The Importance of Cooking in the Evolution of the Human Brain

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

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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35 thoughts on “The Importance of Cooking in the Evolution of the Human Brain”

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

  1. 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

  2. ‘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 saturated fat, then explain why the Japanese have one of the world’s lowest obesity rates, about 3%. The genes argument doesn’t work, for ethnic Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese raised in North America are heavier than their counterparts overseas. Moreover, younger Asians are being imprinted to like sugar, HFCS, and added fats by eating junk food, and the effects are showing up in the rising numbers of overweight youth.

    In the book The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille devotes a chapter to cultural coding of food and alcohol, analyzing America’s love of $9.99 buffets as a manifestation of its view of eating as fueling up. Clotaire describes his work helping Nestle overcome its initial failure at marketing coffee in Japan. Japanese adults would not drink coffee because they had not been imprinted for the taste when young, he believed, so on his advice, Nestle began selling sweetened coffee candies to children. We in coffee-drinking nations do not eat much coffee candy as kids, but we do grow up smelling its aroma.

    Taste really is part innate, part acquired, and once acquired, a particular taste can be outgrown or unacquired. Even if Twinkies were not so unhealthy, I wouldn’t take one bite because they do not possess any attributes that could be genuinely identified as flavors. I don’t think any MDA reader would disagree. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but the problem is that mainstream media reporters overextend the concept of evolution of food preferences to explain why so many Americans eat so much junk food, thus leaving readers with a false impression that they’re genetically primed to make unhealthful choices.

    If Grok were given a Twinkie, he would sniff it, maybe sample it, correctly identify it as inedible and toss it away. I grew up on the standard American diet yet have never liked canned fruit in syrup, so I don’t see why Grok would.

    1. 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, identified the horror and tossed it…lol.

      After 17 years of being in the States now I still eat my ‘traditional’ foods of pork chops, salads, cabbage, potatoes, rabbit, chicken and trout.
      Americans make THE WORST food, or it might just be the ‘spices’ and fake flavors and other chemicals that completely ruin a good dish.
      Up until a year ago I also had my ‘german breakfasts of heavy breads, margarine and marmalades…which I know now was the #1 cause of my digestive problems…the darn grain, sugar and PUFA spreads.

      Being primal now for 1 year with no digestive issues.

  3. 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 you read.

  4. “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 modern nutritional choices.


  5. 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.

  6. @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.

  7. @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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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)

  10. 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 of our cultural background, we know that kind of food is crap and we have to deal with such temptation…doughnuts in the staff room, etc. The swim coach even brings them to practice! I was raised eating those kinds of things and still I know it’s gross and I don’t eat it…usually. Last summer I ate a rice krispie treat. I regretted it. The thing is, all humans have the potential to be rational and avoid urges stemming from the primal (hypothalmus) brain. But sometimes we fail in that regard.

    As far as offending vegetarians, well it’s a primal eating site. Primal eating is meat eating. If you don’t buy into it, I totally respect that–you should eat how you like. My daughter is a vegetarian. I cook tofu for her and buy her all the best vegetarian foods. But personally I wouldn’t go to a vegetarian web site and say that I’m vegetarian except that I like to plug elk and quail and eat bloody NY steaks off the grill with my fingers and then be upset that they slighted me for my meat-eating ways.

  11. 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.

  12. 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?

    1. 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.

  13. 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 of modern hunter-gatherer diets clearly shows veggies are a very small part of their everyday diet. Starchy tubers are, and likely were, significant.

  14. 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 Jon Barron article linked above provides a fair minded and thoughtful overview.

    1. “…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.

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

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

  16. 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: 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.

  17. 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!!!

  18. 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?

  19. 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.

    Scott Kustes
    Life Spotlight

  20. — “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.

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

  22. 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 of your meat to me, but it does play a role in expanding your variety of meats (carnivorous/omnivorous animals with possible undesirable parasites etc).

  23. 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 milk makes you fat and raw milk doesn’t. Heating denatures foods and its nutrients such as amino acids, fat chains and some vitamins are so fraquile even just a temperature of 120 F kills it. Bacteria is dead and we are not designed to swallow dead bacteria. They mimic a virus and create a reaction.
    People have a runny nose and sinus infections year around and never think that’s it the dead bacteria floating around in pasteurized milk.
    “I’ve got the sniffels, must have caught a bug”.
    Indeed you did and not just 1…millions of DEAD ones.

  24. 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 when. There was recently an article about a vegetarian who is over 100 years old– apparently the naturally omnivorous bodies of humans are amendable to a wide variety of diets. There is amazing vegetarian cuisine all over the world that is suitable for fitness training of all types– there are even vegan body builders now!