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.
Robb, this is one of the most insightful things you’ve written in a long time. (Not that I think anything you write *isn’t* insightful, but you said it yourself — the protein/fat/carb thing gets old sometimes, and there’s so much more to the big picture in all this.)
“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.”
THANK YOU! I write about this a lot — the issues of “willpower and discipline,” and how so many people — even people steeped in ancestral health, who we would hope have a better understanding of how all this works — think obesity and chronic illness are direct results of moral failings and character flaws. And sure, at some point, you *do* have to white knuckle your way away from the the M&Ms and toward the pork chop & spinach, but I think it helps people go easier on themselves when they understand why it’s so damn hard to do that sometimes.
If we are literally hard-wired and evolutionarily conditioned to seek chocolate-covered kettle corn and stuff like that, it’s not that that gives us license to eat it all the time, and it doesn’t absolve us of all personal responsibility, but it does reduce the propensity toward the immense feelings of guilt & shame people have when they “give in” or “cheat,” or whatever they want to call it. It doesn’t make anyone a bad person; what it makes them is a Homo sapiens, following innate drives that have been with us for millennia.
I’d love to hear more talk about willpower in this context: it’s a finite resource, right? If you have the kind of life that you’re not all that thrilled with (maybe a job you don’t like, an unhappy marriage or some other stressful situation in which you can’t necessarily always express yourself or come right out and tell people off like you want to a hundred times a day), then after a long day of keeping all those thoughts and feelings bottled up, and “faking it” all day long, it makes much more sense why, come 10pm, someone’s reaching for the Reese’s cups or a half-gallon of ice cream, no bowl, just the couch and a spoon. 😀 (I might or might not be speaking from personal experience here.) Seems like you can only say “no” to things for so long before that part of your brain is out of gas. And it’s more than just finding pleasure/comfort in hyperpalatable foods. I think willpower as a finite resource is an important issue here. (“Discipline,” too. If you get a bunch of tasks done during the day, most of which you did kicking and screaming, because you “had to,” whether at work, or with family obligations, etc, then that, too, seems like a limited resource. At some point, the primally-wired part of you that just wants to have some freaking fun and get some instant gratification WILL take over, right?)
So many interesting things to think about with this.
Danae Moser says
Wow. This was amazing. I don’t think I ever thought of finding and trying different foods to be something that had to do with evolution of the species but it definitely makes sense. I agree with you on changing the way we make people think about their diet. Too often we are telling people they need to lose weight and we are slapping them on the hand for what they are doing… we, as a society, have implemented this fixed mindset around food and weight loss. “If you are fat, you will always be fat”, “If you eat these types of foods, you will always want to eat these types of foods.” Even though we all know that being healthy from unhealthy is a gradual and slow process that requires growth! It is definitely something that is exciting to work towards and helping people understand that it’s ok to have these cravings but you can eat healthier and its ok sometimes to digress as long as you are continually faithful to the progress you can make as well…
Stephen J Gould's Dog says
This post is an example of Paleo’s very selective and politically correct application of evolutionary biology.
There is incredible variability in time preference and “will power” across human groups, often reflecting the explosion in human evolution that has happened in the 10,000 years since the advent of agriculture. Basically, the longer your ancestors were living in agricultural environments, the more will power/discipline you probably have.
Prediction: in 10 years or less they’ll have identified SNPs linked to will power/discipline, and your 23andMe genomic analysis will give you some genealogical reasons why you’re fat or fit.
I’d really like to read or hear more on this topic. Is it going to be available to those who missed the original talk and chat afterward?
Robb Wolf says
I beleive that will be available via paleoFX.
Very insightful article, it’s always a great idea to consider evolution in any aspect.
The thing is that in most cases eating does have to do a lot with our general mood and how healthy we feel. It could come even as a type of “placebo”. If you think you are eating healthy then your body will think it should be healthy. Of course what I mean by that is that some people genuinely believe that eating all that chocolate and all that food that tastes like heaven is so bad for them that it may as well be slowly killing them. But the fact is that when it comes to biology and evolution there is always a reason for something. There should be a reason why we crave all that food even though it is supposed to be very bad for us. Shouldn’t we as evolved species know better not to eat it?
Some people eat junk food every day and end up living healthy and slim until they are 80, what does that tell us about the food that feels like reward to us? It tells us that there is some way in which it is not as bad as we think and we shouldn’t completely ignore its importance and how it may be affecting our body in a beneficial way too.
Anyone who reads this article will have a lot to think about.
Christine Lehmann says
Thinking about modern food and movement challenges from an evolutionary perspective is an interesting way to frame them. It raises two interesting questions: 1) Are we “wired” to behave in certain ways from our ancestors that make it hard to adapt to our modern environment? 2) Can we “re-wire” ourselves through making environmental changes (hopefully healthy ones such as Paleo/Primal diet, exercising, etc.)
It seems your main message is that evolutionary biology may make it harder for us humans to adapt than we realized and therefore we need to be a lot more patient with ourselves.
Robb Wolf says
I think patience is the key. Our genes are not our destiny…but they do launch us into the world with a few agendas!
Mostly fake, humans are not true omnivores, but artificial ones, we can only eat most of the stuff we eat without much problem(like meat) cuz we use fire.But our “succesfull” ..purely good evolution left us with a weak digestion, our digestion can barely digest anything, chickens are better at it or dogs.If we eat raw meat we barely absorb anything, and since our ancestors were evolved apes they were strictly vegan, so it”s why we use fire, we have weak digestive acids, as all non meat eating creatures have.Not to mention that our digestion sumply cannot adapt to get rid of the parasites from meat as true omnivores do,diseases and other complications like excess uric acid which is a pain for living tussie,since it decomposes protein and our lviers are too weak to adapt to all of it cuz we simply don”t have the ANATOMY.But that doesn”t mean you can go all vegan or vegetarian, cuz our digestion died out so much that we ca actually compare our digestion to a heart that needs a external device to pump blood, just that our digestion needs a oven or something to prepare food, something our belly is suppsoed to do, but cannot anymore as it did.We are the only race who”s digestion cannot support it”s body, which is a death sentence, so devolution can happen
Robb Wolf says