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Posted on 24 Sep 2020 in Non-Fiction |

DAVID RAUBENHEIMER & STEPHEN J SIMPSON Eat Like the Animals. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen

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Can animals teach us how to eat in healthier ways? David Raubenheimer and Stephen J Simpson think so.

There’s nothing like being compared to slime mould to bring you down to size. As a species we think we’re really something – illustrious, monstrous, baffling – but viewed through another lens, we’re just a collection of living cells burning through the energy of the sun. Like slime mould.

There’s even an area in which brainless slime moulds do better than we industrial humans: they instinctively know how to eat for optimum performance. This is something that we seem to have lost on the road to convenience and profit.

The eating habits of slime moulds, locusts, mice and baboons are all explored in David Raubenheimer and Stephen J Simpson’s Eat Like the Animals, a book that begins in the scientific laboratory and ends with tips for implementing the lessons we’ve forgotten in the flight from our wild selves.

The book’s essential thesis is that, left to their own devices, animals will eat a particular ratio of protein to carbs to fats, and that out of the three, they will prioritise protein. Through millennia of our evolution, we humans did the same. So it follows that if our overall intake of food contains the correct proportions, we’ll eat, feel satisfied and move on. We’ll be as lean and sexy and long-lived as it’s possible to be.

But if our food is in all the wrong proportions, we’ll go on eating until – ding! – we hit our ‘protein target’. If we’re eating bags of chips with lots of carbs and little protein, we’re going to eat a hell of a lot of chips. And get plump doing it.

If we can compare science to protein, then Eat Like the Animals is a high-protein book. While written entertainingly for the lay person, it is rich in the processes and products of scientific work and discovery.

The story begins with the young scientists, David and Stephen, deep in the bowels of Oxford University, picking over locust poo to determine the proportions of proteins and carbs in the insects’ diet. This is where the pair developed the idea of ‘nutritional geometry’, where an animal’s optimal proportions of carbs, proteins and fats can be plotted on a graph. We then follow our scientists as they sally forth through three decades of work in the science of appetite, working sometimes together and sometimes separately.

While it might have been easier to stay in the lab, both believed that there were some things that could only be learned by getting out and observing animals in the wild. Their adventures – and those of colleagues mentioned in the book – include field work on orangutans in the swamp forests of Borneo (the scene is likened to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), on baboons on the outskirts of Cape Town, and a rendezvous with grasshoppers in the Arizona desert. It is exciting work, but also long, uncomfortable and laborious.

David (they take turns speaking in first person) takes us to the scene in the desert where he is following a single horse lubber grasshopper he has named Two Dot Red after the markings he has made on her back:

It takes a degree of single-mindedness to wander through a desert for twelve unbroken hours, alone, following an individual grasshopper to note and record its every movement, at the same time collecting samples of each plant on which it fed for later identification.

While the grasshopper happily munches her way through her day, taking in just the right proportions of proteins and carbs, her human observer goes thirsty and hungry because he dare not take a break and risk losing her in the heat haze. There is a delicious (excuse the pun) irony in this.

So, if protein is the thing all of us – from slime moulds on up – tend to prioritise in our diets, does this give scientific credence to the Paleo Petes and the Atkins aficionados amongst us? Shouldn’t we be living virtually carb-free on bone broth and bacon? Not on your life, say Stephen and David in unison. Just because something is good doesn’t mean more of it is extra good. It’s not about excluding carbs, but about ingesting carbs, fats and proteins in their correct proportions.

Of course, it’s one thing to gather scientific evidence for the ideal human diet. It’s quite another to implement the findings among human beings, at scale. Perhaps highly motivated and well-resourced individuals (you, the reader!) can make the lifestyle changes needed, but are whole cities and countries of human beings going to be able to shift to healthy eating?

This is where that other appetite comes in: the appetite for profit.

Chapter 12 of Eat Like the Animals explores one of the main reasons we eat less like wild animals and more like drug addicts. In its drive to expand markets, the global food industry  has worked out how to hack our biological instincts, making processed foods both cheap and irresistibly ‘moreish’. Protein is expensive and carbs are cheap. Overeating creates more sales. In the food technologist’s lab, you can create deliciously ‘umami’ tastes associated with proteins by using concoctions of industrial chemicals. We consumers keep chowing down, our bodies looking for that shred of protein amongst the lashings of carbs, while the food industry’s cash registers keep ringing.

Just a few multinational corporations control an increasing share of what the world eats. Nestlé, for example, owns two thousand supermarket brands. Its total profit in 2017 was $14.3 billion, more than the GDP of 71 countries.

The global food industry’s strategy for managing disquiet over obesity and ill health is very similar to that developed by the tobacco industry (and the fossil fuel industry, for that matter). First of all, lobby like mad, casting just enough doubt on scientific evidence to keep the law-makers at bay; secondly, make it all about individual choice. Put the blame for obesity and ill-health squarely on the lack of willpower of individuals. To finish, fund some highly selective scientific research that delivers the outcomes that were paid for. So far, the strategy is working well.

While Chapter 12 is damning, it also screeches to a rather precipitous halt without drawing any conclusions about what we might do – at a social and political level – about the hijacking of our finely tuned biological appetites for profit. Just as discussions of the might of the global fossil fuel industry often end with ten tips for energy saving around the home, Eat Like the Animals segues from the power of the global food industry to ‘take home tips’ for eating like a wild animal in your own household.

Instructions are given on how to calculate the right protein target for a person of your age, sex and level of activity, and these are followed by tables giving the nutritional breakdown of common foods. Mix and match to get the optimal proportions of proteins, carbs and fats in your daily meals.

After some practice, your newfound eating habits will become second nature. You’ll be foraging just like a baboon!

David Raubenheimer & Stephen J Simpson Eat Like the Animals: What nature teaches us about the science of healthy eating HarperCollins 2020 PB 256pp $35.00

Tracy Sorensen is a PhD candidate at Charles Sturt University and the 2020 Judy Harris Writer in Residence at Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre (CPC). The CPC is a research hub investigating lifestyle diseases including diabetes and heart disease. The Centre takes a multidisciplinary approach, recognising that the causes and consequences of disease extend beyond biology alone. Stephen J. Simpson is the Academic Director of the CPC and David Raubenheimer is the CPC’s Leonard P Ullmann Chair in Nutritional Ecology.

You can buy Eat Like the Animals from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.