Healthy Eating Tip: Health is in the big picture, not the details!
Part 3: Why is lifestyle modification so hard in 2020?
This week we have the fourth installment in our healthy eating tip series “Health is in the big picture, not the details.” Remember the Sun Tzu concept of knowing both yourself and your enemy. We have already discussed the importance of knowing yourself through self-empowerment, self-efficacy, self-awareness, and self-determination to gauge your willingness to change and the ability to follow through so that you create a realistic and effective lifestyle modification plan.
Those that are eventually successful with lifestyle modification have to be fearlessly honest with themselves so that they select a starting place that is not more than they are willing and able to do but also provides enough results to inspire them to persevere. Go back and read the pasts posts if you missed them. We have organized them all in a blog format so you can easily access them all. It is a crucial step in a lifestyle modification plan to know yourself and exactly what you are willing to do and what you are capable of changing. It is equally important to know what kind of challenge you are facing. Last week we discussed the perfect storm of fascinating events that created the situation we’re in today. Remember that only in the last 100 years have human beings stepped away from the environmental context in which our bodies developed.
In case 100 years sounds like a long time to you, consider this. Basic agriculture was introduced roughly 10,000 years ago. Suppose we say that one inch represents that 10,000 years, then approximately one inch over a foot would represent the total time that Homo sapiens–the first creature even vaguely to resemble modern humans–have been on the planet. On this scale, two hundred feet would represent the time since Homo erectus (the first to exhibit perfectly adapted bi-pedal locomotion) first walked on the planet. Five hundred feet would represent the time since the 3-foot tall Australopithecus afarensis nicknamed “Lucy” found in 1974 near Hadar in Ethiopia walked the earth. That’s only 33 yards shy of two entire football fields of time. Remember the total time humans have been planting and harvesting is represented by one inch. We switch from B.C.E. to A.D. at about 5 millimeters, and at 1.25 millimeters, Christopher Columbus’s grandfather wasn’t even a twinkle in his great grandfather’s eye. We weren’t even writing with typewriters at 2/3 of just one millimeter of time. On these two football fields of time, everything from the dark ages to the present would fit under the head of a pin and if you inverted that pin the mark left by just the point of the pin would represent more time than has passed since the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent marked the zenith of the Ottoman Empire. In this context, 100 years is a truly insignificant amount of time!
For millennia humans have evolved within a very well-defined context. We have developed complex physiology and psychology that allows us to succeed as a species. Success is measured by an individual’s ability to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Today we don’t like to think of ourselves in such simple terms, but we need to remember that in the big scheme of things, it has only been a few seconds since our ancestors swung from trees in central Africa. Whether you believe that the initial spark of life was divine, or by chance or even divine chance, recognizing that our bodies and minds developed over a long period is unavoidable.
Let’s move back to just 15,000 years ago–we’ll work within the inch and forget about the two football fields of time. Within that context, we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in a world of scarcity. Without arguing about the specific nature of primitive diets, we can all agree that Homo sapiens ate what they could find, and they were darn glad to have it. Our physiology developed so that we have senses of smell and taste that allow us to seek out carbohydrates, which are the preferred fuel of our body and brain; humans are hard-wired to recognize and crave calorie-dense food sources. We have senses that can identify a fruit that has just a few more carbohydrates than another by smell alone; that’s how we determine which fruit is the ripest, that’s no accident. When running through the forest with something that wants to eat you close behind, you would like to have the ability to deftly gather the most carbohydrates possible at a berry bush. Our ancestors had that skill, or we wouldn’t be here today. We also developed psychological mechanisms to help us achieve our biological purpose. Faced with life and death decisions that must be made quickly and without the developed mental capacity to reason through such a decision, we have biological feedback systems to guide us.
Douglas Lisle and Alan Goldhammer in their book “The Pleasure Trap” outline what they call the motivational triad. “This motivational system is a three-part mechanism that encourages us to 1) seek pleasure, 2) avoid pain, and 3) conserve energy…These components are embedded into the genes of every human and complex animal who ever lived.”
