Saturday, January 16th, 2021

How the Western Diet Has Derailed Our Evolution

Published on November 15, 2015 by   ·   No Comments



Many who study the microbiome suspect that we are experiencing an extinction spasm within that parallels the extinction crisis gripping the planet. Numerous factors are implicated in these disappearances. Antibiotics, available after World War II, can work like napalm, indiscriminately flattening our internal ecosystems. Modern sanitary amenities, which began in the late 19th century, may limit sharing of disease- and health-promoting microbes alike. Today’s houses in today’s cities seal us away from many of the soil, plant, and animal microbes that rained down on us during our evolution, possibly limiting an important source of novelty.

But what the Sonnenburgs’ experiment suggests is that by failing to adequately nourish key microbes, the Western diet may also be starving them out of existence. They call this idea “starving the microbial self.” They suspect that these diet-driven extinctions may have fueled, at least in part, the recent rise of non-communicable diseases. The question they and many others are now asking is this: How did the microbiome of our ancestors look before it was altered by sanitation, antibiotics, and junk food? How did that primeval collection of human microbes work? And was it somehow healthier than the one we harbor today?

No one understands much about the dizzying variety documented so far—which microbes are good, which harmful, which irrelevant. One constant, though, is that people living subsistence lifestyles have tremendous diversity compared to westernized populations—up to 50 percent more species than North Americans or Europeans. That includes not only bacteria but eukaryotes—single-cell protists and large, multicellular worms. These organisms, which are often missing in the West, have historically been considered pathogens. But some evidence now suggests that they can favorably shape the microbiome, benefiting the host.

The Sonnenburgs think fiber is so important that they’ve given it a new designation: microbiota-accessible carbohydrates, or MACs. They think that the mismatch between the Westernized, MAC-starved microbiome and the human genome may predispose to Western diseases.

Scientists studying these communities suspect that while mortality is high from infectious diseases, chronic, non-communicable diseases are far less prevalent. At the same time, researchers since the late 20th century have repeatedly observed that even in the West, people who grow up on farms with livestock, or exposed to certain fecal-oral infections, like Hepatitis A and sundry parasites—environments that, in their relative microbial enrichment, resemble these subsistence communities—have a lower risk of certain Western afflictions, particularly hay fever, asthma, and certain autoimmune disorders


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