Friday, August 6, 2010

evolving tastes

On a recent CBC Radio edition of “The Main Ingredient” they were talking about fat. Something that caught my ear was the idea of a “North American Paradox”, which is the fact that though we, as a society, have huge amounts of information and research available on nutrition and the dangers of obesity we are a continent whose people are getting fatter and fatter. In the last 19 years Canadian measured obesity rates have increased almost ten percent. With all this very good information, why are we getting fatter? With all the ads on TV promoting diets and gyms and magazines glorifying the super slim celebrity of the week, why aren't we the slimmest people on earth?

A big part of the answer is very simple. We like high calorie, fatty foods. They are good. As Jennifer McLagan, author of FAT: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient says “fat is flavor”. This may seem a silly reason, but I think it sums up a lot of our difficulty with embracing lower fat foods.

Where does this love of fat and calories come from? There is the taste factor. Foods that taste good tend to make us want to eat more of them. Easy. The other part is more hind brain, more evolutionary. We are now the dominant species on the planet, with excellent food resources, but this is a recent development. Not too long ago we were subject to frequent periods of insufficient, or poor quality, food and were vulnerable to severe illnesses.

During our rise to dominance, a lust for high calorie, sweet and fatty foods were evolutionary gold. Those who were willing to go that extra mile to collect honey, take that extra risk that would mean meat on the table, work those extra hours to ensure a successful cereal or starch crop were evolutionary winners. Greedy mouths ensured that when we didn't have enough food around us, or we fell victim to some dire illness, our bodies had the reserves to survive. This isn't just my opinion either, Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin in their book, The Evolution of Obesity discuss a similar theory.

Modern man has descended from evolutionary gluttons. We are the products of those with genetics that made them good at efficiently processing and storing calories. We are fighting some heavy hind-brain promptings to store up fat for the famine. The problem with these prompting is that there is no famine on the horizon and our medicines keep most diseases at bay.

Most of us are still eating as if we have a famine around the corner, when most of us will never face one. Instead of fatty, rich food being treats that we had to work hard to get, we are inundated by a constant barrage of them. We can always eat red meat, cereal is something that comes to us in boxes, and honey and sugar can be bought in litres and kilos. We are the victims of our own evolutionary success.

None of this is an okay for our bad habits. I am just trying to acknowledge that eating lower calorie, higher fibre, lower fat foods is not the no-brainer it may seem. The current model certainly isn't working. Our eating habits are killing us with ever increasing speed and in a growing variety of ways. Research has shown that being even mildly obese increases our risk of developing cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The constant flow of fatty food is coating our blood vessels. Low fibre diets are leaving our intestines overworked and roughed up, hotbeds for the development of the mutated cells that become cancer. High caloric intake is leaving some bed or scooter bound and others warming ever increasing sections of the bench as their bodies break down at alarming rates.

The first step is to develop our awareness that this won't be easy, that we have an inborn love of fatty, calorie laden foods. We need to apply the power of those big brains that granted us evolutionary success to the problem of the primitive yearnings of our hind-brains and guts. Then we need to find ways to change our eating habits so that they keep us healthy and lean while satisfying our cravings so we don't keep falling into bad habits.

You may have noticed that I have used our and we a lot. This isn't a royal kind of we, and is only partly a species embracing type of we, it is a we that comes from my need to lose a few pounds. Some would say that as someone needing to lose some weight I am not in a position to offer advice. I think that since I live this process, that I struggle, as so many do, to find a balance, I am the perfect person. What do I do? I work to find ways to incorporate herbs and spices for their big flavour bang at low caloric costs. I have small amounts of fat to satiate those cravings. I keep junk food out of my house, mostly. And I fail, some days I eat the wrong thing, or too much of a not so bad thing. Then I try not to feel bad, I accept it, and get back on track.

Keep in mind we need to eat. This is not an optional activity. We enjoy it too. Shouldn't we be able to combine enjoyable eating with intelligent eating? I talked about using our big brains to help us, keep in mind what they need to work: “Although the brain represents only 2% of the body weight, it receives 15% of the cardiac output, 20% of total body oxygen consumption, and 25% of total body glucose utilization.” Your big brain is not an organ that diets, not without consequences to your mental acuity, mood, and memory. If you want to use this tool to help govern your eating, you need to keep it fuelled so it can work.
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