Evolution has hardwired our brains for our survival. Some of these survival programs no longer serve us the way they used to. Today, we’ll dig into one of these mechanisms and quickly go over a few ideas to start circumventing these outdated processes.
On a recent episode of the Joe Rogan Experience, alternative medicine specialist Chris Kresser talked about how evolution affects the way we view food. The picture that Kresser paints looks something like this:
Before the industrialization of food and before humans were civilized, we were left to our own devices to find proper nutrition in the surrounding environment. Over time, our ancestors became wired to seek novelty. Seeking out a wide range of foods with different tastes and textures meant that they were giving themselves the best chance to fulfill their broad spectrum of nutritional needs. They also adapted the desire to eat as much as they could when food was available because their next meal was not guaranteed because, you know, Postmates was about 100,000 years from existing.
Fast forward a few hundred millennia and we have humans with the same basic design as our paleolithic ancestors. Except we live in a world that is entirely different from the environment that we evolved in. We seek novelty now as a means of pleasure and not to ensure our survival. Many of us are lucky enough that we live in a country and environment where our next meal is always guaranteed. We still possess a reward system that tells us to eat as much food as we can because our next meal might not be for a few days. And we do this for three meals a day, forever.
It’s no wonder we are facing some of the obesity and health dilemmas that we do. We have outdated software that ran in a world where resources were scarce. Now, that same software is running in an environment where food is almost infinitely available.
The other scary part about what Kresser mentions in the clip is that parts of the food industry design foods in such a way that we can’t help but keep eating them. Kresser makes the point that if we put a plain baked potato and potato chips side by side, there is no question that we would overeat the potato chips as opposed to the baked potato.
“The food problem is a flavor problem. For half a century, we’ve been making the stuff people should eat–fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unprocessed meats–incrementally less delicious. Meanwhile, we’ve been making the food people shouldn’t eat–chips, fast food, soft drinks, crackers–taste ever more exciting. The result is exactly what you’d expect.”
So, what are we supposed to do? Our survival instincts are driving us right off the sensibility cliff into the ever-growing pit of obesity.
The consensus among most experts is that we need to “eat real food.” But, eating foods that aren’t processed and don’t come in cans or boxes can be a bit bland, as Schatzker suggests in the quote above.
So, it comes down to our ability to choose. We know we shouldn’t eat those Pringles or those cupcakes, but it’s easy to give into what CEO of Onnit, Aubrey Marcus, likes to call, mouth pleasure. After all, life is about the experience, right? At least, that’s what the media sold to us. The immediate bliss of that momentary experience is why we’re supposed to live. But, life for most modern human beings is no longer just about survival. We live comfortable lives that we fill with things that aren’t 100% pertinent to our survival.
Look, I’m not saying that we need to live in ways that are completely void of pleasure and excitement and novelty. All I’m trying to say is that we have the opportunity to choose. Yes, paying attention to the latest science and information matters. A lot of times we can get hung up trying to decipher which diets and which methods are “the best.” And we get tired of trying to decide which direction to go and end up doing nothing.
Most of the time, we just need to do something different than what we are currently doing. And that is all about choice. I’ll admit that seems a little too simplistic and easy, but it’s not. Choice, especially choosing to do something other than what we are comfortable with, is hard. Choosing is even harder if the thing we are comfortable with is giving us great pleasure.
So how do we manage this? How do we cultivate our ability to choose better?
One way is to sleep more. Studies show that lack of sleep affects our decision-making ability. If you’ve had a long week with restless nights and haven’t eaten all day, “hell yeah pizza sounds great!”
Given that same decision in a week full of 8-hour slumbers and maybe we recognize that, “yeah pizza sounds good but it’s going to make me feel like crap and I’ll feel like a failure. Is there a better option?”
Which leads us to another way to make better choices: start asking better questions. Instead of asking yourself or your co-workers, “What’s for lunch?” Ask, “What is the best thing I could have for lunch? Is it accessible to me? What do I have to do to make it more accessible to me so that I can have it during the workweek?”
Realistically, you won’t be able to assemble the perfect meal every time for the rest of your life. No one can. But, we can improve the way we view these decisions and set ourselves up to succeed more often and more consistently. And when we have consistent success, we are usually rewarded with positive change.
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