Over the past two hundred years, more and more people are suffering from obesitas and a number of typical Western ‘luxury’ diseases such as cardiac and vascular diseases, diabetes, some kinds of cancer and osteoporosis. According to Frits Muskiet, professor of Pathophysiology and Clinical Chemical Analysis at the University of Groningen, this explosive increase is caused by the fact that our genes date from primeval times and haven’t adapted to our current environment.
Our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in East Africa 160,000 years ago and their genes were perfectly adapted to that African environment. A lot has happened since then. We’ve developed agriculture and our prosperity has increased slowly and steadily, since the industrial revolution even explosively. But, states Muskiet, in all that time our genes have hardly changed at all. ‘Our genes change at an average speed of about 0.5% every million years. That means that our genetic makeup has remained more or less the same.’
Conflicts arise because our primeval genes are not very well adapted to our current environment. ‘Our evolutionary background means that we are very careful with energy, for example. That’s why we want to eat as much as possible and are naturally lazy, because in earlier times famine could break out at any time.’ In the current fat-creating environment with little physical activity, this ‘thrifty gene type’ leads to obesity. Muskiet thinks that many of our Western diseases can be explained by the conflicts with our primeval genome. Thus it’s important to know exactly what our forefathers ate. ‘That can be reconstructed via archaeology, anthropology, comparative anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology and genetics. Archaeological finds reveal that we mainly lived close to fresh water and ate lots of fish, crustaceans, eggs, vegetables and fruit.’
According to Muskiet, we don’t have to eat exactly the same things as a primitive human if we want to remain healthy for longer. ‘I’m not saying that we have to eat raw meat or nothing but root vegetables.’ However, Muskiet has noticed a number of ‘errors’ in our current eating habits when examining the eating patterns of our ancestors. ‘Among other things, the amount of protein, fat and carbohydrates that we eat is out of balance. We’re eating far too many carbohydrates and we’re just not designed to. Before the development of agriculture, we hardly ate any carbohydrates from grains. The “fast” carbohydrates are particularly bad because they can cause a feeling of hunger.’
We also eat too many trans fats (created by the hydrogenation of vegetable oils). ‘These fatty acids are virtually nonexistent in nature and according to scenarios from the RIVM [National Institute for Public Health and the Environment] cause more deaths than traffic. In my opinion they should be banned.’ We should also use more fish oils. And we are consuming far too little vitamin D and folic acid. ‘Almost every Dutch person has a vitamin D shortage. This leads to an increased risk for various diseases, including osteoporosis.’
Muskiet thinks that too little attention is paid to environmental factors (including nutrition) when investigating the causes of diseases. ‘There is an exaggerated interest in genetics in medicine. But less than five percent of illnesses have a purely genetic basis.’ The vast majority are caused by the environment, whereby our hereditary material plays a secondary role. ‘If I drink a pot of sulphuric acid and drop dead, nobody is going to blame my genome.’ Because such actions never happen, evolution has not equipped us with genes that will prevent us dying from them. ‘Why can we not draw the same analogy with eating too many saturated fats or too little fish? People who in a genetic sense were the most sensitive to our changes to the environment were the first to fall sick and continual change will mean that all of us will eventually fall ill.’
Prof. Frits A.J. Muskiet (1950) studied Chemistry at the University of Groningen. He graduated in 1974 in Biochemistry and gained his PhD in 1979 with a thesis entitled ‘Determinations of catecholamines and catecholamine (precursor) metabolites in biological fluids and their clinical applications’. He was then working as a clinical chemist at the University Medical Center Groningen. He has been professor of Pathophysiology and Clinical Chemical Analysis since 2000.
Prof. Frits Muskiet. Tel.: 050 361 2733 or 050 361 9228. E-mail: f.a.j.muskiet lc.umcg.nl
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