A coevolutionary paradigm using a biocultural perspective can help to unravel the complex interactions that led to the contemporary pattern of eating. Evolutionary history helps to understand the adaptation of diet and its nutritional implications.
Anatomical and behavioral changes linked to changing dietary patterns in the Paleolithic resulted in an adaptive framework that affects modern diet. The evolution of an expanding brain, a shrinking large intestine, and lengthening small intestine necessitated a demand for nutritionally dense foods.
The key to these changes is an understanding of the response to the omnivore’s dilemma. Omnivores in their search for new items to feed their varied diet (neophilia) have a challenge when they fear (neophobia) novel items that may be poisonous and can cause death. The inborn mechanism initiates palate fatigue (sensory-specific satiety) ensuring a variety of foods will be eaten. Variety will limit the impact of toxins ingested and provide a more balanced diet. T
he development of cuisine, a momentous event in history, mediated the conflict, and changed the course of human evolution. The cuisine, a biocultural construct, defines which items found in nature are edible, how these products are transformed into food, the flavors used to add a sensory dimension to foods, and rules of eating or etiquette. Etiquette defines how, when, and with whom we eat. Patterns of eating in the modern setting are the end product of the way that Homo sapiens evolved and resolved the omnivore’s dilemma. Control of fire and cooking expanded the range of available foods by creating a class of foods that are “predigested.”
An essential element to the evolution of the human diet was the transition to agriculture as the primary mode of subsistence. The Neolithic revolution dramatically narrowed the dietary niche by decreasing the variety of available foods, with the shift to intensive agriculture creating a dramatic decline in human nutrition. The recent industrialization of the world food system has resulted in a nutritional transition in which developing nations are simultaneously experiencing undernutrition and obesity.
In addition, an abundance of inexpensive, high-density foods laden with sugar and fats is available to a population that expends little energy to obtain such large numbers of calories. Furthermore, the abundant variety of ultraprocessed foods overrides the sensory-specific satiety mechanism leading to overconsumption.