The origin and evolution of the Western diet

2 minute read

There is a very nice review paper with that title in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, by Loren Cordain and colleagues. The basic story is in the first two sentences of the abstract:

There is growing awareness that the profound changes in the environment (e.g., in diet and other lifestyle conditions) that becan with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry ~10 000 y ago occurred too recently on an evolutionary time scale for the human genome to adjust. In conjunction with the discordance between our ancient, genetically determined biology and the nutritional, cultural, and activity patterns of contemporary Western populations, many of the so-called diseases of civilization have emerged (341).

This is far from a new story; it is what I have taught in my 100-level courses for a long time. But there are some great facts and statistics in the paper that make it a good resource.

For example, did you know:

Taken together, the addition of manufactured salt to the food supply and the displacement of traditional potassium-rich foods by foods introduced during the Neolithic and Industrial periods caused a 400% decline in the potassium intake while simultaneously initiating a 400% increase in sodium ingestion (350).

Although the article introduces the issue by contrasting the putative hunter-gatherer diet with the Western diet, much of its concrete illustrations derive from the industrial revolution. The article tends to conflate these as in the above quote, and it would be worthwhile to separate these effects a bit more (although difficult because the probable degree of malnutrition and nutrient deficiency inherent in the early agricultural diet contrasts with the nutritional excesses of the Western diet.

Here's another one:

The typical Western diet yields a net acid load estimated to be 50 mEq/d. As a result, healthy adults consumed the standard US diet sustain a chronic, low-grade pathogenetic metabolic acidoses that worsens with age as kidney function declines. Virtually all preagricultural diets were net base yielding because of the absence of cereals and energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods -- foods that were introduced during the Neolithic and Industrial Eras and that displaced base-yielding fruit and vegetables (350).

The main parts include a review of the advent of new foods, including dairy, cereals, refined sugars, oils, alcohol, salt, and domesticated meats, and some of the health consequences of those changes.


Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O'Keefe JH, and Brand-Miller J. 2005. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nut 81:341-354.