The benefits of eating bugs
Meet the new Paleo diet
By Daniella Martin | March 1, 2014
OU'VE PROBABLY HEARD of the Stone Age diet craze known as the Paleolithic Diet, made popular most recently by Dr. Loren Cordain's best-seller The Paleo Diet. The premise is simple: If our early human ancestors couldn't have eaten it, we shouldn't, either. It's the one time, it seems, that being like a caveman is a good thing.
The theory goes (and archaeological evidence corroborates) that early hunter-gatherers, while they may not have lived as long, still had some major health advantages on most of us modern humans. They were much taller, averaging 6-foot-5 to our 5-foot-11; had stronger, heavier bones; had more robust immune systems; and were leaner, tougher, and hardier than we are today. Higher levels of physical activity also played a vital role in cave people's vitality, and so did their high levels of wild food consumption: wild game meat, gathered greens and fruits, and healthy fats such as nuts.
Cordain suggests that prior to the agricultural revolution, early humans ate this Paleo Diet for 2.5 million years. The 10,000 years since the popularization of farming — or just 333 human generations — he says, is clearly a drop in the chronological bucket when compared with the millennia leading up to it. Thus, he maintains, the hunter-gatherer diet our ancestors lived on is far more deeply and indelibly imprinted into our DNA than our habits of the last few thousand years. I'm inclined to agree with him. In fact, I'm going to see his 2.5 million years and raise him a few millennia, and show you what we were really designed to eat. The real Paleo Diet would have included bugs. Lots and lots of bugs.
"From the time mammals first appeared until 50 million years ago — a total of 150 million years, three quarters of the entire time mammals have existed — our ancestors were primarily insectivorous," write S. Boyd Eaton and Dorothy A. Nelson in their paper "Calcium in Evolutionary Perspective." "Given the slow and conservative nature of genetic evolution, this long-standing adaptation for insect consumption must have made a significant impact on our genetic heritage. Consequently, the nutritional properties of insects have relevance for understanding the forces that have shaped the nutritional requirements of present-day humans."
Maguey worms. | (HENRY ROMERO/Reuters/Corbis)
IT'S EASY TO OBSERVE this early pre-human diet in the wild today, since versions of this prehistoric bug-guzzler still exist in the form of bush babies, tree shrews, and similar small mammals. It turns out that for a certain size of primate, bugs are one of the best things on the planetary menu. If we were still that size, that's pretty much all we'd eat, too.
But for whatever reason, we grew, in both body and brain size. And as we grew, it became harder to find enough insects to fulfill our daily nutritional requirement. The problem was not with the bugs themselves, but just that we couldn't find enough of them. We had to start branching out. We had to find something more dependable as a source of calories than that which could see us coming and, say, crawl into a hole. So we started eating plants, which, of course, couldn't run away. This is one of the miracles and geniuses of being a primate: our innate adaptability to different diets, also known as omnivory ("omni" = everything, "vory" = eating). We adapted so that we could eat everything and anything and still survive.
We changed inside and out in order to take advantage of the different types of nutrient sources around us, and as we evolved, we took different paths to get there. Some primates adapted internal organs so that they could digest cellulose and extract protein and other nutrients from leaves like herbivores. Some grew long tails and relocated to the treetops, where the good fruit was, and lived off that. Meanwhile others — the ones who eventually became humanity — moved to the savanna, where they could see both prey and predators coming and still find enough vegetable matter to supplement their diets.
But the one thing that none of these versions of ourselves ever stopped eating, at least when they had the chance, was insects. From lemurs and other New World apes, up through Old World apes like chimpanzees and gorillas, up through prehominids, hominids, Neanderthals, and, finally, humans, one thing that unites primatehood throughout the ages is an enduring appetite for bugs.
The main reason for this is that insects are a much higher quality food compared to things like leaves, fruits, flowers, and even nuts. Just like other animals, insects are a trophic level two food source — they themselves have eaten, and thereby concentrated in their own tissues, the nutrients found in plant sources, providing the sorts of things that primates thrive on: protein, iron, calcium, and, best of all, healthy, unsaturated long-chain essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Sure, these nutrients can be found in plant sources, too, but you have to eat a lot more of them. Insects are these scrumptious little compact packages of food that make surviving, and thriving, so much easier for a foraging primate. Nutrition is sort of like money: If leaves represent dollar bills, fruits are fives, nuts are tens, and insects and other forms of animal flesh are crisp fifty-dollar bills. The nutrients in them are just more concentrated and often more bioavailable, which means the body has to do less work to utilize them.