This is an incredibly important paper when looking at a variety of topics, but particularly overeating (Actual title: Brain evolution, the determinates of food choice, and the omnivore’s dilemma) .
A number of theories have been put forward about why our modern world tends to make us sick and overweight. Too many carbs, too many calories too little exercise, alterations in gut biome, weak moral constitution… most of these theories have merit, whether we are talking about cause or treatment. But too few of these theories offer a comprehensive view of “why” we see these trends. The aforementioned paper makes some very interesting points that help flesh out many a “why”. I have this wacky notion that understanding what got us “here” might be helpful in changing what is happening to us. Given that, please consider the following:
1-Most critters on the planet practice Optimal Foraging Strategy. What is OFS? It really boils down to this: Get as many calories as possible, doing as little as possible.
2-Omnivores have a strong need for novelty to ensure two things: Adequate micronutrients are consumed while mitigating and diversifying toxin load. One can make a reasonably airtight case that eating a highly routinized diet (same shit, day after day) can lead to a number of problems, including nutrient deficiencies, food sensitivities and overloaded detox pathways (by detox I’m talking about actual liver based pathways like the P450 , not the crap that is peddled via juice fasts and the like). Folks will argue the merits of the “paleo diet” concept, HOWEVER the lack of variety which typified the transition from foraging to agriculture, although largely observational, it’s still a powerful and informative concept.
This process of optimizing nutrient intake is juxtaposed with the risk/reward of possibly eating something that will kill us outright. Perhaps ironically, the bulk of the things that would kill one outright were plants, not animals. Yes, eating a puffer fish will kill ya, but let’s have someone put in the skull sweat of finding how many plant vs animal items will kill a human with say a 50g sample.
Dude…what’s your point!?
The primary implication of the paper (sorry but I cannot post the full text) is that we (and other omnivores) are hard-wired to seek “palate novelty.” New tastes, textures and combinations are rewarded via the dopaminergic centers of the brain, just like hookers and cocaine.
Because the individual is rewarded with diversification in both nutrients AND toxicants. As I mentioned above with regards to the P450 system, we have a number of strategies for dealing with environmental (food born) toxicants. Things will generally motor along fine until one particular system is overwhelmed. Then, we get problems. The evolutionary adaptation of rewarding the seeking of novelty, juxtaposed with the inherent risks of trying novel foods fits remarkably well into several Game Theory scenarios.
No, Really, what’s your point?!
That’s all fine, pie-in-the-sky academic theorizing, but what the hell is the application for day to day life? Seeking out palatable, NOVEL foods has historically conveyed a survival advantage for both the reasons of nutrient and toxicant diversification (likely implications for the gut biome as well, but that’s a topic for some other time). For folks that missed the “Your Brain on Porn” podcast, please do check that out and consider the implications of novelty in more than the porn and food contexts. Ironically, in todays world seeking out easily obtained, high caloric density, novel, hyperpalatable foods likely means disease and an early grave. What I’d like folks to take from this is that overeating, seeking out novel, tasty foods is SMART. Really smart. Survival of the Species smart. At least it has been until the abundance of our modern world has conspired to play our evolutionary wiring against us. Most commentary around overeating and food related disease centers on Moral and Character flaws. Sloth. Laziness. Stupidity. If you were “just a better person” or quit being “sinful” you’d have this overeating gig licked.
That’s a lie and incredibly hurtful.
The folks promulgating messages like this are providing a cage which entraps people. If what I’m proposing here is the least bit accurate, if our predilection towards palatable foods meant success in our evolutionary past but potential ruination in our world of plenty, telling people to focus on their morality (or portion control…) is pointing them in the wrong damn direction. If we do have evolutionarily constructed novelty circuitry which has been critical to our success, it may be quite challenging to bypass that process, even if we have accurate, compelling information. Unfortunately, the logic part of our brain is easily hijacked by the more ancient areas of the brain involving food, sex and reward.
You are the result of billions of years of success. Act like it.
Instead of moralizing behavior around food and movement, coupled with quasi-mystical inner-child spankings, how about we tell folks who are struggling with eating issues that they are the successful result of billions of years of evolution, but that the things that made us successful yesterday, may be remarkably challenging today? MIGHT that provide a sense of worth and empowerment? When the process of eating and moving better proves challenging, one understands that is normal, not pathological. This is still a “rational brain” exercise, it is not spinning the dials of our ancient, impulsive brain. But I’ve encountered a lot of people who slide into self loathing due to perceived failure. It’s sad and i think preventable if we can reframe what “success” means today vs what it meant in the past.
I’ll be greatly expanding on these ideas in my PaleoFX talk “It’s Not Your Fault: On Novelty and Evolutionary Biology.” That talk will not be live streamed, but you can catch the community chat that Doc Parsley and I are doing on Saturday, April 25, 2015 – 12:15pm to 1:15pm (central time). If you are not able to attend this years PFX, you will be able to catch this one via live stream. Doc and I will be talking performance, health and longevity, but mainly solving sleep problems by inducing acute narcolepsy via our inane prattle. About 200 PFX attendees will enjoy a bagged lunch provided by our kick-ass sponsors, Thrive Market, New Primal, Exo and Woodstock.
I’m pretty fired up about this topic as I think it offers a powerful way to frame our modern world using this Ancestral Health model. I am pretty burned out on the protein, carbs, fat shin-dig. I’m starting to think that framework creates more confusion than answers. Thinking about optimum foraging strategy, palate novelty and a few related topics will (hopefully) provide a much better framework for folks to affect positive change.