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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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March 14, 2009

The Importance of Cooking in the Evolution of the Human Brain

By Mark Sisson
39 Comments

Even the most ardent vegetarians will begrudgingly admit that meat eating played a large role in the evolution of early man (although now we’re somehow expected to totally revert back several million years). Including calorie-dense meat in our diets allowed us to ditch the larger guts used for digesting inefficient plant matter, and we developed big brains. We were able to consume more nutrients and more calories without sacrificing mobility, and eating meat allowed man to spread to harsher climes, where vegetation was sparse or only seasonal. The human brain requires an incredible amount of energy to run, and meat was the most readily available source of sufficient fuel.

But perhaps the shift from vegetarianism to meat-eating isn’t the only explanation for the considerable increase in brain size and function. Harvard’s Dr. Richard Wrangham suggests that the advent of cooking played a major role in increasing the availability of brain fuel for our ancestors. Cooking changes food in three important ways, according to Wrangham: it “unfolds” the amino-acid chains of proteins, making it easier for digestive enzymes to process them; it makes starches more digestible; and it “physically softens” food, effectively allowing us to get more calories in with less work. Cooked food is no more calorific than raw food, but it takes fewer calories to process and digest.

Wrangham has assembled an impressive line of evidence. From studies with patients using intestinal collection bags, cooking appears to increase the absorption of food in the stomach and small intestine from 50% to 95% when compared to raw. Rats fed softer, pre-processed food pellets gained 30% more weight after 26 weeks than rats fed the same amount of standard pellets (not exactly cooking, and these are rats, but it makes his point that pre-processed/cooking allows for easier absorption). Our taste receptors are engineered to “prefer” softer food, because that means easier digestion and more calories with less work – perfect for Grok, or for anyone who has to really work for his or her food (rather than just stroll down to the grocery store).

Of course, he goes on to suggest that what was a boon to early man has become a curse and scourge to modern man (I like this guy!). Too much of a “good” thing has its definite drawbacks, and the prevalence of processed, pre-packaged “soft” food that easily digests has coincided with rising obesity rates, which come with a whole host of lovely complications of their own. See, our taste receptors and predispositions worked well when sugar and refined flour weren’t readily available. Grok loved sweets, but fruit wasn’t nearly as sweet as the commercially grown fruit we eat now.If Grok had access to Twinkies and canned fruit drenched in syrup, he’d probably go for it too, develop diabetes, and get fat (just look around you for ample evidence).

We need more researchers like Wrangham. It’s obvious his is a labor of scientific inquiry; he doesn’t set out to further an agenda (unless that agenda is anthropology). Detractors could look at my post and say, “Oh, it’s just pro-meat, low-carb Sisson trying to justify his stance again” (no matter that we always back our posts up with studies and facts). But Wrangham is a professor of anthropology whose frank assessment of our country’s obesity issues is merely a natural offshoot of his science, and that can’t be ignored. Let’s hope more people pay attention. It’s easy enough for those in denial to dismiss the ideas of a Taubes or an Eades as “agenda-driven,” but it’s tough to ignore similar ideas when they come from someone without a dog in the fight.

AviatorDave Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Raw Food Gets Served

What Do Those Produce Stickers Really Mean?

Genetically Modified Food: Super Solution or Franken Future?

TAGS:  Grok

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39 Comments on "The Importance of Cooking in the Evolution of the Human Brain"

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emergefit
7 years 6 months ago

Definitely worth clicking the related link and reading the article from economist.com. This is good stuff.

kev
kev
6 years 7 months ago

DO you need to pay to read it? It asks me to enter my username or get a subscription.

Son of Grok
7 years 6 months ago

Wow, this is great info FOR the cooking of meat. That is a view not often expressed so it is quite refreshing to hear. Thanks Mark!

