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William R. Leonard: The Evolution of Human Nutrition

William R. Leonard is a leading anthropologist in the field of human nutrition. He was born in Jamestown, NY and received his PhD in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1987. He is now an Abraham Harris Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Chair of Anthropology at Northwestern University. He is also the Director of the Global Health Studies Program.

Dr. William R. Leonard (left) with former student Josh Snodgrass, Univeristy of Oregon, conducting fieldwork in Siberia. (Photo provided by William Leonard)

Much of his research focuses on nutrition, energetics, and child growth in both modern and prehistoric human populations. He has traveled and studied in regions of South America, including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, and also Siberia. In these regions, Leonard conducts research on population adaptation to their specific nutritional environment and how these adaptations affect their health, as well as contribute to chronic disease risks. Additionally, Leonard compiles information about human and primate ecology in order to examine the evolution of nutritional requirements in our hominid ancestors. This research leads to insight regarding the origins of obesity and metabolic diseases in contemporary human populations.

One recently published paper by Leonard, titled “The global diversity of eating patterns: Human nutritional health in comparative perspective” highlights Leonard’s work surrounding human nutrition, dietary trends, and the raising rates of obesity in the US. In the paper, he focuses on the different types of subsistence in the US versus less modern, more traditional societies. He notes that the energy intake between industrialized and non-industrialized societies is not different, but that the composition of nutrition includes higher levels of fats and carbohydrates in industrialized cultures. He also compares humans’ nutritional needs to primates, noting that the increase in brain size in higher-level primates such as humans has led to humans requiring higher quality foods than some of our close evolutionary relatives. As rates of obesity and chronic metabolic diseases continue to rise in the US and other industrialized societies, research such as Leonard’s studying the causes and origins of such nutritional deficiencies is of growing importance.


Leonard, William R.

2014 The global diversity of eating patterns: Human nutritional health in comparative perspective. Physiology & Behavior 134:5-14.

Background information based on biosketch provided by Dr. William R. Leonard.

4 thoughts on “William R. Leonard: The Evolution of Human Nutrition

  1. kdteeter

    Good post. I think this guy's research is especially important in today's industrialized societies. Just speaking about the US, there seems to be a general lack of nutritional education. This takes a toll on a person's lifestyle starting from childhood because parents with bad habits tend to pass them to their children.

    It would be interesting to see him try to develop programs to benefit communities suffering from poor nutrition. Seems like it would be have to taken on a case by case basis since even within the US the access to resources differs based on socio-economic status. Sounds like he is doing important research but how can it be applied in a beneficial way throughout the range of lifestyles present in any given society?

  2. Aaron Hoggle

    I found this chapter particularly interesting due to how humans can adapt based on what nutrients are around them. It is clear that there has been a lot of research based on the human diet and what nutritional requirements the human body demands. In looking at primate subsistence it is interesting that most get their nutrients from two different food categories which work together to meet protein and energy demands. This is very similar to humans. One question that I have is regarding cravings. Do humans crave foods that have nutrients their bodies are deficient in and do their primate counterparts share in this?

    Leonard's research in nutrition and child growth seem to be pretty complete studies. Like Katie, I think it would be interesting to see him focusing on a particular community and by making changes in their nutrition show how the body can adapt from obesity and bad food choices to a more healthy human body. Also, I'd like to see a study on appetite and how or if it could be changed or adapted in a natural way from basic food choices.

  3. ajcallery

    This was definitely my favorite chapter to read so far in the class. The chapter discussed ways in which human nutrition has evolved and how it is currently impacted our lives. I liked how the chapter was structured to break down the important elements of nutrition and then how the levels of these nutrients vary by person and age of an individual, it provided basic information to comprehend the rest of the chapter. The explanation on hypertension was also rather interesting because it mentioned the slavery hypothesis along with Dressler’s idea of social stress as a key component. I was surprised by the fact that the slavery hypothesis was mentioned here, I thought it had been disproved or thought obsolete by the racist underpinnings. Are there any other problems that have stemmed from the evolution of our diets beyond the ones mentioned in the book? If so, how did they develop and do they seem to be a hindrance more than helpful?
    In this chapter the idea of the thrifty gene interested me most so I found an article that pertained to that by Wells, Obesity as malnutrition: the role of capitalism in the obesity global epidemic. The article explained the thrifty gene in more detail and how the capitalistic economy has increased the prevalence of obesity in not only Western societies, but in the developing worlds.
    Capitalism has contributed to the development of the thrifty gene because upon the introduction of capitalism in the industrial revolution individuals were beginning to sell their labor for money. This created a way for companies to take advantage of individuals in order to make a profit. Since companies were making a profit off of production, the individuals selling their labor were getting very little money and therefore could not afford proper amounts of food. The lack of food for the working class resulted in malnutrition. The malnutrition would be passed on to infants through the lack of nutrients obtain during pregnancy by the mother. The thrifty gene is thus the body’s way of adapting to the lack of nutrients in order to continue to develop in proper ways. The body becomes accustomed to holding onto the nutrients for longer than the body would normal. So when an individual’s environment changes to where there is excess nutrition it results in larger weight gain than it would in other individuals. This thrifty gene continues on for multiple generations and takes a while for the effects of malnutrition during pregnancy to be removed from the gene line.
    The growth and use of capitalism in third world countries that are developing has given researchers a prime example of how the thrifty gene works currently. When looking at the thrifty gene, it is best to do through life history. Life history is the study of the complete life cycle of humans from birth to death, focusing on the tradeoffs that happen between stages. The thrifty gene helps with ensuring that development is not altered in the fetus and infants that lack proper nutrition. The ability for the body to continue to grow without proper nutrition results in trade offs later in life. These trade offs are that certain tissues grow in the body over others and the earlier development of puberty. Puberty develops earlier because the life of the individual is not expected to be long and the whole point of life in terms of life history is to reproduce viable offspring to continue the passing of one’s genes. The earlier development of puberty allows for the individual to reproduce earlier because they are not expected to last long because the malnutrition is expected to last for the individual’s lifetime.
    The environment that has been created in most societies is an obesogenic one in which the thrifty gene will result in over-nutrition and obesity. An obesogenic environment is an environment where individuals have an energy imbalance, too much calorie dense food and not enough physical activity to burn these excess calories off. The extra calories thus result in weight gain. The weight gain would not be as much of an issue if it did not come from the highly processed foods that contain high amounts of high-fructose corn syrup. The problem with the excess sugar in the body is that it results in overproduction of insulin to process it and as insulin is in constant use the body begins to become resistant, resulting in type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes prevalence has also increased throughout the world and is seen to be connected to the thrifty gene as well.
    The environment that humans have created has helped lead us to the current health issues that we are experiencing with excess weight and type 2 diabetes. The economic change to capitalism has helped, but then also hindered our health and as a result we need to readapt to this obesogenic environment that has been created around us that our original adaptation, the thrifty gene, is no longer helpful.

    Wells, J.C.K. (2012). Obesity as malnutrition: the role of capitalism I the obesity global epidemic. American Journal of Human Biology, 24: 261.276.

  4. Emily Hoskins

    The reading of this week really reminded me of topics we talked about in my ANT 270, Intro to Physical Anthropology, class. We also read a book called "Catching Fire" that had a lot to do with how cooking and consuming meat caused our brain sizes to grow in size. Nutrition had a big effect on the way humans adapted through time. I like Leonard's work on the evolution of human nutrition, and I also like that he was kind enough to let him use his picture and send you his latest paper which sounded very interesting. I find his work on the correlation between obesity and metabolic diseases very interesting, especially with the talk in the past few years about obesity rates being a problem in the US.

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