Flashback Friday: Does Cooking Make Us Human

**I am going back through my old posts and finding some that I still love. I wanted to re-share them, especially for those of you that haven’t been reading my blog for very long. This post is from last September (2009), a few weeks after I stopped eating raw. I was only raw for a few weeks, but I found that it didn’t work for me. I have edited this post slightly so it is not exactly the way it appeared last year. Without further ado…**

Does Cooking Make Us Human?

In the summer of 2009, raw food was abuzz in blogland. I gave it a try to help my digestion, but that way of eating didn’t work for me. Now that it’s fall there is less and less talk about raw food, and more and more posts about oatmeal, baked squash, and delicious apples. It’s propitious that Bobby alerted me to this article: Did Cooking Give Humans An Evolutionary Edge? – a transcript of an NPR talk from Science Friday. It has to do with the differences between humans and other primates (like this gorilla that lives in the San Francisco zoo)…


To summarize:

  • It’s an interview with Dr. Richard Wrangham, a primatologist (someone who studies primates = humans, apes, monkeys, and prosimians) who wrote Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
  • Dr. Wrangham proposes that cooking has actually been a key aspect of evolution and our bodies have changed over the years due to the fact that we can cook our food. It’s given us a huge evolutionary advantage because we have more time to use our brains instead of foraging and chewing all day long.
  • Interesting factoid: apes show either a preference for cooked food over raw food, or they are neutral… they never prefer raw to cooked food.
  • Humans have a weird digestive system compared to other primates. Our digestive system is 2/3rds the size of an ape’s (if you adjust for the size of the ape versus the size of the human) and we have small teeth and small mouths – not ideal for lots of chewing.
  • We’ve adapted to a “high quality” diet. (High quality meaning mostly cooked and easy to digest… not talking about the processed crap that most people live on.) Cooking is what increased the “quality” of our diet.
  • We don’t have to eat large amounts of food and we don’t have to retain and ferment food for many many hours to digest it.
  • The changes to our digestive system happened about 1.8 million years ago.
  • Cooking our food increases the proportion of nutrients and energy that we’re able to digest. While a cooked carrot may technically have the same number of calories as a raw one, we are able to access more of the calories from the cooked one. Another example – when you cook an egg and eat it, you can digest about 94% of the protein. A raw egg? You digest about 60%. That’s a big difference.
  • Why does cooking make things easier to digest? For protein, the process is called denaturation. The protein cells are kind of like a big ball of yarn; cooking unwinds the yarn. Besides cooking, acid can also denature something. Our stomach acid can do some of this, but cooking makes it that much easier for our bodies to digest protein (going from 60% digestion with just stomach acid to 94% digestion with cooking in the egg example above). A similar process happens with starch – chains of sugars open up during cooking so that they are more readily available to absorb.
  • Humans are one of the only species that typically does not thrive on a raw diet… about half of women following a raw diet stop menstruating and most people lose weight (but this isn’t always a but thing). This is due to an energy shortage.
  • Now this doesn’t mean that a raw diet can’t be beneficial – a lot of people are eating way too much so a raw diet can help them maintain their weight and feel better. A lot of the benefits that come from a raw diet are due to cutting out processed foods and chemicals. Many people have undiagnosed food allergies (gluten, wheat, dairy, etc…) and since those foods aren’t common in a high raw diet, people will feel better since they’re not eating them anymore.
  • Again, eating more raw food is not necessarily bad or unhealthy! But if you live in a place where food is scarce, you should *not* follow a raw diet… if you live in the US or another developed country, incorporating more raw foods into your diet is actually a fabulous idea.
  • Many people think that following a raw food diet is the most “natural” way to live… not true. We’ve actually evolved away from eating raw food. And one of the major reasons that we’ve been able to advance so far in terms of knowledge and technology is due to the fact that we are NOT like other primates – we don’t have to eat all day to get enough food, so we have time to use our huge brains.

Ever Heard of Biocultural Evolution?

In anthropology there is the idea of biocultural evolution, which basically says that our culture (using tools, cooking food, etc…) has a large influence on our evolution. The invention of tools allowed us to evolve away from huge teeth. The cultural idea of wearing clothes might be the reason that we aren’t covered in hair. And maybe cooking is responsible for changing our digestive system, our mouths, and our teeth.

What does it mean for me and you?

What works best for me is a fairly natural diet (no processed foods) with a little bit of raw food. I’d call it somewhat macrobiotic, except for the fact that I also eat dairy and meat… in moderation. I eat fruit raw (obviously) and I do snack on raw veggies sometimes. I love salad (obviously, again) but I don’t eat salad every day unless it’s the summer. I love my oatmeal, oat bran, baked and steamed squash, and many other cooked foods, especially in the cooler months.

What works for you? What do you think of the ideas that this guy is proposing?

8 Replies to “Flashback Friday: Does Cooking Make Us Human”

  1. I am so happy you posted this!! I had heard about this article/interview and was curious since I’ve been doing a lot of research on the raw food diet. I just can’t imagine giving up my oatmeal either!

  2. what works for me is tons of vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, EVOO/Coconut oil and a smidge of fruit for something sweet. i never eat more than 1 piece a day but most days it’s 1/2 an apple or small bowl of berries. i thrive on high fat, moderate protein and lower carb. this does NOT mean i am about low carb just “lower” compared to my fat/protein intake. I usually eat less than 100g of carbs daily 🙂 but my fat is 60-100g with protein falling around 50-70g. some days the macros change but i listen to my body and give it what it wants!

    1. @melissa: I’m “lower” carb too! I love fats. I try to get a lot but I have never counted. I should probably tally it up some day 🙂

  3. I’m going to piss so many people off with this, but I’ll just say it.

    MEAT makes us human!

    I’ve done some interesting research, and there is a big belief that the influx of amino acids and other protein allowed our brains to grow larger, thus enabling greater thought.

    In today’s world, of course you don’t have to eat meat if you’re opposed. But from an evolutionary standpoint, it was meat, along with the ability to cook that meat (making it easier to access and digest) that enabled a lot of our brain capacity.

    That said, I have a lot of respect raw foods. But I think very, very few people can thrive on a 100% raw diet. Pretty much all “successful” raw foodists are high raw.

    I eat a lots of raw veggies. Because there’s that semi-legal thrill and delicious unhomogenized taste, I also love an occasional swig of raw milk or yogurt. I also love my steamed, sautéed, and roasted veggies. Or my meat. Because those things make me feel good.

    I’m curious though: I know you read a bit of Natalia Rose and practiced food combining. Did you find that beneficial for digestion? I’ve always wondered about that. I know a lot of the theory is not scientifically valid, but I have heard it helping some people.

    1. @Mimi: I agree. I will never give up meat because I know that my body likes it. I don’t think food combining helped my digestion. I think that eating normal-sized portions is what my stomach likes. I think that when people start “food combining” they probably also start eating better (more regularly, probably normal-sized portions, not processed foods) which is why they have better digestion. That’s just my hunch!

  4. What an interesting article. Honestly, a raw diet doesn’t appeal to me at all but I know some people who swear by it. Different strokes for different folks, right? I think it’s really interesting that cooking may have helped us to evolve to who (what) we are today.

  5. This is fascinating, Maggie! Thank you for posting it. I admit to being one of many who toyed with raw that summer in blogland, but I didn’t last long. I plan to read the original NPR transcript next.

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