The SoG

Sonagi
Sonagi
7 years 6 months ago
‘If Grok had access to Twinkies and canned fruit drenched in syrup, he’d probably go for it too,” NO, HE WOULDN’T!!! Not everybody in other developed nations with easy food access eat the sugary, processed junk that we do. Middle-aged locals in Korea and China, who were not raised on fast food and snacks, do not like American food very much. They complain that cakes and other baked goods give them headaches because they’re too sweet. Plates of chili-cheese fries and overstuffed burritos smothered in sauce do not even look or smell appetizing. If we’re hardwired to love HFCS and… Read more »
Katzenberg
Katzenberg
5 years 3 months ago
You’re right. When I immigrated to the US in 1994 from europe I thought everything here sucked. I couldn’t even eat chocolate (Hershey), just absolutely horrible and made me sick the second I bit into it. The only thing I could consume was Mc Donald BigMacs and a Coke…but only because I knew what to expect, because Europe has them. I have never eaten any american made pastries or cakes or any other candy types. Someone would have to pay me to eat a Twinkie…just yuck. I did what you said Grok would probably do. I sniffed it, sampled it,… Read more »
Merry
7 years 6 months ago
I think if Grok were starving he’d eat the canned food. If you’re really hungry, your standards can get lowered. Ask any guy at a singles bar — oh, sorry, getting off topic… I appreciate what you’re saying about Wrangham being driven by facts not by any particular agenda. However, I’ve noticed that many scientists, once they’ve developed a theory, become so enamored of it that they don’t want to let it go no matter what conflicting evidence presents itself. I’m not pointing a figure at Wrangham here. Just a general observation that’s it’s always good practice to question everything… Read more »
Adam Steer - Better Is Better
7 years 6 months ago
“Our taste receptors are engineered to “prefer” softer food, because that means easier digestion and more calories with less work” I love how smart the body is! Unfortunately, as you mention, we’ve set ourselves up to dupe the natural intelligence of our evolution with colorful boxes of food-like substances. I can’t say I’m immune (I wish…). I grew up on the typical SAD (Standard American Diet) and I’m now stuck with the continual battle to resist it’s draw. The upside is, my experience gives me many tools to use in helping my clients steer through the unsettled waters of our… Read more »
Kat
Kat
7 years 6 months ago

I am a vegetarian because of factory farming and that being the only option available to me. I still follow a mostly primal diet and lifestyle and feel slighted by your attitude towards vegetarians in this article. Please consider that not everyone has access to grass fed meats and organic produce but do the best they can.

Sonagi
Sonagi
7 years 6 months ago

@Kat:

If you are a vegetarian to avoid factory farm meats, then why don’t you consume fish? There are clean, ecologically sustainable choices. Moreover, I think the North American fishing industry does not rely on exploited undocumented workers to fill its workforce. Fresh or frozen Alaskan salmon is expensive, but canned salmon, sardines, and herring are not. Dressed up with a touch of olive oil and herbs, the little fish add protein and healthy Omega-3s to a salad.

curiousfarmer
7 years 6 months ago

@Kat:
Will you please elaborate why factory farming is the only option available to you? I would love to connect you to farmers that could meet your needs.

DaveC - DaveGetsFit
7 years 6 months ago

I’ve never viewed Taubes as furthering an agenda (although I’m sure he’d like to sell some books). When I recommend his book to people I always mention how he’s a science journalist rather that a diet book author.

Mustafa Demirkol
Mustafa Demirkol
7 years 6 months ago

Hello Mark,

I’ve been a follower of your blog for a while, I think your ideas about fitness and food are great.

The only thing that confuses me about eating meat and raw food is that there is a scientific research proving these are cancerogenic if consumed in a long period of time (for instance human lifespan)

You may want to read “The China Study”, that’s a great scientific research on negative (or deadly) health effects of eating meat and diary products.
You’ll find it very convincing I believe.

Mustafa (From Turkey)

Danielle T
7 years 6 months ago
I just finished reading the Taubes book and it seems everyone is mentioning it lately. Great reading for, as one reviewer put it, “anyone who has more than a casual interest in nutrition.” Nothing like 468 pages of carbs v. fat! As far as “what would Grok eat,” early man might have had a natural craving for carbs, as they were probably few and far between. Fast fuel and calories would have been a boon. So, personally, I think he would have gone for the twinkie. But it doesn’t really matter whether twinkie temptation would have overwhelmed him because regardless… Read more »
Price
Price
7 years 6 months ago

Oh, Taubes definitely doesn’t have an agenda – beyond providing excellent science journalism, that is. But a lot of his detractors claim he does and use that to invalidate “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and totally ignore the facts contained therein. I think that was Mark’s point.

