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Humans might not have evolved into who we are today if not for a hefty diet of caveman turkey legs and brontosaurus burgers. A new study suggests it may have been our ancestors’ carnivorous diet that allowed the modern human brain to develop as it did.

The Study

Researchers think they have finally found out why humans have larger brains than our evolutionary ancestors (even though gorillas, our closest living relatives, grow to three times the size of humans). The answer? Meat.

One study suggests that the high calories found in meat helped fuel the development of the human brain. The researchers believed it would’ve been impossible for early humans to gather enough calories from meat-free foods to feed their growing brains. If early humans had followed a raw diet (like gorillas), they would have had to eat for a total of nine hours every day in order to consume enough calories for proper brain development. On the flip side, if gorillas were to develop a humanlike brain, they would need to eat 700 additional calories per day — an extra two hours of eating all those greens.

Can We Trust It

We can’t hop back in time and see exactly what our pre-human ancestors were munching on, but scientists have done a pretty good job decoding the evolution of the human species. Additional studies have also found links between human brain size and dietary patterns, thanking meat (which is packed with calories and fat) for our large, developed brainsDietary lean red meat and human evolution. Mann, N. Department of Food Science, RMIT University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. European Journal of Nutrition, 2000 Apr;39(2):71-9.Fat Detection: Taste, Texture, and Post Ingestive Effects. Leonard WR, Snodgrass JJ, Robertson ML. Evolutionary Perspectives on Fat Ingestion and Metabolism in Humans. In: Montmayeur JP, le Coutre J, editors. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press; 2010. Chapter 1..

But how does a filet mignon or rib eye steak exactly translate to a bigger brain? Some believe that by spending less time getting enough adequate calories, the body had more time to focus on other important tasks, like building a brain. Others say meat provided early humans with the proper amount of vitamins, minerals, and energy necessary to power the brain’s expansion. In other words, the human brain has been able to grow thanks to a nutrient- and calorie-dense diet.

Why It Matters

Sure, it’s cool to take a look at what humans were eating, oh, millions of years ago. But it’s also interesting to see how eating meat can affect brain health today. Meat is filled with omega-3 fats, which are necessary for brain development and functionRole of omega-3 fatty acids in brain development and function: potential implications for the pathogenesis and prevention of psychopathology. McNamara, R.K., Carlson, S.E. Department of Psychiatry, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Cincinnati, OH. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 2006 Oct-Nov;75(4-5):329-49. Epub 2006 Sep 1.. However, people should be cautious of saturated fat contents often associated with red meat, which some research suggests could have adverse effects on cognitive function. Scientific evidence points to early humans consuming lean meat — which is low in total and saturated fat — so follow our ancestors’ lead and stick to eating chicken or turkeyDietary lean red meat and human evolution. Mann, N. Department of Food Science, RMIT University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. European Journal of Nutrition, 2000 Apr;39(2):71-9..

Just because meat might be what made our brains what they are today doesn’t mean a meat-rich diet is always best for modern humans. Every diet has its pros and cons, and finding the correct balance of nutrients that works for your body is what’s most important. So if eating meat isn’t your thing, don’t fret — just be thankful you weren’t born a few million years ago.

Do you believe that eating meat helped build human brainpower? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author @lschwech.