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Food, Science, and the Human Body

Join an award-winning anthropologist for an exploration of the evolution of the human diet and its relationship to our bodies.
Food, Science, and the Human Body is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 37.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive and engaging This is a very thorough review of the topics in the title. The presenter was extremely engaging and (obviously) extremely well informed. I learned a great deal about the historical relationship between human evolution and the foods we evolved to eat, as well as the likely problems we will face in the future.
Date published: 2023-09-30
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Long speculation on the inferred history of food If you are interest in a speculative inferred history about food this might work. For science and the human body I would suggest you look under those heading. Using the word evolution adnauseum does not really explain anything. A more accurate title might be "Food and what might have happened over eons"
Date published: 2023-07-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good history, thorough coverage Good history, thorough coverage addressing a number of important topics. My only criticism was there was an occasional deluge of statistics that needed more context and explication.
Date published: 2022-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great resource for reliable information I enjoyed this series. I learned many things through the series and am happy I ordered it.
Date published: 2022-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Treasure Trove! The Great Courses are a treasure trove of delights, with a hugely diverse range of topics which could keep you entertained and learning for years! Thank you!
Date published: 2022-02-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A real eye opener! I bought this course last month and I have learnt so much about what our ancestors nutrition. Some of the myths about our ancestor eating mainly meat from hunting have been explained. So glad I understand better what they ate and why the scientists have come to their conclusions.
Date published: 2022-01-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Anthropology of Food This course was not what I quite expected from the title. I was more or less expecting a course on eating healthy based on science. So much of that discussion could really be termed pop science. What this course really is, is a course on the history of human nutrition and food patterns over the millennium. It is essentially an anthropological exploration of the topic. Towards the end of the series there several classes on the future of food on a planet overwhelming its resources. The first 2 or 3 classes dragged a little, and my wife wanted to find another topic to watch. I prevailed on her to stick with it a bit, and after that they got better. The presenter, Alyssa Crittenden, does a good job, is knowledgeable and passionate about the subject. I would recommend with the above caveats.
Date published: 2021-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course on food Ms Crittenden is an excellent instructor, providing highly relevent information in a succinct format and is a pleasure to listen to. This is a very thorough course, well put together and is highly recommended. Courses like this are worth every penny spent on my subsription to watch. It is one of the most valuable courses I have taken considering that food is so important to us all. I can't say enough about what a fine course this is. I thank National Geographic for producing it and Wondrium/Great Courses Plus for making it available to watch.
Date published: 2021-08-21
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In these 36 lectures, get answers to questions about the evolution of the human diet and its relationship to our bodies. Bringing together insights from fields including anthropology, health science, biology, and sociology, this partnership between The Great Courses and National Geographic lays bare what science can teach us about food.


Alyssa Crittenden

Our long evolutionary relationship with food is often hailed by anthropologists as one of the key milestones in human evolution.


University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Crittenden's focus in anthropology is on behavioral ecology and nutritional anthropology. She does field research among the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania, East Africa. Her research interests include the evolution of the human diet, the evolution of childhood, and the origins of the division of labor between the sexes. Dr. Crittenden's work crosses several disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, ecology, nutrition, and human biology.

Dr. Crittenden has received multiple awards for her research contributions, including the prestigious Nevada Regents' Rising Researcher Award for 2017. Her research on the role of honey in human evolution and her work on Hadza diet and the gut microbiome have been widely published in both top-tier academic journals and highlighted in popular outlets, such as National Geographic magazine, Smithsonian magazine, and Psychology Today. Dr. Crittenden has also appeared on the BBC, on PBS and NPR, as well as in several documentaries. Her research among the Hadza was the basis of a TED Talk for EDxUNLV in 2016.

By This Professor

Food, Science, and the Human Body
Food, Science, and the Human Body


Paleo Diets and the Ancestral Appetite

01: Paleo Diets and the Ancestral Appetite

Do we have an ancestral appetite? First, uncover how similar the current Paleo diet fad is to what our actual ancestors ate. Then, learn how digestive anatomy and neural expansion played a role in the evolution of nutrition. Finally, determine whether or not humans are adapted to one specific diet....

31 min
Our Hunter-Gatherer Past

02: Our Hunter-Gatherer Past

For the bulk of human history, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. Using fascinating research from a study of one of Africa's last foraging populations, Professor Crittenden reveals insights into how hunter-gatherer societies function, and how they may have shaped the diversity of human nutrition....

31 min
Stones, Bones, and Teeth

03: Stones, Bones, and Teeth

For clues to the history of human nutrition, scientists look to fossils in the form of stones, bones, and teeth. In this lecture, learn what scientists discovered about the ancestral dinner plate through stone artifacts used for butchery, the bones of the human cranium, and the dentition of early humans....

29 min
Did Eating Meat Make Us Human?

04: Did Eating Meat Make Us Human?

Learn how meat changed the playing field for our earliest ancestors. First, trace the history of meat eating through human evolution. Then, use data from cut marks on bones to decipher when, exactly, we began to eat meat. Also, consider the nutritive benefits (and dangers) linked with meat consumption....

