23 Sep Evolution of fast food – why you make unhealthy choices
Last night I started reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It is an exceptionally interesting book and engages my deep passion for learning about the evolution of human practices such as language, cooking and storytelling. It is a great read, and it has opened my eyes to a lot of fundamental reasons why we humans can suffer today. It has provided some insight into the evolution of fast food and the evolution of food more generally.
I admit, that I often struggle with the fact that most cafes and restaurants serve heavy, rich, fat and/or sugar-heavy foods, which often leave me feeling sick inside after eating them. And then, sometimes I feel emotionally ANGRY after eating these meals. And I think that is because the receptors in my stomach pass on information to my brain, saying that what I just ate was not at all what it needed, or quite frankly wanted, at this, or any point in time.
Programmed for feast or famine – the evolution of fast food
And yet, I ordered the unhealthy meal. Sure, there was not all that much healthy to choose from on the menu. But it is the evolution of fast food on steroids. Evolutionary speaking, we (given the choice), naturally gravitate to those meals with lots of fat and sugar and calories, because deep within us we are programmed for feast and famine. (Unless we are more evolved beings and can override those urges, or have developed a ‘liking’ for healthy foods from childhood).
In our hunter-gatherer past if we happened across a fig tree in full fruit, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to return to the tree, or that some other animal would turn up after us and make short work of the fruit, so we literally gorge ourselves on figs, so that we can get all the calories NOW, knowing that we will likely have a period soon where we don’t have access to food.
2 million years of evolutionary programming
I have definitely experienced this myself. And it is why I don’t buy chocolate or organic dried apricots (as yummy as they are) unless I am going to use them in a recipe that evening. Because I tend to just keep eating until they are gone. And that is not some character flaw. That is 2 million years of my ancestors living as hunter-gatherers in times of feast and famine telling me how to behave.
We crave (on the whole – disgusting) calorie and sugar-rich foods because in the past our survival depended on those kinds of food. And our swift ascension to the top of the food chain and the ensuing 12,000 years since we developed agriculture hasn’t wiped out the extremely strong neural wiring that encourages us to eat those foods.
In moments of stress – fall back on these urges
The book talks a lot about social groups and human cooperation, which is arguably the single most important factor to us taking over pretty much the whole world. Harari eloquently guides us through a history of tribes and clans and provides more evidence for the fact that we are social beings. For 2 million years we lived in groups of about 150 or so, sometimes with smaller groups inside a tribe, and it was key to our success as a species.
It is just through fictional stories that we all agree on, such as laws, commerce, or religion that have allowed us to develop cultural evolution at a much swifter rate than biological evolution.
Craving my tribe
Reading this last night caused me to emerge into my living room this morning with a significant craving for my tribe. It also stimulated some of my fear-based food cravings, and persistently all day, I craved a particular form of a meaty sandwich, that I actually acquiesced to, and had delivered for lunch (I needed all my hours for work today). It was delicious, and I ate it like an animal who might get interrupted at any time by a predator – in a hurry.
But when I was done, this fruition of the evolution of fast food made me feel pretty squeamish inside. This is because it is not the sort of food that I would normally eat, and my stomach probably, despite all the cravings from my brain, doesn’t actually like this kind of food too much.
For that reason, as the day went on, I decided on a fresh, salad-based meal for dinner. Something with lots of fresh, vegetables. And now that I have eaten it, I definitely feel a LOT better.
80/20 rule of healthy eating
I don’t think it is true that we need to eat healthy food at EVERY SINGLE meal. The 80/20 rule works well here too. If we eat well and healthy 80 per cent of the time, having unhealthy food occasionally or 20 % of the time won’t undo us.
The evolution of food habits shows us that we still have a tangible connection to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For this reason, I think it is good to research their lives and cultures and habits so that they can inform our own understanding of how we behave today.
The evolution of fast food might be based on fear and a lack of available nutrients at some times of the year, but the more we eat vegetables the more we LIKE vegetables and the more you eat in that healthy way, the more your stomach/brain connection instructs you to return to health again.
Have you ever noticed food cravings that you think might come from our evolutionary past?