While the paleo diet may still be popular, a new study suggests that consuming carbs in the form of starches was the key to accelerating brain expansion in early human evolution, effectively making us smarter as we evolved larger brains.
Consumption of Carbs Responsible for Brain Growth, Increased Intelligence
A key issue in the human evolution timeline has focused on human brain evolution, specifically why we grew such large, complex brains and how. While the answers have yet been clearly defined, it is a widely accepted assumption that the size of our brains is somehow connected to a dietary change within the past 3 million years.
While most studies relied on evidence of increased meat consumption (we’re looking at you, Paleo Diet advocates!), other studies highlighted the importance of the invention and continued development of cooking as they factor for our brain size increase.
However, a new study by Dr. Karen Hardy and researchers is arguing that based on evidence from archaeological, anthropological, genetic, physiological, and anatomical data, it is not meat consumption that drove the brain to accelerate expansion, but rather consumption of dietary carbohydrates.
So stock up on the potatoes, rice, and whole-grain bread as this study breaks into the health and diet arena of the scientific community to argue for human evolution (and smarter evolution at that!) through eating carbs in the form of starches.
Are All Diets Equal? The Case for Carbs in Brain Evolution
The study, published in The Quarterly Review of Biology does not necessarily argue against the role that meat consumption played in the human brain’s evolution. However, it does argue that plant-based foods (carbs) were absolutely essential in the evolution and expansion of the human brain.
During the Pleistocene epoch, the human brain was undergoing many rapid changes. One of these was an increase in brain size and function.
The study points out that evidence of increased carbohydrate consumption, along with the adaptive role that cooking had to play in order to improve the ability to digest the starchy carbs, had a tremendous impact on the brain’s development.
Cooking starches (think of things such as putting a potato on the roast) helped improve the digestibility of the foods. It also provided a source of preformed glucose, which was used by the developing brain to meet high glucose demands, including red blood cells production, brain function, and even fetal development.
Digestible carbs were absolutely needed for the increased demands of the growing brain during this time. What also may have helped fuel carbs’ role in brain evolution was the increase of salivary amylase genes that increased starches energy yield after cooking.
Consuming Carbs, Cooking, and Creating Bigger, Better Brains
There are some merits to the Paleo Diet, including limited sugar consumption, it may not be the true “caveman” diet during some ages of the human evolution timeline that dates back to 3 million years.
Through much of the research focus on diet and its role in evolution, carbohydrates have been overlooked. That is until Dr. Hardy and her team came along to clear up some of the misconceptions the starches carry.
The study showed that the brain needs up to 25% of the body’s energy, as well as at least 60% of its blood glucose. Only a diet rich in dietary carbohydrates could supply such a high glucose demand.
This same glucose need is effectively doubled during human pregnancy and lactation, which in the case of low-carbohydrate diets, would be too short of supply to support the health of the mother and baby.
The research goes on to include that the availability of starches were found all over the world, available to all ancestral civilizations, whether in the form of tubers, seeds, fruits, or nuts.
What’s more is that as the art and science of cooking spread through the world, the raw starches became more easily digestible. Couple that with the fact that an increased presence of salivary amylase genes, which helps to digest starches as well, and the evidence points to carbs being our friends.
While eating meat most likely started the evolution of the human brains, the coevolution of cooking and consuming carbs in the form of starches accelerated the evolution to help make a perfect diet to increase our smarts and chances of survival.