelligence when we started consuming large amounts of cooked meat. The prevailing narrative stated that when we discovered how to make fire, we were able to cook and digest meat, which we had not been able to do before. By eating cooked meat, we were able to consume more calories, protein, and fat. In turn, this allowed us to develop the large brains in comparison to our size, and over thousands of years of evolution, we became more intelligent overall.
It’s easy to see why this explanation was so easily accepted amongst the general public, and by many in the scientific community. After all, meat is very calorie dense, making it an important source of food for early humans with limited resources who had not yet developed agriculture. Some cuts of meat are also very nutrient dense. For example, liver is one of the most nutrient dense foods available—with all of the research we have available today, we wouldn’t recommend eating it because of the many health risks associated with consuming meat, but early humans simply trying to survive couldn’t be picky. Fat is also an essential macronutrient that is extremely important for brain health. Women should also incorporate healthy fats into their diets on a daily basis to support their reproductive health.
On the surface, it seems like meat really was the key to the evolutionary success story of human beings. And this popular belief is convenient for the meat industry. Meat can be marketed as necessary—if we needed it to evolve, then we still need to eat it, right? Brands that market their products towards consumers on meat-based keto and paleo diets often use the words “primal” or “ancestral” in their advertising and labels, in order to promote the idea that eating meat was essential for our ancestors to evolve and survive to the modern age. But what if that wasn’t the whole picture? What if eating meat was just one part of the evolutionary puzzle?
Let’s dig deeper. As it turns out, humans can actually digest raw meat. Aside from ethical arguments, this is definitely not advisable because of the possibility of foodborne illnesses. People can absorb more nutrients when eating cooked meat, but it is entirely possible for human beings to eat and fully digest raw meat. But cooked meat is not the only new food source that humans suddenly had access to when they discovered how to make fire. We also struggle to digest raw starches—and the ability to cook starches may have also changed the course of human history.
Cooked starches are a great source of glucose, and while dietary fat is necessary for a healthy brain, our brains do utilize glucose as their primary food source. Eating more glucose also increases the energy available to our red blood cells. Furthermore, new research shows that compared with other primates, human beings have more copies of the gene AMY1, which is necessary for breaking down calorie-rich starches like potatoes.
The research on AMY1 suggests that consuming cooked starches allowed us to evolve in ways that other primates didn’t. Scientists and anthropologists now acknowledge that cooking ancient, wild versions of tubers and bulbs that we eat today (like carrots, potatoes, and onions) provided extra calories, nutrients, and necessary glucose for our brains. Plus, our ancestors were often eating 100 grams or more of fiber per day—this definitely points to a primarily plant-based diet.
If you were looking for an excuse to eat more potatoes, look no further. Starchy foods may get a bad rap, but that’s because French fries, tater tots, and potato chips are usually the first things to come mind when we hear the word “starch.” Sweet potatoes, brown rice, rolled oats, whole grain pasta, and even baked white potatoes are all healthy sources of whole carbohydrates. Plus, large servings of white potatoes actually contain complete proteins, which means that you can get all nine essential amino acids from this single food. They do have a high glycemic index, but unless this is a concern for you, you can eat them every day if you want.
Yes, cooking meat most likely did contribute to the development of our species. But plant-based foods such as starches were just as important. And today, we do not have to eat meat to obtain all the nutrients we need. Feel free to load your plate up with potatoes—where would our species be without them?
What role do carbs play in your diet?