A biology professor traverses the globe to explore the evolution of food.
In this accessible debut, Le offers a nimble hybrid that is equal parts travel memoir and informed speculation about the biology of human nutrition. The author, with roots in Vietnam and Canada, also explores how different cultures approach food in support of his thesis that straying from one’s ancestral diets is a leading cause of modern disease. It’s a surprisingly cleareyed approach that demonstrates Le’s awareness of trendy diets like the paleo approach while also allowing him to dig into the science behind the effects that eating has on our lives. Starting off in Vietnam to explore the now-exotic inclusion of insects in one’s diet, the author traveled the world to explore the history of meat, fish, fruits, and starches in far-flung locales. It’s not always pretty—the chapter “A Truce Among Thieves” delves uncomfortably into the weird world of parasites and the drawbacks of modern hygiene on our digestive and immune systems. In an interesting diversion for what is nominally a scientific inquiry, Le doesn’t confine what he learns to a restrictive definition for health, as he notes in his chapter on meat. “In other words, the robustness of meat-eaters and the long lives of meat-abstainers are two sides of the same biological coin,” he writes. “It all depends on how you define healthy. Does healthy mean being in a great mood and being fertile and stronger at a younger age, or does healthy mean delaying cancer for a couple of years and hanging out with your great-grandchildren?” This line of inquiry continues in the book’s penultimate chapter, “The Future of Food,” in which Le chronicles his discussions with proponents of different diets and lifestyles, none of whom can agree on a best approach.
The book’s conclusions about what to eat and drink are common sense, but the journey Le takes to get us there is worth the cover price.