The Relationship Between Nutrition and Reproduction
Let's talk about food and sex. No, I don't mean taking a can of whip cream to the bedroom. I'm talking about nutrition and how it affects reproductive health.
In the blog post "We Are What We Eat: Why Pre-Pregnancy Nutrition is so Important", we talked about how the food that we eat affects our body’s physiological function. In this post, let’s look at the history of nutrition and how it impacted our ancestors. It is important to understand our ancestor’s history so that we can learn from them and their discoveries.
Before agriculture and farming, history shows that our ancestors lived in a hunter-gatherer society. Men typically were in charge of hunting meat and women and children gathered and foraged. At the end of the day, they would reconvene and share their rations. Was this the ideal way to eat? Not necessarily. People were eating to survive in this era. They focused solely on their basic human needs because there was not enough time to do anything else! While this was not a perfect way to eat, there were aspects of it that deserve to be recognized.
The beneficial attributes to hunter-gatherer behavior can still be observed amongst the Hadza community in Tanzania, Africa. The Hadza community has sustained itself in the absence of agriculture, very similar to our ancestors. The Hadza eat a well-balanced, seasonal diet of fruits, nuts, seeds, meats, and honey. About 45% of their diet comes from meat and honey, the remaining 55% coming from plant foods. In their culture, men and women target different foods to help support their different physiological needs. The women tend to eat more plant-based foods than their gender counterparts. The Hadza population's rations are a direct reflection of their foraging, which is very labor-intensive work. These people are burning as many calories as they are consuming, keeping them in caloric equilibrium. By the age of 5, the children of this community are able to supply roughly 50% of their necessary daily intake through their own foraging efforts. Upon reviewing the gut health of the Hadza people, their gut microbiome is far more diverse than most individuals living in post-industrialized, westernized communities. They had a larger quantity of healthy gut bacteria as well as more types of gut bacteria. It was also discovered that men and women in their community are differently adapted to their nutritional intake even though they have all of the same resources available (Crittenden, 2016). It's been believed in the past that women were at a disadvantage if they ate primarily forage foods but this discovery showed that women who ate a diet composed of large quantities of plant-based foods have a gut biome that is more adapted to digesting the nutrients needed from these types of foods to support physiological function, such as childbearing. Childrearing in hunter-gatherer societies is viewed as a group effort, meaning that women shared the responsibilities of caring for children instead of each individual mother taking 100% of the labor involved in raising dependents. The type of diet that the Hadza, as well as other hunter-gather communities, consume ensures that people are eating regionally. The land we live on is plentiful in certain nutrients and scarce in others and there is good reasoning for this. Let's remember that the earth was designed to support life. All the resources that we need to survive are available to us, we just have to search for them. Specific regions provide what is necessary to survive in that area. People that live along the coast will have access to resources that are not available inland and think about why. The areas are so vastly different from each other! The nutritional needs of people living in each of these areas are going to be different. In agricultural-based societies, we have access to all types of resources, all the time. People no longer have to think about what grows local to them. You want a mango in the middle of the winter in the Pacific Northwest? Sure! If you have the money, it's yours. The land we live on no longer tells us what we need to survive on it because we have bypassed this natural communication that the land gives to us by importing and exporting on a global scale. Not only do hunter-gatherer communities eat regionally, but they also eat seasonally. Not all types of resources are available year-round. This is yet another way that the land regulates what the needs of human bodies are at specific times of the year. In westernized communities, there is a misconception that our body’s needs are consistently the same when in reality the needs of our bodies are consistently changing depending on the environment around us.
Our history shows that as climatic shifts took place and more high-quality resources became available to humans, our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved. Their brains became larger because of the increased nutrients being consumed and their guts became smaller because they didn't need to eat as much in quantity to supply their bodies nutrient demands. As humans developmentally evolved, they discovered ways that they could more effectively supply food to our population. This is when industrialized agriculture was born. National Geographic published a journal in regards to the impact of agriculture and their research revealed that "the domestication of grains such as sorghum, barley, wheat, corn, and rice created a plentiful and predictable food supply, allowing farmers’ wives to bear babies in rapid succession—one every 2.5 years instead of one every 3.5 years for hunter-gatherers. A population explosion followed; before long, farmers outnumbered foragers" (Gibbons, 2019). Part of the reasoning for this is that we wean our infants earlier than was done in historical times. This triggers the body to begin ovulating sooner which leads to a smaller gap in between pregnancies. Women can stack children one on top of another in age, leaving themselves with multiple dependents who all rely on them for an extended amount of time. The evolution of agriculture also influenced the domestication of livestock animals. Eating meat has drastically benefitted humans and our evolution, but by domesticating animals, this has increased the likelihood of "of parasites and new infectious diseases" (Gibbons, 2019) among the animals. This caused "farmers [to suffer] from iron deficiency and developmental delays”, which caused humans to over-time shrink in stature (Gibbons, 2019). While people were able to reproduce more in quantity, the quality of genetics began to decline. This new way of living was more isolating. Humans did not have to rely on each other as dependently. This began to discourage raising children in a group setting.
Let's fast forward to 2022. Agriculture, while supplying more in quantity, has decreased from the overall quality of human life. It has introduced a lower-quality, unbalanced, and non-seasonal diet to the population. Along with that, it has introduced disease and infection that is preventable in non-commercial settings. Due to the abundant quantity of available resources, women are weaning their babies earlier, which causes ovulation to return earlier in the postpartum period. This has decreased spacing in-between children, putting a large burden on the female body. Not only is this taxing to the physical well-being of women, but this paired with the emotional demand of raising children in a society that does not promote community-based child-rearing, is a recipe for chronic stress. Stress on the body has a variety of negative short-term and long-term effects, some of which include: chronic inflammation, slower metabolism, mood disorders, fertility difficulties, and so on.
Let's do some reflecting. Based on what we learned today, what are some ways that we can take this knowledge and apply it realistically to our modernized lives? For starters, we can start researching ways to eat as local as possible. Start reaching out to your community and see what is available. Local farmer’s markets are a great way to find food that has been grown in a non-commercial setting, local to your area. Next, start paying attention to what grows in your region at what time of the year. Make an effort to cook foods seasonally and pay attention to how your body feels. Each body is different and will require different nutritional needs at different times of the year. Find a holistic provider near you that you trust and work with them on establishing what your body’s needs are and how to fulfill them. If you are raising children, find ways that you can connect with your community. Where you find this connection will be different for everyone but begin assessing what kind of support may be the most useful to you and how you can find this in your community.
Crittenden, A. (2016, Nov. 10). Hunter-gatherers, human diet, and our capacity for cooperation. TEDxUNLV. Youtube [Video] Retrieved June 30 from
Hunter-gatherers, Human Diet, and Our Capacity for Cooperation | Alyssa Crittenden | TEDxUNLV
Gibbons, A (n.d.) Evolution of diet. National Geographic [Interactive images] Retrieved July 2, 2019 from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/
Englund-Ögge, L., Brantsæter, A. L., Sengpiel, V., Haugen, M., Birgisdottir, B. E., Myhre, R., … & Jacobsson, B. (2014). Maternal dietary patterns and preterm delivery: results from large prospective cohort study. BMJ, ABSTRACT, g1446. Retrieved June 27, 2019 from https://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g1446
Kuhnlein, H. V., & Receveur, O. (1996). Dietary change and traditional food systems of indigenous peoples. Annual Review of Nutrition, 16(1), 417-442. Retrieved July 2, 2019 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/14365338_Dietary_Change_and_Traditional_Food_Systems_of_Indigenous_Peoples
Mayo Clinic. (2021, July 8). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Retrieved February 9, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037