William Leonard, Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University
What did humans evolve to eat? Human nutritional health in comparative perspective
Over the last 25 years, evolutionary perspectives on human nutrition have received ever greater attention among scholars in a number of fields. This talk will examine the evolutionary origins of human dietary and activity patterns, and their implications for understanding modern health problems. Humans have evolved distinctive nutritional characteristics associated the high metabolic costs of our large brains. The evolution of larger hominid brain size necessitated the development of foraging strategies that both provided high quality foods, and required larger ranges and activity budgets. Over time, human subsistence strategies have become ever more efficient in obtaining energy with minimal time and effort. Today, populations of the industrialized world live in “obesogenic” environments with low levels of energy expenditure and abundant food supplies. Drawing on data from the US and traditional, subsistence-level societies, I consider the roles of both diet and energy expenditure in contributing to the rising obesity rates in our modern world. These analyses suggest that the dramatic rise in obesity in the US cannot be explained solely by increased energy consumption, and highlight the importance of linking physical activity and dietary recommendation in promoting nutritional health.