28 min
Insects: The Other White Meat

05: Insects: The Other White Meat

There are more than 1,900 edible insect species on Earth, and 2 billion people regularly consume insects as part of their diet. In this lecture, Professor Crittenden takes you inside the fascinating world of entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) and the ways we turn to insects for nutrition....

29 min
Was the Stone Age Menu Mostly Vegetarian?

06: Was the Stone Age Menu Mostly Vegetarian?

Explore the critical role that plant foods have played in our diet. You'll study plant microfossils that radically change what we thought we knew about the Stone Age menu. You'll learn the essential role played by underground storage organs (or "tubers"). And you'll revisit Professor Crittenden's research on plant-processing techniques among Tanzanian foragers....

29 min
Cooking and the Control of Fire

07: Cooking and the Control of Fire

Roasting. Boiling. Baking. Grilling. When did our ancestors start cooking with fire, and how? Find out in this lecture that takes you back nearly 1 million years on a journey to find out how we evolved to eat our food cooked, whether using boiling stones or a butane torch....

29 min
The Neolithic Revolution

08: The Neolithic Revolution

Discover what prompted large populations of people to drastically change their subsistence strategy by domesticating plants and animals, Also, learn how this Neolithic revolution permanently altered the human diet, as well as paved the way for massive population growth, the development of nation states, and new vectors for disease....

30 min
The Changing Disease-Scape

09: The Changing Disease-Scape

Turn now to a darker product of the Neolithic revolution: the growth of zoonotic diseases, or diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites that spread between animals and humans. Among the ones you'll encounter here are Lyme disease, West Nile virus, malaria, salmonella, and E. coli....

29 min
How Foods Spread around the World

10: How Foods Spread around the World

Once domestication was in full swing, foods began to be exchanged among different groups, leading to the subject of this lecture: delocalization. In order to better understand the development of this process, in which food consumed in one area is produced far away, you'll consider examples and case studies including bananas, apples, tomatoes, and corn....

30 min
The History of the Spice Trade

11: The History of the Spice Trade

They're a common enough item in our pantries today, but in the past, spices were highly valued and tightly guarded, and were the catalyst for creating and destroying empires. Examine the spices that were critically important during the opening decades of the spice routes, including pepper, cloves, ginger, and garlic....

29 min
How Sugar and Salt Shaped World History

12: How Sugar and Salt Shaped World History

Salt and sugar have also played large roles in food production and global health. Topics in this lecture include how sugar is extracted from sugar cane, the rise of alternative sweeteners and sugar substitutes, early non-dietary uses of salt, and the dangers of a high-sodium diet....

29 min
A Brief History of Bread

13: A Brief History of Bread

Bread, in all its forms, is one of the most widely consumed foods in the world. It was also the foundation for many civilizations. Here, consider aspects about this dietary staple, including the art of leavening, the religious and social roles of light and dark bread, and the artisanal bread movement....

28 min
The Science and Secrets of Chocolate

14: The Science and Secrets of Chocolate

Today, chocolate is a multi-billion-dollar global industry. In this lecture, Professor Crittenden takes you back in time so you can follow chocolate's trek around the world, considering not only its history and chemical properties, but its role in the current global market in the form of powerful chocolate empires....

30 min
Water: The Liquid of Life

15: Water: The Liquid of Life

Of all the water on Earth, only a fraction of it is drinkable. How much water is used by humans throughout the world? How did bottled water become so popular? Why is water fluoridation so controversial? How can we work to conserve water, both as a nation and in our everyday lives?...

30 min
Beer, Mead, and the Fun of Fermentation

16: Beer, Mead, and the Fun of Fermentation

From ancient Egyptian experiments to the 21st-century microbrewery down the street from your house, explore the intricate links between the fermentation of wheat and honey and human civilization. As you follow our love affair with beer and mead, you'll be surprised to learn just how accidental their discovery was.

30 min
Humanity's Love of Wine

17: Humanity's Love of Wine

Continue looking at our relationship with fermented beverages, this time with a look into the story of fermenting grapes into wine. Topics include the science behind viticulture and the production of different types of wine, the reasons winemakers are turning away from cork, and "retsina," one of the oldest types of white wine.

30 min
Coffee: Love or Addiction?

18: Coffee: Love or Addiction?

Each year, over 500 billion cups of coffee are served. Reconsider this popular drink and its relationship with world history. Along the way, you'll explore the ways coffee is harvested, how caffeine works on your body and mind, popular ways to drink coffee, and the origins of the free-trade movement....

29 min
The Roots of Tea

19: The Roots of Tea

What is the source of the nearly 1,500 different types of tea in the world? How did tea spread from Japan to Europe? What are the differences between green, black, and white teas? How was the tea bag accidentally invented? Is drinking tea good for your health? Get the answers in this lecture....

28 min
The Fizz on Soda

20: The Fizz on Soda

Soda was once an embodiment of the American dream. Now, it's one of the worst contributors to obesity-related diseases. Make sense of this fizzy drink by exploring its origins as patented medicine, the soda wars between Coke and Pepsi, and the health risks associated with its high sugar content.

