Identifying our “core evolutionary needs” could lead to improved health

Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto Anthropology Department website.

Daniel Sellen is a professor at the University of Toronto. Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto Anthropology Department website.

If you’ve been paying attention to the world of health and fitness recently, you’ve probably heard about the Paleolithic diet—a regime of nuts, meats and vegetables that’s based on the meals of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

While health experts are still duking out the benefits of the “paleo diet,” Daniel Sellen, a professor at the University of Toronoto, believes that the concept of looking at our core evolutionary needs could in fact hold the key to better understanding and improving child health and nutrition.

As part of the Northwestern Anthropology Department’s “Landscapes of Inequality” speaker series, Sellen lectured to a packed room of students and professors last week about a range of topics, including infant nutrition, the gap between anthropology and global health, and “mHealth” tools.

In particular, Sellen spoke about discerning an “evolved care package,” or the core items we need to live optimally healthy lives. “I’m ultimately addressing the problem of meeting the evolved needs of people everywhere,” he said.

One such core evolutionary need Sellen noted was “complementary feeding” with infants. In the past, infants survived on breast milk, which after a few months was complemented with micronutrient-rich foods such as nuts, fish and meat.

“These are the things that are missing from many human diets in poor countries,” Sellen said. Instead, food processing and agricultural practices have altered complementary feeding, which Sellen thinks can affect overall health. “We need to support our ancient needs more effectively,” he said.

Sellen believes better collaboration between anthropologists and members of the global health world could make it easier to identify and address other core evolutionary needs.

He cited the practice of “kangaroo care,” or holding an infant skin-to-skin, as an example of a fundamental anthropological behavior being touted as innovation in the global health world.

“That’s the kind of conceptual mismatch that I’m intrigued by,” Sellen said. “How can something as fundamental to our evolved needs become, in the first place, so uncommon?”

Part of the reason for the gap between anthropological knowledge and global health practices is due to weak evidence bases in global health, Sellen said. Without a strong evidence base, he said it is hard to determine which global health initiatives are truly effective.

He believes anthropologists could bring vital research and contextual knowledge to the global health world. “A lot of the soft skills that we gain early on in anthropological training make us potentially very effective in working in global health.”

Currently, Sellen is working with a team to bring smart phones to rural Tanzania. The realm of “mHealth,” or mobile health, is an area where global health workers are flourishing, while anthropologists are not.

“There’s a lot of folks jumping on the bus around what we call mobile health,” he said. “We need to be on that bus.”

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