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Ancient Diets and Nutrition: Back to the Past for Feeding Future Populations
Agriculture has played a vital role in the rise and fall of civilizations. Ancient civilizations thrived along rivers and deltas due to rich soils and adequate water. One common dietary pattern among early societies was a high intake of grains, nuts and seeds along with some meat. Ancient Harappans in the Indus Valley cultivated pulses while cereals were their main staple in addition to a high intake of fruits and vegetables. Similarly, the South American Incas consumed mainly a plant-based diet (quinoa, beans, squash, potatoes) while meat was restricted to special occasions. Ancient Egyptians also consumed a predominantly vegetarian diet aided by the bounty from the Nile.
Accordingly, typical protein sources of ancestral diets included pulses and grains along with the occasional animal protein, though the affluent were able to afford more animal-based protein. These diets were nutritionally complete as the combination of cereal and pulses complemented the amino acid profiles requirement. Most nuts, seeds, and grains are higher in methionine and cysteine (essential sulfur containing amino acids) but lower in lysine (an essential amino acid). On the other hand, most lentils and legumes are higher in lysine but lower in the sulfur amino acids. These protein sources combined, provided complete protein sufficient for the overall maintenance of ancient civilizations. Similar plant-based menu combinations are still widely consumed in the diets of Latin America, South and East Asia and Africa while being adopted in North America and Western Europe.
Proteins are vital for the development and maintenance of the human body (discussed in Chapter 1 of Sustainable Protein Sources. Proteins are broken down into peptides and further into amino acids. Peptides can have a variety of health benefits such as regulating blood pressure, appetite, inflammation and chronic stress. In addition, the individual amino acids combine to form other proteins, which constitute every tissue, organ and fluid component of our bodies. Without sufficient protein, our bodies will break down available protein and result in body wastage.
Plant-based foods provide a variety of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fiber in addition to good quality protein. In fact, animals consume plant protein to produce meat, milk and eggs. Thus, the nutrition provided by plant-based foods support the normal functioning of various organs leading to better health. Dietary patterns practiced by ancient cultures had a health connotation due to the inclusion of a wide variety of plant portions including spices and herbs. The health benefits of turmeric, ginger and pepper are leading to its adoption in developed economies,. The satiety of protein is forming the basis of its use in traditional western fare such as beverages and snack items. As more consumers become aware of their role for a sustainable planet, vegan products have soared in their acceptance.
Feeding the expected additional 30% humans on earth by 2050 will be a monumental challenge. This will require many changes to our day-to-day habits as we also counter a warming planet. Warming induced climate change is altering the zones of cultivation while shifting weather patterns around the globe. Production of animal-based protein is much more inefficient while requiring extensive land, water and energy use. In fact, ancient grains (amaranth, teff, barley, sorghum and quinoa) have a much lower carbon footprint and contribute to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Adoption of more plant-heavy diets with lower meat consumption, by more people will enable land dedicated to producing more food for direct human consumption. A further understanding of dietary habits from other cultures around the globe will aid the allocation of critical natural resources, especially water in the coming decades.
Sustainable Protein Sources is the first reference on dietary proteins that covers the land, water, and energy usage inputs, nutritive outputs, and food applications of plant and other non-meat proteins. Sustainable Protein Sources allows readers to understand how alternative proteins—such as plant, fungal, algal, and insect protein—can take the place of more costly and less efficient animal-based sources.
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