Kat
Kat
7 years 6 months ago

In response to the above: I do consume fish, so I would technically be called a pescetarian. Also, factory farmed meat is my only option because I live on the U.S. territory of Guam. Can you still hook me up?
Protein from plants can be superior. Humans consumed meat in the past for survival. Now we have choices and after learning about the horrors of where the only meat available to me comes from– what can I say?

Arty
Arty
4 years 10 months ago

Weston Price met cultures that did very well on a mainly plant diet with little meat…but had raw dairy. The folks in a valley in Switzerland.
The raw dairy is probably what gave them enough fat soluble vitamins to build strong skeletons and teeth.

RH
RH
7 years 6 months ago
Apt reference to Wrangham’s work, which is impressive. But Mark may have missed the forest for the trees. Ten years ago Wrangham also put forth The Starchy Tuber Hypothesis, which (convincingly,I think) argued it wasn’t just about cooked meat; it was about cooked calories from ANY source. Our paleolithic ancestors probably went for food sources that gave optimum bang for the buck: meat, fat, fish, nuts, tubers. Hence my puzzlement over low-carber’s love of vegetables. They’re not calorically dense, they’re often loaded with significant anti-nutrients, and they’re extremely fiberous. Cavefolk probably had little to do with them. Loren Cordain’s analysis… Read more »
Dr J. Dao MD(AM),D.Sci
Dr J. Dao MD(AM),D.Sci
7 years 6 months ago

Probably the best article written on the subject of Raw vs Cooked is available here
http://www.jonbarron.org/baseline-health-program/2009-03-16.php

Miko Barnes
Miko Barnes
7 years 6 months ago
The linked article in the Economist lost all credibility with it’s sneering reference to raw foodists as a back to nature cult. In fact most raw foodists use their $400 vitamix or blendec blender, their $300 food processor and their $200 dehydrator as well as a multitude of other kitchen tools to blend, pulp, soften, dry and otherwise prepare food for eating. Eating raw food does not mean strolling through the forest munching on raw leaves. Raw foodists use modern technology to prepare food in a way that perserves the maximum nutrition and makes it as digestible as possible. The… Read more »
Scott Kustes - Life Spotlight
7 years 6 months ago

Hey Mark,
Not all vegetarians believe we ate meat in the past. One in particular tried to argue with me that the increase in brain size was tied to consumption of legumes. So of course I had to put that to rest with a discussion of our first protein source.

Mustafa,
“The China Study” has been thoroughly debunked by quite a few people. Here is his review of the book and his response to Campbell’s rebuttal.

Cheers
Scott Kustes
Life Spotlight

Katzenberg
Katzenberg
5 years 3 months ago

“…increased brain size was tied to consumption of legumes.”

I don’t know wether to laugh or to close the web site.
I’ve read some dumb things in my life, but this one probably tops everything.

Arty
Arty
4 years 10 months ago

And that’s proof right there that veganism didn’t increase brain size?

trackback

[…] Daily Apple talks about cooking, and the science (and correlation) behind the evolution of the […]

Alex
Alex
7 years 6 months ago

The Jon Barron article is just another rehash of Edward Howell’s outdated enzyme religion.

Carrie Tucker
7 years 6 months ago

Opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one.

Neal
Neal
7 years 6 months ago

I saw Dr Wrangham speak last month in Chicago at the AAAS meeting, good stuff. Here’s a recent radio interview of him on ABC radio: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/default.htm. The only drawback to cooking is the production of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs), Advanced Lipid Peroxidation End Products (ALEs), and HCAs among other things when overcooked. Steam your meat using a food steamer to limit this things and consider supplementing with benfotiamine and other AGE blockers. Of course the Primal BP includes alot of natural antioxidants which could combat the negative aaspects attributed to cooking/overcooking.