This feedback system allowed creatures to successfully navigate an extremely complex environment without a clue as to the bigger picture. All these creatures knew was that some things felt good, and others didn’t, and astonishingly, that’s all they needed to know. The pleasure-seeking mechanism is what drives us to eat the foods that we need to eat and participate in activities that increase both the chances of survival and reproduction without thinking about it. Pain avoidance keeps us from foods and activities that will harm us and decrease our chances of reproducing. Our innate ability to conserve energy has allowed us to do the hard work of survival in a grueling environment where the prudent expenditure of calories was equally as important as copious consumption.
These psychological and physiological mechanisms developed synergetic relationships. The high-calorie hard-wired human mind seeks the most calorie-dense foods available. The feedback mechanism needs to be strong enough to force an individual to drop a berry with carbohydrates yielding four calories a gram when it sees a nut with fat yielding nine calories a gram. Not every day of gathering was a good one, so the body developed a mechanism to store calories as glycogen in adipose tissue for later use. Rather than waste energy when we consume fat, it is most likely going to be stored as such, while carbohydrates are far more likely to be immediately burned for fuel. Since breaking down fat to burn as fuel takes far more energy than burning carbohydrates, it is more efficient for the body to store that fat and burn the carbohydrates. This is a subtle example of a physiological application of the energy conservation mechanism. What we despise as love handles could easily sustain an individual through a week or two of limited calorie intake. Thus, the individual adapts to use times of feast to survive through times of famine by using the synergetic relationship between the physiological and psychological responses of the motivational triad. Ancestors without this ability to efficiently store large amounts of energy in fat would not have lived to reproduce. We are all descendants of individuals with a highly developed ability to store energy this way. Attached to this motivational feedback system are the feelings of pleasure and pain, which act as guideposts that indicate whether the decisions we make will increase or decrease our chances of biological success. When working within the context in which they were developed, this feedback mechanism is key to survival, but three very recent innovations have changed that context.
Anthropologists all agree that humans have undergone three very significant changes that can be described as “revolutionary,” all of which directly impact the context in which we found ourselves as a developing species. The rudiments of language were first introduced roughly 150,000 years ago. For millennia existence was like several million years of “Groundhog Day.” Imagine Bill Murray having to wake up every morning and rediscover fire. With no way to communicate how to best hunt, or what bush yields the best berries at what time of year or how to avoid the saber tooth, every generation was more or less on its own. With the advent of language and the application of the conservation of energy, we see tools like fishing hooks start to develop in complexity. For the very first time, humans begin to master the environment instead of being at its mercy.
Lisle and Goldhammer say that “linguistic abilities gave our ancestors a decided advantage over lesser endowed competitors. An accumulation of know-how that took a person a lifetime to learn could be passed on to another in a matter of hours or even moments of conversation. This ability allowed for geometric increases in human adaptive ability.”
The second revolution took place about 10,000 B.C.E., Jared Diamond, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” tells the story in great detail of how somewhere in the area between modern Syria and Iraq a group of nomads stopped wandering and planted grain. They also herded groups of animals and raised them. It was efficient, and small communities developed, which allowed for specialized labor and a trade economy. Facilitated by linguistics, the agricultural revolution laid fundamental groundwork for civilization.
In 1712, Thomas Newcome tackled the problem of pumping water out of coal mines and invents the steam engine making a significant contribution to the industrial revolution, which was already underway in the United Kingdom. Right around this time, some uniquely specialized laborers with extra time on their hands decided that they’d organize questioning and experimentation into a stepped process called the scientific method. Together these formed the third great innovation; the technological revolution. With the discovery of electric current, it became the revolution that never ended, for we remain under its influence today.