30 min
Food as Ritual

21: Food as Ritual

Humans don't just eat for nutrition. It's a deeply symbolic activity as well. In this lecture, consider some of the many different categories of food rituals around the world, including fasting for Ramadan, making sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead, bobbing for apples during Halloween, and America's favorite fall feast: Thanksgiving.

28 min
When People Eat Things That Aren't Food

22: When People Eat Things That Aren't Food

Sometimes, people consume things that are not considered food, from dirt to hair to human flesh. Professor Crittenden introduces you to some of the more outlandish dietary practices around the world, including placentophagy (in which a mother eats the placenta after giving birth) and anthropophagy (also known as cannibalism).

29 min
Food as Recreational Drugs

23: Food as Recreational Drugs

Throughout history, we've consumed food not just for nourishment, but also for psychological effects. In this lecture, go inside the world of recreational drugs, including psilocybin mushrooms, edible marijuana treats, and addictions to foods like chocolate or french fries.

32 min
Food as Medicine

24: Food as Medicine

Is there a substantial link between diet and disease prevention? Professor Crittenden explains the medicinal histories behind several foods. Among them are ginger (thought to help with digestive issues) and cinnamon (used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat various ailments), as well as goji berries, chocolate, and pomegranate.

31 min
The Coevolution of Genes and Diet

25: The Coevolution of Genes and Diet

Biological and cultural evolution are not separate phenomena, and this is nowhere better exemplified than with diet. In this lecture, Professor Crittenden discusses the ways in which our genes and diet have co-evolved. You'll witness this fascinating process through examples of how our body evolved to metabolize (or not) enzymes like lactase and amylase, as well as omega 3 fatty acids.

30 min
The Scoop on Poop

26: The Scoop on Poop

There's a lot we can learn about the end point of nutrition. Here, trace the science and history of excrement, including its oldest fossilized forms (known as coprolites), the study of latrine systems in ancient Rome, and the important role played by gut bacteria in excrement production.

31 min
The Gut Microbiome

27: The Gut Microbiome

Your body can play host to anywhere from 30 to 50 trillion bacterial cells, the most species of which are in your gut. Learn how gut microbiota help us metabolize food and drugs, and defend us against pathogens. Put simply: these microbes are fellow travelers in human evolution.

30 min
Brain Food

28: Brain Food

There's data out there to suggest that it's possible to feed your brain. In this lecture on the links between diet and the brain, explore the role of hormones like insulin and leptin; unpack the tangled links between food cravings and addiction; and consider how the MIND diet can help delay neurodegeneration.

29 min
You Are What Your Mother Ate

29: You Are What Your Mother Ate

Your diet as a fetus has a powerful influence on your life as an adult. What micronutrients are most important to your first nine months of life? What did a historic Dutch famine reveal about the consequences of sub-standard nutrition during pregnancy? What can we learn from studying heritable changes in gene expression?

29 min
Civilization: Diets and Diseases

30: Civilization: Diets and Diseases

Professor Crittenden explains the second and third epidemiological transitions in human evolution and the changing face of the world's disease-scape. First is the decline over the last two centuries of infectious disease and the rise of chronic degenerative diseases (like diabetes). Then there's the re-emergence of drug-resistant infectious diseases (like Zika).

31 min
What the World Is Eating

31: What the World Is Eating

Take a fascinating tour of different meals from around the world to better appreciate the global tradition of eating. Cultural cuisines you explore are those listed by the United Nations as part of the world's "intangible cultural heritage," and include Japanese cuisine, Mexican cuisine, and French cuisine....

25 min
The Overnutrition Epidemic

32: The Overnutrition Epidemic

According to the World Health Organization, most of the world's population now lives in countries where obesity kills more people than malnutrition. In this insightful lecture, explore the two-pronged pathway to global obesity: decreased physical activity and radical changes in diet (including the massive consumption of sugar)....

29 min
World Poverty and Undernutrition

33: World Poverty and Undernutrition

Every night, one in eight people goes to bed hungry. Get an eye-opening look at undernourishment in the developing and post-industrialized worlds. You'll consider the two types of malnourishment, the concept of "plump poverty," the roles played by urban slums and overpopulation, and ways we can work to eradicate world hunger....

31 min
Should the World Eat Meat?

34: Should the World Eat Meat?

In the first of two lectures on the politics of food, explore whether or not sustainable meat production is a myth or reality. What are the environmental costs of meat production? How can we rethink the way we house, feed, and raise livestock? Is too much meat bad for our health?

33 min
Should We Be Powered by Plants?

35: Should We Be Powered by Plants?

Turn now to the politics of eating a plant-based diet. What are the health benefits of vegetarianism and veganism? Why do people decide to follow this diet? What role does beauty play in food waste? What exactly is the controversy surrounding the organic foods movement and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?...

32 min
The Future of Food

36: The Future of Food

Artificial meat. Bio-fortified crops. Vertical farms in the middle of cities. Bread grown from spent grains used in breweries. Crops grown with agroforestry methods. Conclude the course with a broad look at developing a food system that is better equipped to deal with population growth and diminishing resources....

36 min