Do you remember the old days when food was scarce and we risked our lives every time we went outside to get some? Neither do I, but our genes do.
Our genetic code was passed down to us from ancestors who had to fend for their lives by constantly searching for food that would give them the energy to sustain life, protect themselves, and reproduce. It was always a clear that if you had the choice between a low-calorie celery stick, or a high calorie apple, you went for the apple.
This choice allowed you to achieve your daily caloric needs with the least amount of energy expelled, and fewer times venturing outside and exposing yourself to danger. Does that make sense? We’re hard wired to choose calorie-dense foods.
Jump ahead a few thousand years, past the first milestones of agricultural and industrial explosion, all the way to our information age. Not only are we millennia removed from hunting for survival, we don’t grow our own food, or for most of us, have to even work with our bodies at any task. We sit. We eat. And we’re still programmed to reach for high calorie foods.
This wasn’t a major problem until the advent of processed foods. That’s because of the second stimulus our body responds to…the stretching of the stomach. If that high calorie food contained volume contributed by fiber and water, when it was consumed the calories and the stretching of the stomach would tell the brain that you had eaten enough. Those two signals worked together to manage our food intake.
And there’s the problem that processed foods contributed. We managed to pack more calories into smaller volumes, and we did it by removing the fiber and water content. So in the old days if you ate 500 calories of vegetables, fruits, and grains, your stomach would be stretched accordingly and you’d know that you were full.
But now without even trying you can think of many types of food that have 500 calories that fit in the palm of your hand. If you eat those foods, you’ve consumed the same amount of calories but the stomach hasn’t had to stretch at all. There’s no signal going to your brain that you’ve had enough, so you reach for another. And bam, a year later after doing that on a daily basis, you’re 30 pounds heavier.
So it’s the decreased volume / increased caloric density ratio that we’ve thrown way out of wack. This body to brain signaling only works when we eat whole, unprocessed, natural food.
Of course this is only discussing the caloric issues with processed food. We already know that the additives in those foods wreak havoc on our genes and more and more evidence of this comes out regularly. For example, we know that artificial sweeteners actually cause the body to retain fat. It’s already been shown that these foods, besides causing obesity, directly lead to illnesses as well…ie diabetes, cancer, etc.
So in a simple sense, to answer the “how did we get fat” question, we can answer that it was those damn caveman relatives that did it. But if we want to explore that question further, we’ve invented chemicals that are detrimental to our well being, and we put them in our food.
As always, the solutions point to going back to a diet of foods those ancestors would recognize as energy source. And maybe we should all sign up to hang out with Bear Grylls (Man vs Wild) for a week to remind our bodies and brains just how precious real food is!
photo credit: Michael Connell