With each innovation, we moved farther and farther away from the context in which our survival mechanisms were created. The problem is that even though we’ve removed ourselves from that original environmental context, the motivational triad remains active in us. The world of scarcity within which our biological feedback systems evolved does not exist in wealthy industrialized countries anymore. There is no time of famine, only feast, and the motivational triad upon which we relied now betrays us; leaving us fat, empty and sick. In a world of plenty, the pleasure we derive from consuming calorie-dense foods leads to mindless overconsumption, and our psychology even deceives us with positive feedback for doing so. Our biological feedback systems don’t know they’re out of context. Remember that in terms of our two football fields of time, all three of these revolutions are brand new, there’s been no time to recalibrate the biological feedback systems; all this happened recently. In the twinkling of a star, our environmental context changed. We’ve been in a battle to survive, a war against nature, and in our zeal to subdue our world we’ve disassociated from our context altogether. We are caught in what Lisle and Goldhammer call the “pleasure trap.” Outside of our original context, we are fooled by the motivational triad into self-destructive behavior that predisposes us to chronic illness. Fast-food represents the perfect storm; it tastes good–pleasure, it’s cheap–pain avoidance, and it’s easy and fast–energy conservation. Fast food rings all three motivational triad bells at once!
Is it a mistake to view ourselves as separate from–even at odds with–our environment? Albert Einstein called that “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.” The Hopi call it “Koyaanisqatsi,” or life out of balance, a state of life that calls for another way of living. Jack Forbes, in his insightful book “Columbus and Other Cannibals” says we are sick with wétiko or a disease of consumption. Whatever the case, one thing cannot be argued; we now live a life out of context.
So, this is all very cool stuff, right? But how is all of this cool stuff going to help me today as I sit trying to work my lifestyle modification plan?
The first thing is to stop blaming yourself for your situation. It is true that all of us that are overweight do it to ourselves, and we need to take responsibility for that, but we are not to blame, and we are not bad people. Those of us that never met an apple fritter we didn’t like, always look for the closest parking spot to the door, and prefer to have pizza and beer while binging Homeland or 24 for the third time rather than eat a tofu sandwich on dry whole wheat after an afternoon of high altitude mountain climbing are responding to our instincts to seek pleasure, avoid pain and conserve energy. Without the genes we fat people inherited, there would be no human race! In 2020, fat people represent the most successful human beings on the planet. Those that do not retain fat easily, exercise needlessly and have an impaired instinct to consume calorically dense foods represent individuals that would not survive in the context in which we lived just 15,000 years ago! If you are overweight and trying to do something about it, enough with the loathing and self-pity. You are an evolutionary rock-star; start acting like one and dig yourself out of the mess you are in!
Second, you need to approach eating with the motivational triad in mind. I love to hear somebody say that they don’t like French fries, or ice cream, or pizza or even nuts; really? I love all of that stuff, but I now know why I am hard-wired to yearn for those calorie-dense foods. I step into every store I go into armed with the knowledge that I am going see, smell, and touch foods that I can’t eat, and I know why. Worse than that, I cook stuff I can’t eat every day at Hometown Café! Everybody has to come up with their own way of dealing with the eating challenges the motivation triad places on you. The first step is to know exactly what that challenge is and what you are willing and able to do to overcome that challenge; know yourself, know your enemy!
Third, you need to approach exercise with the motivational triad in mind. There is absolutely nothing about exercise that we are meant to enjoy. We are hard-wired as Homo sapiens to avoid all meaningless expenditure of calories. That is what the instinct to conserve energy is all about. The ancestor that decided to walk over the mountain spending 5,000 calories while doing so just because it was there maybe doesn’t come out the other side of winter in such good shape. The ancestor that walked around the mountain, spending only 500 calories, comes through winter in better shape, wins the mate in spring, and passes their more valuable genes down to the next generation.
The next healthy eating tip in this series deals with looking at the “healthy diet spectrum” and how to choose a place on that spectrum that is best for you, given both your willingness to change and the ability to follow through based on your present life circumstances. Until next week, remember that you are an evolutionary rock-star!
Here are the references for today’s Healthy Eating Tip:
Lisle, Douglas J. and Alan Goldhammer. The Pleasure Trap. Summertown, TN: HealthyLiving Publications, 2003.
Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1999.
Forbes, Jack, D. Columbus, and Other Cannibals. New York: Autonomedia, 1979.