COUNTING CALORIES, THEN AND NOW

David Burzillo, BHP Teacher
Massachusetts, USA

For several years, I’ve asked my students to read Jared Diamond’s article “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” an excerpt from which can be found in Investigation 7. Discussing the eating habits and nutrition of early humans always raises a lot of questions for my students: How can we know what early humans ate? Is it different from what we eat today? Did they eat three meals a day? How much did they eat? These questions also give rise to some great discussion about the work that archaeologists and anthropologists do and the ways they can tease information out of the fossil record.

hunter-farmer-now

Cave painting, Algerian desert, by Gruban, CC BY-SA 2.0 (Left). Agricultural scenes in ancient Egypt, public domain. Lunch, public domain.

Discussing these issues can lead students to some great insights. Comparing sample diets of hunter-gatherers, early farmers, and modern humans in the Nutrition Hunt activity from Lesson 7.3 provides students with a concrete way to delve deeper. I asked my students to keep track of the food they ate on a particular day; they then calculated the calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and fat content of those foods.

Some students were struck by the fact that the typical forager diet provided more calories than that of early farmers. In comparing the sample modern-day diets consumed by members of the class, a number were struck by some significant calorie differences between male and female classmates. “Those are the guys who play sports,” said one, but another immediately chimed in: “The girls are athletes too! That can’t be driving the difference.”

This year was the first time I taught this activity, and I was pleased with how it went. A few tips: Students might need calculators to tally up calorie totals in each food category. Also, although you can do this activity without Internet connectivity (just share with students a printout of the Nutritional Information for School Lunch Program Foods, which is included in the activity PDF), my students found that the USDA Food Composition Database provided a nice complement. This database is searchable and provides nutrition info on over 180,000 foods.

This activity was a fun and relevant way to get students thinking about the connections between past and present through a topic they love talking about—food. If you teach Big History before lunch, be prepared for some complaints from students about how hungry the lesson has made them!

About the author: Dave Burzillo has taught for over 30 years, more than 25 of them at his current school, a private high school in Weston, MA. For the last 7 years, he has taught BHP to ninth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders. His school runs on a trimester system, which gives him about 90 days to cover 13.8 billion years of history in each class. He has 12-16 students in each class. Recently, Dave began offering an online BHP course in the summer.

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