The importance of dietary carbohydrate in human evolution

Karen Hardy, Jennie Brand-Miller, Katherine D. Brown, Mark G. Thomas, Les Copeland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

161 Citations (Scopus)


© 2015, by The University of Chicago. We propose that plant foods containing high quantities of starch were essential for the evolution of the human phenotype during the Pleistocene. Although previous studies have highlighted a stone tool-mediated shift from primarily plant-based to primarily meat-based diets as critical in the development of the brain and other human traits, we argue that digestible carbohydrates were also necessary to accommodate the increased metabolic demands of a growing brain. Furthermore, we acknowledge the adaptive role cooking played in improving the digestibility and palatability of key carbohydrates. We provide evidence that cooked starch, a source of preformed glucose, greatly increased energy availability to human tissues with high glucose demands, such as the brain, red blood cells, and the developing fetus. We also highlight the auxiliary role copy number variation in the salivary amylase genes may have played in increasing the importance of starch in human evolution following the origins of cooking. Salivary amylases are largely ineffective on raw crystalline starch, but cooking substantially increases both their energy-yielding potential and glycemia. Although uncertainties remain regarding the antiquity of cooking and the origins of salivary amylase gene copy number variation, the hypothesis we present makes a testable prediction that these events are correlated.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-268
JournalQuarterly Review of Biology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2015


  • Carbohydrate
  • Copy number variation
  • Diet
  • Human evolution
  • Preformed glucose
  • Salivary amylase genes


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