Cooking is the difference between us and the chimps

By Nicholas Ashesho

At the University of Exeter, England, they have discovered that athletes who drink half a litre of beetroot juice a day increase their oxygen capacity by 18%. This would certainly help us up here in Urubamba, at 2,840 metres above sea level. But so far the main result I’ve noticed is that my urine has turned pink.

Beets, a cool-climate crop, are grown locally here and I make the juice from an extractor and throw in a few carrots and apples which soften the taste. But, staying with us the other day, a Japanese friend, Sensei Kanai, a doctor and martial arts teacher, got unusually upset when he saw the extractor being used at breakfast.

“No extractor, only liquadora,” Sensei ordered Sra. Ana, our housekeeper. He insisted that we should shove the fruit and veg into the liquadora and the result is indeed excellent, an all-inclusive Smoothie.

But I’m sticking with the extractor, too, since coming across “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” by Richard Wrangham, Professor of Anthropobiology at Harvard.

Prof Wrangham’s proposal is that the difference between chimpanzees, on which he is a leading authority, and humans, is that our ancestors, a million years ago, learned how to cook, that thanks to this our minds and bodies did a Darwin. It is this that has given us our biological edge over everyone else.

Here it is: cooked or prepared food is better for you than an all-in all-raw diet. This, he says, is why we are bigger than chimps and a lot smarter than everyone.

For instance, in order to get the oxygen benefit of a half-litre glass of beetroot juice I would have to gnaw my weary way through three kilos of raw beets.

In the same way I would have to eat twice as much raw fish or raw meat to get the same benefit as from half the amount of grilled, baked or fried.

For instance, Prof Wrangham says, our digestive systems can make use of 50% of the protein in a raw egg but of fully 90% of the protein in a cooked egg.

“Cooking increases the proportion of nutrients that the digestive system can digest.” Put another way; “Cooking makes the food we eat more nutritiously efficient.”

Raw-is-better is, Prof Wrangham says, simply not so. Our stomachs and mouths have become smaller and more efficient, thanks to cooking, and our brains bigger.

“Humans are adapted to eating cooked food in the same essential way as cows adapted to eating grass, or fleas to sucking blood,”

The catch is that those of us with middle-age spread have over-evolved.

One solution is to go back to a chimpanzee diet. Prof Wtangham says: “People who switch to a raw diet report feeling constant hunger and lose large amounts of weight.”

You don’t have to be a chimpanzee to know how that one works but Prof Wrangham repeats: “Raw foodism is against our biology”.

Up here in Urubamba, then, in the middle of a forest down by the river I have adopted a half-chimp, half-sapiens existence though I have the advantage, unlike most chimps, of having a qualified nutritionist, Andrea Suito to keep me on the straight and narrow.

I do the beetroot concentrate but only every other day, and the fruit Smoothie every day. Peru has a better selection of fresh fruit than anywhere in the world so I have a big plateful. I don’t have to leap through the trees to find it: Sra. Ana, of course, just trots off to the market.

During the morning I’ll have raw Quaker Oats with dried and fresh fruit and skimmed milk.

I get through the morning by cheating and drinking several cups of thick black coffee. I’m trying, with no success so far, to evolve to green tea.

Lunch is a huge raw salad and either some grilled trout from the Pumahuanca hatchery or a piece of supermarket chicken. During the afternoon I’ll have a milk shake of banana or, when I can find it, lucuma. Supper is a crema de tomate, green vegetables, onion or ajo with another bit of fish or perhaps jamon de pavo. I’ve completely given up sugar, even honey.

I’ve lost 10 kilos and perhaps the key to it is that I’m down to a glass, two on Saturdays, of red wine. Alcohol in any form puts on weight but clearly the French have evolved more than the rest of us: it was they who discovered that red wine is good for you, the finest marketing coup of the past million years. Prof Wrangham undoubtedly approves. FIN

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Published in Caretas Magazine Oct 23 2009

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