Kristina
Kristina
7 years 6 months ago

In responce to Kat:
I have had this discusion many times over my 24years as a vegitarian (my whole life), and you hit the nail on the head when you say ‘Now we have choices’. It’s good to hear some-one say that, because its true!!!

Kristina
Kristina
7 years 6 months ago

Also, I find that more often than not people want to argue with me about it, asthough I am hurting someone or offending them – when more often than not – they bring it up the conversation!!! Is it that meat makes you more aggressive, or that they are just offended by my point of view?

Scott Kustes - Life Spotlight
7 years 6 months ago

Kristina, it works both ways, especially when you get to vegans. People don’t like others to make different choices than they make…it casts their own choices in a glaring light. As a healthy Paleo eater, I get all kinds of comments at work from the people that are chowing down on their Snickers bars or vegetarian meals.

And to blame it on meat making you aggressive is the kind of thing that keeps vegetarians and healthy meat-eaters from ever bridging the gap. Again, it goes both ways.

Cheers
Scott Kustes
Life Spotlight

trackback

[…] how difficult getting actual fact-based information really is. Fundamentally, food is the basis for survival, and the human body is evolved to deal with unexpected bouts of famine, hence we tend to hold fat […]

Gary
Gary
7 years 26 days ago

— “The China Study has been thoroughly debunked by”

Things like needing to complement plant foods for “complete protein” was debunked (with science) in the 70’s. That doesn’t stop meat-eaters from using it……to justify their eating habits.

“Even the most ardent vegetarians will admit that meat eating played a large role in evolution”

You word that to convey it as fact. It’s a theory……popularized by meat-eaters….to justify their eating habits.

peter
peter
5 years 10 months ago

I think the “author” of this “blog” misunderstands the appropriate use of quotes.

Jack
Jack
5 years 6 months ago
I think they’re missing the point of practicality of cooking meat. When you cook meat, the fat drips out! Without fat, thats less energy. You also lose a lot of water from the meat – causing the individual to need to drink more/ stopping them from getting fresh drinkable water (which can be hard to come by in the real world). The “unwinding of the proteins” also called de-naturing isn’t really doing much but damaging the proteins, and making the collagen and elastin in connective tissue and tendons easier to chew. It doesn’t make too much sense to cook most… Read more »
Katzenberg
Katzenberg
5 years 3 months ago
So basically, the more we cook and overcook our foods, the more empty calories we stuff down our throats because we just killed 50% of the nutrients during the heating process. Of course it’s easy for the body to just slide excess calories down the tract to be deposited straight onto our abdomen as fat. Nutrients take a lot of work to be digested, transported to repair and construction sites. The ratio of calories : nutrients is out of balance when cooking food and thus you end up with more calories than nutrients making you fat. That is why pasteurized… Read more »
michie
michie
4 years 10 months ago

the importance of cooking is to avoid bacteria

Nick
Nick
3 years 11 months ago
I thinking cooking works both ways, not just for meat eaters, it makes vegetarian foods like grains and beans open up so we can utilize all that protein. Vegetarianism is made much easier by cooking, Vegetarians who eat eggs can cook the egg whites for a very high quality protein, and dairy has a lot of valuable protein as well as fats, vitamins and minerals. It’s a natural compliment to vegetarian dishes. I’ve been vegetarian for 36 years, and I think ethical ideas like nonviolence (vegetarianism, democracy, environmentalism, etc.) are as important to our evolution as was cooking way back… Read more »
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[…] The Importance of Cooking in the Evolution of the Human Brain […]

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[…] Cooking isn’t bad, of course. It makes food taste better, gives us access to a wider range of foods – like starches – that would otherwise be fairly indigestible, kills food-borne pathogens, improves the texture of foods (meat becomes more tender, fat renders, vegetables soften), and increases the calories we can extract from food. […]

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1 year 10 months ago

[…] Paleopathology.     In keeping with the paleo theme, this article discusses the importance of cooking in the evolution of our brain.    Robb Wolf addresses the subject of the ZONE […]

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